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‘In giving that we receive’

‘In giving that we receive’

Following from her latest report, Hannah Rich unpacks the qualitative change that can be seen in volunteering across the UK. 13/09/2023

For all the community spirit that abounded at the start of the pandemic, when we all rushed to do shopping for neighbours we’d barely spoken to previously, volunteering in the UK is in decline. As my colleague George’s recent piece illustrated, levels of formal volunteering are at their lowest since the 2008 financial crisis. There is a plethora of reasons why, including an ageing volunteer pool, lockdown restrictions, health concerns and the cost of living crisis. All these have contributed to a slow post–pandemic recovery for the voluntary sector.  

The scale of volunteering has clearly been affected by the past few turbulent years, but the nature of volunteering has also changed profoundly.  

Data from NCVO suggests a fall in volunteer satisfaction in recent years, according to a regular survey of adults who volunteered through a group, club or organisation in the last 12 months. While 92% of volunteers still say they are ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ satisfied with their experience of volunteering, this has fallen slightly from 96% five years ago. This might be attributed to a parallel rise in the proportion of volunteers who felt their organisation had unreasonable expectations of how much they did, with nearly a quarter (24%) agreeing with this statement in 2022 compared to 17% in 2018. Similarly, volunteers are also more likely to think that their volunteering is becoming too much like paid work; 26% felt this was true in 2022, up from 19% in 2018. 

This all points to a qualitative change in volunteering; a change in how it feels to those who engage in it and what the experience of volunteering is like. 

Our new Theos report, Volunteering After The Pandemic, echoes this. We found that the pandemic has had long–lasting effects for the nature and experience of volunteering, which leads to an examination of why we volunteer and what the purpose of it is.  

The report focusses on the homelessness sector as a case study, and in particular night shelters which provide accommodation during the winter. In the pandemic, the model operated by the majority of these shelters shifted significantly, from a communal model of accommodation in spaces like church halls, to one in which individuals have their own room. This was driven primarily by necessity, when lockdown and public health concerns meant that communal sleeping arrangements were no longer permissible. However, a significant proportion of shelters in the Housing Justice network and beyond have maintained the model into the 2022/23 winter season. 

Whilst this has been beneficial to the guests staying in the shelters, we found that for some volunteers the transition has not been easy. This raises broader questions about how volunteer satisfaction feeds into the way that faith and voluntary groups operate, and the perhaps uncomfortable balance between altruism, service and fulfilment.  

It was striking that, for many volunteers, the communal model was something they valued. The shared endeavour, with volunteers and guests eating a meal alongside each other, engendered a sense of community and belonging which volunteers valued highly.  

As one volunteer manager acknowledged, 

“What we’ve got now is just not the same. The night shelter was dearly loved. The guests liked it and the volunteers loved it. It was such a nice volunteering opportunity. It fitted with people’s lives. There were proper friendships made there.” 

This sense of the ‘good old days’ was echoed by a number of interviewees to describe the strong attachment and satisfaction felt by existing volunteers. We heard how volunteers liked the communal nature of the previous model, its warmth, the sense of belonging, the idea of seeing friends, the relationships built and the feeling of doing something together.  

In the same NCVO survey, 89% of volunteers said they enjoy volunteering, and the same proportion said it makes them feel like they’re making a difference. The sense of feeling like you are making a difference is clearly valued in addition to the knowledge that you are doing so. Night shelters were highlighted to us as a particular example of this. The direct proximity to those benefitting from voluntary action appears to be a significant factor in why people choose to give their time to that particular cause, as opposed to say volunteering in a charity shop or stacking shelves in a food bank. Some of the challenges we observed around volunteer retention arose from the perceived loss of this feeling of proximity as a result of the model change. 

“I think, dare I say it, that one of the attractions of volunteering in the homelessness sector is the opportunity to really interact with beneficiaries. I think that was a massive driver for people, especially the evening meals and overnight sleeping. To sit round a table and have a conversation, a one–on–one opportunity to be alongside people and be a listening ear.”   

Strikingly, the language used to describe volunteering is often not dissimilar to how people also describe interacting with the ‘warm spaces’ which were developed last winter as a response to the cost of living crisis and the increase in household energy bills.  

The Warm Welcome evaluation found that people used these spaces as much because they were lonely as because they couldn’t afford heating; both the heating and the meeting are important, as Gordon Brown puts it. Almost 40% of those who attended said that they were ‘always’ or ‘often’ lonely before they began visiting a warm space, which reduced to 6% after attending. As we know from our own research, the same has long been the case for community meals and lunch clubs, which serve the dual purpose of providing a meal for those who would otherwise go hungry and company for those who would otherwise eat alone. This is true, it seems, for volunteers and guests alike.  

According to NCVO, over two thirds of volunteers (68%) say that volunteering helps them feel less isolated and three quarters (75%) say that it improves their mental health and wellbeing. At a time when almost half the population report feeling lonely occasionally, sometimes, often or always, according to the Campaign to End Loneliness, this should not be downplayed or disregarded. There is a clear social and emotional benefit from volunteering for volunteers themselves and this is of value to them as well as to wider society. However, there is a risk that this becomes the primary focus of voluntary groups at the expense of those they exist to help.  

One of the other changes which occurred in the transition from communal to static shelter models was that the power dynamic between guests and volunteers shifted. Whereas guests had previously moved around seven different host churches and groups across the week, each taking responsibility for a night, now it is the volunteers who move around or come into a single location. One volunteer described this as a profound difference in who is ‘at home’ in a space. 

“Welcoming people into your church was like inviting people into your own home for dinner – you make the rules, decide what to serve, whether to sit at the table or in front of the TV and whether you say grace – but when we cook at the hostel, the guests are in their home and you’re coming into their own home.” 

For some volunteers, the fact of the shelter being in their own church building, where they felt at home and knew their way around the kitchen was part of the attraction. Being able to claim it as something their church community had done mattered. Some admitted feeling uncomfortable at being the guest in the residents’ home. Having to ask one of the ‘guests’ where the pots and pans live, or where to find a new bottle of washing up liquid, turns on its head many of the previous assumptions and power dynamics around volunteering.   

The same is true in other settings too, not just night shelters. Volunteers in all manner of social projects, from food banks to lunch clubs, derive satisfaction from volunteering. If food banks went out of business, for example, it would represent a better situation economically, but would also leave a whole cohort of volunteers bereft without the routine and relationship of their volunteering commitment. In a very literal sense, it is the fulfilment of the words from the Prayer of St Francis that it is in giving that we receive.  

This might pave the way for a new paradigm for the voluntary sector, in which the relational aspects can be preserved and valued without perpetuating the need for material support or persisting with particular models of charity beyond their relevance. The social connection offered by volunteering clearly meets a need for a not–insignificant group of the population, irrespective of economic status. The future of social action lies in the social as much as the action, and in creating spaces that offer the meeting long after the material challenges of heating have been addressed.  

You can read the full Volunteering After The Pandemic report here.


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Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash

Hannah Rich

Hannah Rich

Hannah joined Theos in 2017. She is a senior researcher working on theology and economic inequality. She is the author of ‘A Torn Safety Net’ (2022).

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Posted 13 September 2023

Coronavirus, Covid, volunteering


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