Fit for a king

How can we help: Why we give, and how we might do it better

Britain is crowning a new(ish) King next month, so we’re all being encouraged to spend a once-in-a-generation bank holiday doing something nice for each other. But the Big Help Out, which promises to “give everyone an opportunity to join in”, has already prompted concerns that it will flop, further undermining efforts to recruit and engage new volunteers.

If that all sounds a bit gloomy, it’s because volunteering in England has dropped to its lowest level of the past decade. The issue isn’t only here: shortages have also been reported in Australia and in the USA, and just last week, Volunteer Canada was campaigning to reverse a “dramatic decline in volunteers”, with 65% of volunteer-supported organisations short of people, even as a third report increased demand for their services.  

Why the current crisis? One UK charity thinks younger volunteers are making up for time lost amid pandemic restrictions to go on holiday, while older ones are reluctant to return because of Covid-19 worries, looking after grandchildren or working longer to supplement their pension. Other barriers highlighted by Reach Volunteering, a UK-based platform that matches volunteers to vacancies, include higher transport costs, expenses being reimbursed only partially, late or not at all, older people facing health issues, and burnout among ‘core’ volunteers.

Yet Reach also reports a “massive and unexpected climb” in sign-ups and applications via its platform since October 2022. CEO Janet Thorne attributes this partly to some practical reasons: Reach offers mostly hybrid/remote roles, thus avoiding significant expenses, and its volunteers are younger than average. But she also believes the current “cost of living surge” highlights a basic human concern for others amid tough times. “Research… shows that most people hold intrinsic values like care for others, and the planet, as most important (but that we routinely underestimate how much our fellow citizens care),” she writes. People are more decent than we think, in other words.

That looks true on a global level. The recent World Happiness Report 2023 identified “a globe-spanning surge of benevolence in 2020 and especially in 2021”, with data for last year showing that “prosocial acts” (things like volunteering, donating or helping a stranger) were still up by about a quarter compared with pre-pandemic. Thanks partly to this, people’s happiness hasn’t been much affected (yet) by Covid-19, war and economic downturn. 

I haven’t figured out yet how the WHR findings tally with the decline in volunteering reported in several western countries. It may be that the global trend is shaped by a strong rise in countries where this was previously less common. For example, WHR reports that prosociality was up in 2021 by 17% in eastern Europe (and just 2% in western Europe); in 2022, “benevolence” in Ukraine rose to new record levels, above 70% for both donations and the helping of strangers. 

For volunteering in particular, it may be about definitions, such as informal versus formal volunteering – charities face a gaping hole when registered volunteers drop off, but those same people might be helping out with a sports club, or babysitting, or helping a neighbour with their shopping. This kind of volunteering has actually stayed stable (England figures) or slightly increased (UK figures).

Charities like the Royal Voluntary Service, which co-created the Big Help Out campaign, are offering taster sessions on 8 May. I’m a big fan of anything that gives more people a chance to try out volunteering. But, with so many people facing increasing pressure at home – financial worries, and/or more demands on their time from family, friends and neighbours – organisations dependent on volunteers may have their work cut out to turn a one-off royal celebration into something that sticks.