6. Volunteer impact
6.1. Impacts of volunteering on volunteers
This section firstly looks at volunteers’ own perceptions of the impacts of volunteering on themselves, and then explores more widely the perceived impacts of volunteers on organisations and service users – from different perspectives.
Feeling they make a difference and enjoyment are the most commonly perceived positive impacts of volunteering
Those surveyed in Time Well Spent were asked to reflect on what they got out of volunteering, prompted by a list of different benefits and impacts. As shown in chart 6, among the benefits, the highest rated by public sector volunteers were that ‘it makes me feel like I’m making a difference’ and ‘I enjoy it’ (both 90%). Other common benefits included it ‘gives me a sense of personal achievement’ (88%), ‘it broadens my experience of life’ (86%) and ‘I meet new people (85%).’
Public sector volunteers are more likely to perceive improved employment prospects
On the whole, perceived benefits were similar to those among civil society volunteers, however enjoyment and meeting new people were more highly rated among civil society volunteers. While ‘improved employment prospects’ was the lowest ranked for both, it was chosen by a higher proportion of public sector volunteers compared with civil society volunteers (41% vs 32%). This mirrors earlier findings in relation to motivations, where public sector volunteers also saw this as being more important.
This may be specific to certain sub-sectors and roles. As highlighted earlier, within policing a significant proportion of volunteers become volunteers as a pathway to becoming regular police officers. A survey with school governors highlighted that over half of the respondents say that being a governor has enabled them to develop their knowledge and skills and over a third of those in paid employment say it has given them expertise that they have used in their paid employment.
Volunteering can also have less positive impacts on volunteers
As well as positive impacts, volunteers can experience more negative effects when volunteering. Among those who had had some kind of negative experience (from a prompted list), the most common were that they had been left out of pocket, they felt unappreciated, that too much of their time had been taken up, and that they felt pressured by the organisation to do more than they would like or pressured to continue their involvement. These are similar to those highlighted in section 5, where volunteers had less positive experiences.
6.2. Impacts of volunteers on organisations and service users
Volunteers feel they have a positive impact on individuals, community and physical places
As noted above, a key benefit perceived by volunteers was that they felt they made a difference through their volunteering. Among those who agreed with this statement, a further question was asked about where specifically they felt they made a difference.
As seen in chart 7, public sector volunteers most commonly felt they made a difference to an individual’s life (43%) but perceiving they were making an impact on their local community, a particular group of people or issue in society and a physical place were also common (35%, 35% and 33% respectively). Some differences were seen across sectors. While impact on an individual or individuals’ lives was most common across all sectors, civil society volunteers were much more likely to feel they had an impact on a particular group of people or issue in society (35% public sector vs. 48% civil society). In turn, public sector volunteers were much more likely to feel they have an impact on a physical place (33% vs 11%).
Volunteers perceive themselves to be an invaluable resource to organisations
When it came to the value volunteers feel they have to volunteer-involving organisations, focus group participants highlighted in particular the extra resource they brought, which in many cases included their skills. This led to a perception that organisations would not be able to do what they do without volunteers like themselves. They also believed that the resource they brought to organisations meant that they freed up paid staff to focus on more specialised tasks. This was especially the case where volunteers worked alongside paid staff but were undertaking different types of tasks (see b in chart 4, in section 5.4).
Volunteers perceive their distinctive value is their freedom to ‘speak up’
When the focus group participants were prompted about what they felt the distinctive value of volunteers was, a common response was that volunteers were able to ‘speak their mind’ and speak out about things which they thought paid staff may not be able to do. This could be in relation to issues or problems that could be raised without fear of job security. In other contexts, a volunteer could specifically play the role of being someone who was more independent, as a school governor for instance, and was therefore able to represent the views of others in this capacity.
Volunteers feel they can go ‘beyond the necessities’ for service users
In addition to being able to speak up, volunteers thought they could make a valuable contribution by going beyond the necessities and performing duties that staff may have less time to do. For example, in a hospital, volunteers could take additional time to reassure patients with their anxieties, especially as some felt that service users were able to be more open with them than with staff.
Organisations also perceive the positive impacts of volunteers, such as supporting staff and connecting with the local community
Evidence from different sub-sectors shows that the positive impacts volunteers believe they have on their organisations and those within it are also valued by organisations themselves. Examples include:
- a survey of staff in the NHS which showed that the vast majority perceived volunteers added a lot of value to staff, volunteers themselves and patients. Of these, the highest proportion felt they added value to patients (90%), in particular in providing ‘emotional and social support that might not otherwise be available’. However, they also noted the practical support that volunteers provided to frontline staff, easing their workload by providing an extra pair of hands. Those most positive about the value of volunteers were from infrastructure support roles.
- research looking at the strengths and skills of the judiciary in the magistrates courts which highlighted that across all respondent groups, a particular benefit of magistrates was their perceived closeness to the local community. By having specific knowledge of the area and being aware of local needs, magistrates were seen, in some instances, to be better placed to make judgments as well as having a vested interest in ensuring that ‘local justice’ was delivered. Many also stressed that lay involvement within the criminal justice system was crucial.
- research on volunteering in libraries which highlighted that the key benefits to a library service from involving volunteers was service enhancement and extension, in addition to enabling the service to more fully engage with the local community. These kinds of initiatives were also viewed as potentially a way to get new types of library users such as young people in reading challenge initiatives. Volunteers were also seen to help support staff in their work, allowing them to focus on the tasks that required more skills and expertise.
However, involving volunteers can present challenges for volunteer-involving organisations
While organisations see the value of involving volunteers, evidence from sub-sectors also highlights that there are challenges in involving them. The sub-sector spotlight looking at volunteering in education outlines some of this mixed picture of volunteer impact.
A survey of NHS staff cited a lack of clarity about job roles (47%), too much variation in how volunteers do things (22%) and volunteers changing too often (18%) as the key issues relating to volunteer involvement.
Additionally, where paid front line staff are managing and coordinating volunteers, this can put pressure on their roles, in addition to their day-to-day roles.
The value of volunteers could be enhanced further
While there are both benefits and challenges in relation to volunteer involvement, there are some indications that the value of volunteers could be strengthened through:
- using the skills and experiences volunteers have to offer
As cited previously, around one in five (21%) public sector volunteers saying they have skills they would like to use but are not currently using. This was higher than for civil society volunteers (14%) which may indicate that public sector volunteers’ skills may be more likely to be underutilised. This is reflected in a national survey of police support volunteers which found that around 4 in 10 (38%) police support volunteers disagreed that the force used volunteers to their full potential. Britton and Callender (2018), on this issue within the police force concluding that rather than viewing volunteer officers as individuals with diverse skill sets and experience, they are moulded ‘uniformly into a single, narrow and traditional interpretation of the job’.
- investing more in training
As highlighted in section 5.3, a lack of training was a point of frustration for volunteers that made them feel less able to fulfil their volunteer roles and ambitions to be of value and make a difference to organisations and service users. Our Time Well Spent data found that almost half (49%) of public sector volunteers who were already receiving some kind of training would like or would have liked more training to help them carry out their volunteering. This was much higher when compared with civil society volunteers (38%). Again, a national survey with this policy volunteers found that special constables gain valuable skills in the role, but a third (33%) did not feel that they are given sufficient ongoing training to remain effective in their role.
- greater understanding among staff of volunteers and what they do
Finally, a third factor which has been highlighted previously, and may help to maximise the contribution of volunteers, is a better understanding among staff of the role of volunteers. In a survey of NHS staff when asked about what would strengthen the impact of volunteers in hospitals, the most common response (by 76% of survey respondents) was ‘better knowledge amongst staff about the role of volunteers’. Findings from section 5.5 highlight that a number of different factors can contribute to the quality of the relationships between paid staff and volunteers, including showing appreciation, respect, support, and inclusion.
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