Volunteering in the UK: How can we compare across nations?

A long-standing challenge for charities, policy-makers, think tanks and academics interested in volunteering in the UK has been identifying how and why rates of volunteering might vary across the four countries within it. This matters not only for those interested in how the distinct histories, communities and cultures of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland might affect the way people volunteer, but also how different policies and government strategies might do so as well.

The Institute for Government has called the UK a ‘policy laboratory’, because devolution means that different governments can employ different policies and approaches to solving similar problems. While all of the UK’s governments see volunteering as important and spend millions of pounds a year promoting it, they also take different approaches to doing so – meaning that the UK could provide a fruitful laboratory experiment in the development of policies to affect volunteering. Any assessment of which policies are more effective, however, needs a reliable comparison of rates of volunteering in the different countries of the UK.

Such a comparison is difficult to make, however, because the way volunteering is measured and studied in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is surprisingly varied. In 2017, Volunteer Scotland produced an excellent report, ‘Volunteering Participation: Comparative analysis across the UK‘ that highlighted this problem, outlining how assessments of volunteering for government and policy-making are based on different surveys in each of the four countries, and that while they are comparable for the most part (e.g., they all speak to people over the age of 16, they all use face to face interviews – though this is changing – and they all recruit nationally representative samples), they differ in three key ways: they use different definitions of volunteering, measure it using different questions, and use different prompts to get respondents thinking about what the interviewer means by ‘volunteering’.

As a result, when the surveys suggest that there are substantial differences in rates of volunteering, we can’t be sure how reliable it is. The Community Life Survey (which collects data for England), for example, suggests that around 40% of adults volunteer at least once a year, while the Scottish Household Survey shows that only 27% do so in Scotland. Is this because the English are more likely to volunteer than Scots, or because of differences in volunteering policy between Westminster and Holyrood? Or does it instead reflect the different approaches to measuring volunteering used by the surveys?

Fortunately, Understanding Society can help, because it administers the same questions to all of its respondents from across the UK. This makes it the only survey that uses a consistent definition, measure and means of collecting data about volunteering from a representative sample of the UK population. When we look at how rates of volunteering vary across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the data suggests that the differences suggested by the Community Life Survey and Scottish Household Survey do indeed have more to do with their respective designs than either policy or culture.

Figure One: Volunteered in previous 12 months (%) (2016/2018)

Source: Understanding Society

The graph shows the proportion of people who reported volunteering in the latest wave of the survey, broken down by country/region. Roughly a fifth (19%) of adults across the UK volunteered, and while there are some geographic variations, they are very small. Northern Ireland had the lowest rate of volunteering, at 14%, followed by Wales (16%) and then the north of England (19%) and Scotland (also 19%). Respondents in the south of England were the most likely to volunteer, with 22% having done so. None of the nations/regions differ substantially, however, from the UK average. While there are obvious and clear differences in the histories, economies, governance and volunteering policies across the countries of the UK, therefore, this suggests that they have little impact on how many people are actually volunteering in their communities. Differences in other characteristics – such as level of education or income – appear to be far more important. The effect of some of these characteristics will be explored in my next blog post.

We would like to thank Volunteer Scotland for granting permission to use their research in this blog post.