On 28th February 2023, the UK Government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport published the 2021-22 Community Life Survey results.
I want to share some quick insights into findings that go beyond the headline results. But first…
What is the Community Life Survey?
The Community Life Survey (CLS) has been conducted every year since 2001 and provides the most consistent trend data on volunteering anywhere in the world — that I am aware of, anyway.
CLS gives us an annual snapshot of volunteering across England: how many people volunteer formally and informally?; why do they say they do it?; why don’t some people volunteer?; and lots more data and detail for those of us who are volunteering research nerds.
The most recent CLS data is based on fieldwork that was conducted between October 2021 and September 2022, the year following England’s release from its three national Covid-19 lockdowns. The dataset before his one covered the period from April 2020 to March 2021, the year England experienced three national Covid-19 lockdowns.
This new data, therefore, provides an early glimpse at whether volunteering has recovered or changed since the pandemic started.
This article isn’t written to share the headline findings. I published a summary of those on LinkedIn on the 1st March 2023, and you can read that summary here. If you haven’t yet looked at this headline data, or are still quoting studies like the Together Coalition research published in February 2021, I urge you to bring yourself up-to-date because things have changed quite a lot over the last three years, and the volunteering reality of summer 2020 is nothing like the volunteering reality of today.
In this article, I want to highlight three ‘beyond the headlines’ findings from CLS 2021-22 that, I think, will be of interest to Volunteer Engagement Professionals.
Ready? Let’s get started.
1 – Change in why people say they don’t volunteer
One of the most interesting bits of data in the CLS is why people say they don’t volunteer. What issues get in the way of people giving time?
The number one barrier for many years has been work commitments. Either people’s experience is that they can’t fit volunteering around their paid work or, perhaps more importantly, they perceive that they won’t be able to, and so are put off trying to volunteer.
Before Covid-19, about 50% of people said their paid work was a barrier to volunteering.
Between April 2020 and March 2021, this fell to 48%. Not a massive drop, and perhaps not statistically significant, but intriguing nonetheless.
Was work less of a barrier because people were furloughed from it during lockdowns?
Was work less of a barrier because the pandemic led to more people working from home, working more flexibly?
Was work less of a barrier because many people stopped commuting and so found they had some spare time in their day that hadn’t been there before Covid-19?
What surprised me in the CLS 2021–22 data was that after lockdowns, work commitments became more of a barrier to volunteering, not less, with the rate of people claiming it got in thew way of them volunteering rising from 48% to 49%.
Again, not a big rise, nor statistically significant perhaps, but an indication that paid work is still a noteworthy obstacle to volunteering. I think this is important because how, when and when many people work is very different to life pre-pandemic, thanks to the changes we have seen in home, remote and hybrid working.
Maybe this increase in paid work being a barrier to volunteering is driven by the cost-of-living crisis? As finances get tighter, paid work becomes more of a priority for people, so they could be more likely to state it is a barrier to doing any volunteering. But, the recent CLS data was collected between October 2021 and September 2022 and the cost-of-living challenges really didn’t start to bite hard for many until the last six months of that period, so I’m uncertain if we can say inflationary pressures are the sole driver of change in people saying work commitments are a barrier.
Another way of looking at it is that because people now live and work more flexibly, but the volunteering opportunities they see available are not so flexible and adaptable, possibly creating a barrier to people giving time?
Put simply, we don’t understand why work is growing as a barrier to volunteering after lockdowns ended. And it may just be a statistically insignificant blip. But I find it interesting as a potential indicator of change. Good research always raises more questions than it answers. So, I’d love to know what you think? Leave a comment below with your thoughts.
2 — Change in why people say they volunteer
As well as reporting on why people say they don’t volunteer, CLS also looks at why people say they do volunteer.
Now, I think answers to this question always need a bit of caution. When someone asks you why you want to volunteer, it’s natural to lead with the socially acceptable things, the altruistic drivers, rather than the equally valid egoistic, more personal motivations, such as career development.
It’s a bit like when researchers ask if you intend to volunteer in the future. I think most people are likely to answer positively because we would rather not appear to be a selfish, uncaring person.
That is perhaps why the most common answer in many CLS datasets about why people volunteer is to ‘improve things / help people’. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is likely a socially conditioned response that masks a deeper, more complex individual mix of motivations.
Pre-pandemic, 47% of CLS respondents said improving things and helping people was their reason for volunteering. During 2020-21 this figure rose to 50%, no doubt because of the more immediate, visible and pressing need in the community during lockdowns. In the latest data, that response rate has dropped back to 48%, slightly above pre-pandemic levels but lower than during lockdowns.
Now again, it isn’t a big drop, and most likely not a statistically significant one, but that doesn’t stop it being interesting.
We don’t have reasons for the drop, but perhaps that community minded spirit of lockdown is fading as life gets back to normal, whatever that means nowadays?
Perhaps the need to look after oneself when times are financially is taking priority over looking after others?
Or perhaps other motivations are becoming a bigger priority, such as meeting people and making friends, which, after a year or more of Covid-19 enforced isolation, might be a bigger driver than it was when life was the old normal (this motivation grew 1% between 2020-21 and 2021-22).
Once more, I’d love to know what you think? Leave a comment below with your thoughts.
3 — Informal volunteer age profile
Perhaps the most surprising thing from the CLS 2021–22 data was the decline in informal volunteering after the Covid-19 lockdowns ended.
Much has been written and said in the past three years about the so-called boom in informal volunteering, driven in part by the high-profile narrative of mutual aid groups active in communities when the pandemic started.
According to CLS, that hasn’t been sustained, with rates significantly down on 2020-21 and much lower than they were a decade ago.
What those headline figures mask is diversity in informal volunteering rates by age. The CLS 2021-22 data states that:
”Those in the age group 65-74 were more likely to informally volunteer at least once a month (34%) compared to respondents in all other age groups (20% to 27%), except those aged over 75 (30%).”
”There was an decrease in informal volunteering from 2020/21 to 2021/22 at least once a month in age groups 16-24 (32% to 25%), 25-34 (31% to 20%), 35-49 (31% to 24%) and 50–64 years old (34% to 27%).“
Simply put, people aged 65+ are far more likely to do informal volunteering than any other age group, and all those other age groups saw anything up to an 11% drop in participation in informal volunteering between 2020-21 and 2021-22.
As with the headline figures on informal volunteering, it is unclear to me why this is.
Have older people switched to informal ways of helping because it fits better with their lifestyles?
If so, why aren’t younger age groups embracing this when, one could argue, they feel more time pressured than those more likely to be retired?
When we hear so much about people wanting to volunteer on their terms, in more flexible ways, wouldn’t we expect informal volunteering to become more popular across more age groups, especially those likely to be in paid work, not less popular?
Once more, I’d love to know what you think? Leave a comment below with your thoughts.
So, there are three ‘beyond the headlines’ findings from the 2021-22 Community Life Survey data on volunteering that I found interesting.
As I have said throughout, I’d love to hear your thoughts on these, but I’d also welcome any observations on the CLS data that you may have.
Please leave a comment below and share your thinking.
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