Over 19 million volunteers in the UK* offer invaluable support to improve the lives of other people. But how can volunteering support the wellbeing of volunteers themselves?

As the first comprehensive review of the evidence available, Volunteer wellbeing: what works and who benefits explores the positive and negative effects in four areas: volunteers’ happiness; life satisfaction; quality of life, and feelings of depression and anxiety.

The review is one of a series of research projects commissioned by Spirit of 2012 to build an evidence base of what works in delivering effective, inclusive and sustainable projects, and disseminate this knowledge with community groups, clubs and other organisations to support current and future activities and programmes. Researchers from the University of East Anglia (UEA) sifted through 17k reports produced in the UK and worldwide since 2008. The review of 158 relevant studies concluded that:

    • Volunteering is associated with wellbeing but context matters While it can improve wellbeing, it doesn’t always, and it can be argued that it’s happier people who are more likely to volunteer.
    • Some groups gain more from volunteering than others These include people in later years of life and lower socio-economic groups. Volunteering also has a buffering role for those going through life transitions such as retirement or bereavement.
    • There are evidence gaps for different groups More research is needed on the impact of volunteering on people in different ethnic groups, young people, disabled people, and people experiencing serious mental health issues.
    • Those with most to gain face barriers to getting involved Ill health and disability are cited as particular barriers for low income groups.

Researchers also looked at what makes a good volunteer experience and how can programmes be optimised for volunteers, with a new practical checklist for organisations focusing on four key areas: Being more inclusive; Increasing connectedness; Creating better balanced volunteering, and Making volunteering meaningful.

Ruth Hollis, Chief Executive, Spirit of 2012 said:

“Spirit of 2012 has funded projects across the UK that rely on the commitment and good will of volunteers to deliver them. This wide-ranging review of evidence confirms what we already know about the ‘double benefit’ of volunteering. But there’s a significant difference in the experience people have as volunteers, and the value they get from it.

“Volunteering offers enormous potential to increase people’s wellbeing and cultivate more connected communities, especially post-Covid, but we’ll miss out if it’s not done well. This is a clarion call to the organisations who rely on volunteers to optimise the experience by removing barriers to participation, listening and supporting volunteers and the people who co-ordinate volunteer networks.”

Nancy Hey, Executive Director, What Works Centre for Wellbeing said:

Volunteering is the hidden wealth of our nation. Protecting and promoting this is an essential part of our resilience. It’s something most of us do and take value from in our lives: it deserves rigour in our understanding of it.”

Jurgen Grotz at the Institute for Volunteering Research says:

“In these challenging times volunteering is both difficult and easy. In the face of so much need, those organising volunteering might find it difficult to create the enriching volunteering opportunities that engender the wellbeing we found it can. However, people also volunteer without being organised, bringing communities together in mutual aid and support. We now need to better understand what that means to individuals.”

To download the summary briefing and the full report visit: https://whatworkswellbeing.org/resources/volunteer-wellbeing-what-works-and-who-benefits/ *NCVO Almanac 2020