Charities play a vital role in the effective functioning of society, often supporting the most vulnerable groups, including the youngest, the oldest and those with physical and mental health needs. In supporting these groups, charities rely on a silent volunteer army, who provide significant amounts of labour resource. More than 6 million volunteers are estimated to support the 184,000 charities registered with the Charity Commission. However, taking into account both formal and informal volunteering, including organisations not registered with the Charity Commission, the Community Life Survey for England and Wales puts the figure at 25 million for 2021/22. 

For the volunteer, the experience of volunteering plays a key role in many ways, including increased confidence, connections and skills development. Evidence shows that while nearly one in four (23%) people engage in volunteering because it gives them the opportunity to apply their existing skills, more than one in seven (15%) do it with the purpose of learning new skills. Other motivating factors include meeting new people (25%) and a small minority see it as an opportunity to help them with their career (7%). These benefits are supported by recent evidence from Royal Voluntary Service (RVS), which showed that unemployed people who volunteer, or had done so previously, experienced various benefits including gaining experience (44%), developing new skills (38%) and increased confidence (32%). 

But there are also significant benefits from volunteering to the wider economy – by boosting productivity in volunteers’ day jobs.  Analysis by Pro Bono Economics (PBE) has used evidence of a link between volunteering and wage increase to demonstrate the contribution of volunteering to the UK economy through productivity as reflected in higher wages for volunteers. The analysis shows that there would be a benefit to the UK economy of £4.6 billion per year for new volunteers who work in professional or managerial occupations if those wage increases were realised. There would be an additional £320 million for the UK Treasury based on increased national contributions alone.

Moreover, volunteering also has the potential to help people back into work. RVS recently commissioned research among people who had been unemployed/not in education for the last six months. The findings showed that volunteers come away with more experience, new skills and increased confidence. Three out of four (74%) selected at least one benefit from volunteering related to employability. Women, in particular, benefit from volunteering through skills development and increased confidence as they make their way back into the labour market. With the UK economy flatlining and the government looking for ways to get people back into work, it would be remiss of policymakers not to ensure the social sector plays a significant role in supporting people back into work through maximising the use of volunteering opportunities.

Beyond the positive effects of volunteering on skills development and productivity, there are the well-documented effects on wellbeing. A theory of change model for volunteering illustrates the mechanisms by which volunteering has an impact on the individual - with outcomes around purpose, identity and values, relationships and personal growth, which work to positively increase measures of subjective wellbeing, such as increased happiness and life satisfaction, and reduce levels of anxiety. Data from the NHS Volunteer Responders scheme, established in response to the Covid pandemic, provided a natural experiment to test the relationship between volunteering and wellbeing. The analysis showed that active volunteers benefit from improved levels of wellbeing measures, including life satisfaction, feelings of worthwhileness and social connectedness.

Given the vital resource that volunteering provides and the benefits for both the individual, the beneficiary and the wider economy, it is important volunteering receives the recognition it deserves both in economic and policy terms for its contribution to society and the wider economy. This report sets out five recommendations designed to encourage and support volunteering across the spectrum, so that everyone has the opportunity to benefit from the individual, personal and economic gains, while also contributing to the UK economy through increased productivity. These recommendations are as follows:  

1.       Volunteering has been shown to have positive effects for volunteers, its beneficiaries, communities and society as a whole; the government should show its full support for volunteering and invest in an activity which contributes to the nation’s prosperity.

2.      Given the positive effects on productivity, there should be a collective effort to expand employee volunteering opportunities across the entire workforce, enabling everyone at work to benefit whatever their role.      

3.      The voluntary sector should continue to develop more flexible volunteering opportunities to enable wider participation around work commitments.

4.     The government recently announced the Back to Work Plan to help reduce economic inactivity; where appropriate, jobseekers should be provided with access to volunteering opportunities that could help them develop or utilise existing skills, or show a commitment to an organisation and its cause that might help when applying for paid work.

5.     Organisations that provide volunteering opportunities should think about whether they could present volunteers with some type of formal recognition for their volunteering that can be used as evidence of their achievements. This would be particularly beneficial for unemployed people who are encouraged to take part in volunteering in relation to skills development, confidence-building or simply developing networks that could lead to new opportunities. 

Read the full report