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Reaching out to volunteers
20 March 2008
by Simon Teasdale

The government's current enthusiasm for volunteering has led to a plethora of initiatives designed to increase participation among different groups: the elderly, young people, and those deemed at risk of social exclusion. Indeed, one of its stated targets is: "To increase voluntary and community engagement, especially amongst those at risk of social exclusion." This means black and minority ethnic groups (BME), people with a disability or limiting, long-term illness (LLI), and those with no formal qualifications.

The Institute for Volunteering Research at Volunteering England and the National Centre for Social Research have been looking at the figures behind the targets in a study, Helping Out. This is the most in-depth and comprehensive study of volunteering and charitable giving ever undertaken in England. Today sees the launch of a research bulletin examining previously unpublished figures from the survey on volunteering and giving behaviour, particularly among those deemed at risk of social exclusion.

The figures suggest that volunteering among these groups has not increased over the last year. Although there appeared to be an increase in participation among black respondents, this was more than compensated for by a fall in participation among those with a long-term illness. Findings for other ethnic groups and those with no qualifications are more ambiguous.
Where do at risk groups volunteer?

Closer analysis revealed some interesting findings relating to the volunteering behaviour of at risk groups who were under-represented in the public sector – it would seem that the Cabinet Office targets have not trickled down to the lower rungs of the welfare state. Groups at risk of social exclusion were notably absent in the fields of sport, education and conservation. As we move closer to the London 2012 Olympics, it is worrying that the ethnic profile of the volunteers supporting sport at a grassroots level is not likely to be representative of our competing athletes.

Other fields would appear to be more inclusive in their involvement of volunteers. For example, those with a long-term illness were over-represented in health organisations, and in local community groups. It may be that this represents the self-help end of the volunteering spectrum. Alternatively, it may be that organisations in the field of health are likely to prove more accommodating to volunteers with health problems.

This tendency for groups at risk of exclusion to become involved in roles aimed at helping others in a similar situation is supported elsewhere. BME respondents were twice as likely as those not at risk of exclusion to be involved in overseas aid, and disaster relief volunteering. For some this may represent a commitment to their countries of origin.

Black people were the only at risk group to be over-represented in organising and running events. Other at risk groups were under-represented in similar managerial and organisational type roles. Asian people, and those with a LLI were particularly unlikely to be involved as committee members.
Why don't at risk groups volunteer?

At risk groups were more likely to perceive a threat to personal safety, or being out of pocket as a barrier to volunteering. The latter is of particular concern, as only 7% of volunteers had all their expenses reimbursed. For those on low incomes, not being able to claim expenses would exclude them from participating. Organisations should reimburse expenses as a matter of routine to ensure that people are not financially penalised for volunteering.

When asked what would make it easier to get involved in volunteering, the most popular response for groups at risk of exclusion was "nothing". This might suggest that new initiatives to encourage volunteering have a limited chance of success without incorporating the views of target groups in their design.
Implications for policymakers

To help meet its target, the government should persuade the public sector to open up volunteering opportunities to excluded groups – a case Baroness Julia Neuberger makes in her recently published report, Volunteering in the Public Services: Heath and Social Care.

The government may be able to help create an environment in which volunteering can flourish. However, much of the responsibility should rest with those volunteer-involving organisations in all sectors who fail to include volunteers in all their diversity. Research undertaken by disability charity Scope in 2005 found that one in three disabled volunteers have been discouraged from volunteering, or treated less favourably because of their impairment.

It may be that at risk groups excluded from mainstream volunteering are pushed or pulled into self-help and mutual aid activities. This often results in closer social bonds within these groups and can act as a safety net. However, if volunteering is to provide a route out of exclusion, bridges need to be built between excluded volunteers and mainstream organisations.

At risk groups were particularly under-represented in more skilled volunteering roles. Perhaps policy initiatives might focus on volunteering as a way of learning new skills. In turn, organisations involved in any policy initiative should be encouraged to involve newly skilled volunteers in an organisational capacity.

Finally, any initiative aimed at encouraging the socially excluded to volunteer should focus on improving the quality of opportunities available and providing support for those who need it most. Volunteering is not a panacea and should be seen as just one of many ways of encouraging social inclusion, not a cheap cure for all our social ills.