Harnessing the virtuous cycle of volunteering

Increasing wellbeing – through volunteering or other means – is good for individuals and the communities they are part of.

In the UK, 30% of people formally volunteered at least once in 2020/21, with many others giving their time and skills in more informal ways to benefit others. We know how valuable volunteering is to organisations. But what are the benefits to volunteers themselves, and how can knowing this inform how charity leaders manage them?

Our 2020 report on volunteer wellbeing collated evidence from over 17,000 published reports and 158 studies on adult formal volunteering to help answer these questions.

The evidence shows that:

  • volunteering is positively linked to enhanced wellbeing, including improved life satisfaction, increased happiness and decreases in symptoms of depression;
  • volunteering has the most positive impact on those who experience lower levels of wellbeing (e.g. older people, unemployed people or those on low income, people living with long term health conditions);
  • higher levels of subjective wellbeing for volunteers can lead to an increase in volunteering.

Wellbeing describes our perception of the quality of our lives in their entirety as influenced by a range of physical, emotional and psychological factors.

Increasing wellbeing – through volunteering or other means – is good for individuals and the communities they are part of. This is something charities can harness when designing and developing a volunteering programme.

A top priority is looking after your volunteers by keeping wellbeing in mind. This is important for creating long-term, sustained volunteering.

Although volunteering generally has a positive correlation with wellbeing, it’s important to remember that just because it can lead to positive changes in wellbeing, it doesn’t mean it always does. The effect that volunteering has on a volunteer’s wellbeing is shaped by a number of factors, including the individual’s circumstances and motivations, and what they experience as a volunteer.

If a volunteering opportunity does not achieve anything meaningful, or over-burdens the volunteer, there will be no beneficial effects. There might even be negative effects on their wellbeing. This means the volunteering experience you deliver needs to be a positive – and purposeful – one.

To help use this information in practice, we’ve outlined the relationship between volunteering and wellbeing in more detail in our Theory of Change for volunteer wellbeing. And you can find a full list of resources to support you on our volunteering page.

We are also running free, one-to-one advice surgeries specifically designed to support practitioners working in the charity sector. You can receive tailored, practical guidance from experts on how to generate, use and get the most out of wellbeing data.

What Works Wellbeing

What Works Wellbeing are the UK’s independent body for wellbeing evidence, policy and practice. They work on accelerating research and democratising access to wellbeing evidence. A collaborating centre working out how to improve lives.

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