Professor John Mohan — Supplementary written evidence (CHA0188)

Trends in voluntary action by individuals

Author: John Mohan, Third Sector Research Centre, University of Birmingham


Charities play a significant role in offering opportunities to volunteer and successive governments have prioritised raising levels of volunteering or, in current usage, social action. Drawing on research undertaken by TSRC and others[1], this paper elaborates on some points made in oral evidence regarding a broader range of questions which might be considered beyond a focus on the level of engagement of the populace.

Key points:

  1. Rates of engagement in voluntary action are broadly stable – which while disappointing for some may be reassuring for others given the economic circumstances that have been experienced in recent years.
  2. However questions can be asked about whether continued stability can be presumed, and about the distributional effects of greater reliance on voluntary action.
  3. Some evidence suggests cohort declines in both associational membership and in charitable giving. Thus it cannot be presumed that rising generations will be engaged to the same extent as their predecessors.
  4. The extent of engagement varies greatly between individuals. A small subset of the population, which TSRC terms the “civic core”, provides the great bulk of effort; these groups are socially-stratified and tend to be concentrated in the wealthiest neighbourhoods.
  5. Substantial geographical variations exist in volunteering rates. These are largely explicable in terms of compositional effects – that is, the mix of people living in a particular neighbourhood. This poses challenges of supply of volunteers, and of matching volunteers with groups, and causes, in areas of greater need.
  6. Economic changes have had demonstrable effects on voluntary engagement, evident in significant reductions not just in the proportion of people engaged, but also the hours which they commit; and long-term impacts of job loss are evident in the subsequent participation careers of individuals many years later.
  7. The assumption that the retirement of the baby boom generation may provide a boost to volunteer supply needs testing. Survey evidence suggests that while elderly age groups account for an important share of volunteer effort, there tends to be much more variability in the amount of volunteer time contributed by them. Controlling for socioeconomic differences between elderly individuals, there is also evidence of much greater variability in the likelihood of engagement.
  8. For all these reasons, maintaining levels of volunteering will not happen by accident; it will require a positive appeal and a degree of support. 

Rates of engagement

The International Labour Organisation (2011) has referred to voluntary action as an “essential renewable resource” for social development. The evidence suggests that volunteering rates are stable; despite variations between surveys in the questions used to capture participation in volunteering and social action over the past three decades (Staetsky and Mohan, 2011) it can be argued that there has been little change since the first reliable national studies during the early 1980s. The period for which we have the most reliable and consistent data is 2001 onwards, through instruments such as the Citizenship Survey. This also includes a measure of informal volunteering as well as questions about it associational membership and charitable giving. As such, it provides a reliable basis for exploring trends.

The proportion of the adult population giving unpaid help to voluntary organisations (often referred to as “formal” volunteering) in England and Wales at least monthly has been between 25–29%, while between 40–45% did so at least once a year. For informal volunteering (directly assisting people in the community, other than giving unpaid care to relatives), the proportions engaged are between 30 and 35% at least monthly, and 55 to 70% at least once a year. Combined, between 65–75% of the population volunteer in some capacity at least once a year. There have been fluctuations: dips in informal volunteering were noted for years affected by recession and there was also a suggestion of an “Olympic boost” to volunteering rates post-2012, but this has subsided, and rates are now back within the range reported over most of the past 15 years.[2]

This evidence has shown the underlying stability of volunteering rates; it may not be easy to shift them in an upward direction, but it is also unlikely that they are going to drop very substantially. But there are other items of evidence which suggest a less positive picture.

Cohort variations: can we detect differences in participation between groups born into different birth cohorts?

This was a central theme of the work of Robert Putnam (1995; 2000) on social capital. He found that associational membership and various other indicators of social capital in the USA had fallen substantially since 1970 and concluded that the contributions of the “long civic generation” (those who had come to adulthood before or during World War II, essentially) were not being replicated by subsequent birth cohorts. McCulloch (2014) investigates this for the UK through a study of patterns of change in the membership of voluntary associations – note, not volunteering, but the two are closely related - for four different birth cohorts (defined in terms of dates of birth: 1935 – 1944, 1945 – 1954, 1955 – 1964 and 1965 – 1974) using data from the British Household Panel Study (BHPS) from between 1991 and 2007. The great advantage of this survey is that it observes the same individuals repeatedly so one can compare, say, the responses of men aged 50 who were born in 1958 and observed in 2008 with the responses of men aged 50, born in 1948, and observed in 1998. Hence the behaviour of people from different cohorts can be compared when they are the same age.

McCulloch shows that when we compare people across birth cohorts measured at the same age in the survey, there is a drop in the mean number of types of organisations of which they are members. There is a strong cohort effect on the probability of belonging to an organisation. The predicted proportion of respondents in the 1965–74 cohort who belonged to at least one organisation is approximately ten per cent lower than that in the 1955–64 cohort observed at the same age. The corresponding gap between the 1955–64 and 1945–54 cohorts is of a similar order of magnitude. The results therefore provide clear indications of a decline in the probability of organisational membership across cohorts.

The mean number of types of organisation of which individuals are members drops by nearly one-third if comparisons are drawn between men born 1945–54 with men born 1965–74. These findings suggest a significant decline in some aspects of associational life. Importantly, cohort variations persist once controls are introduced for social class, education or household type. Furthermore, the relative differences between classes in the probability of belonging to an association are greater for the most recent birth cohorts (those born 1965–74), suggesting widening socioeconomic differentials in participation. McCulloch concludes that differences in levels of membership between cohorts can be interpreted as reflecting the influence of changes in the macrosocial and economic conditions experienced by different birth cohorts. Those from earlier cohorts (1935–44, 1945–54) benefited from a more comprehensive welfare state and from a period of economic growth and very low unemployment. In contrast the subsequent cohorts grew up in adverse economic circumstances, which are strongly associated with reduced levels of engagement.

Sarah Smith and co-authors (2012) make similar points about engagement in charitable giving, using the Living Costs and Food Survey, covering over 200 000 respondents (7000 a year) from 1978 – 2008.  As with other studies of participation there is an age-related inverted-U distribution, with the proportion of the population who donate rising to a peak in the early 50s before declining again. Within this overall pattern there was a rise in the likelihood of individuals donating over the first three cohorts in the survey, but thereafter, from the cohort born 1940–44, participation rates fell. The likelihood of donation for someone born in the early 1930s was around ten percentage points higher than their equivalent born in the early 1960s and observed at the same age (e.g. someone born 1934, aged 44 in 1978, compared to someone born 1964 and observed aged 44 in 2008). However this analysis pointed to some cause for optimism in that those born in the 1980s were slightly more likely to be donating than their counterparts born in the 1970s, when observed at the same age.

These generational effects suggest that despite rising prosperity, it cannot be presumed that individuals will continue in the future to volunteer, join associations, or donate money, to the same extent as their predecessors.

Levels of engagement: the civic core

A discussion of rates of engagement with a focus on headline percentages can overlook the differences in the contributions made by individuals and the mix of pro-social behaviours which they carry out. This is clear when we look at combinations of participation in volunteering, membership of associations, and charitable giving. Full details are given in Mohan and Bulloch (2012).

Firstly we find that very few people are not engaged – if by that we mean that they do not report any of the above three behaviours. There is only around 15% of the population of England and Wales who do not participate at all in any of these.

Secondly, at the other end of the participation spectrum, there are subsets of the population who are already very highly engaged indeed. We define membership in the civic core on one of these dimensions as being someone whose participation places them within a group the collectively accounts for two-thirds of the total. For example we find that:

Note that one limitation of the survey is that it will fail to capture major donors so the figures in relation to charitable giving need to bear that in mind.

These groups are socially-stratified. The core groups are much more likely than the non-core or disengaged groups to have degrees, be middle-aged, in managerial and professional occupational groups, and to have lived longer in their neighbourhoods.

They are also geographically-stratified: the “core” groups are, unsurprisingly, disproportionately concentrated in the most prosperous neighbourhoods as measured in terms of social deprivation.

Geographical variations

Reflecting the socioeconomic mix of different communities, we find significant variations in levels of voluntary action between and within regions. Between the regions of England rates for formal volunteering have varied between approximately 34 – 47% but within them the range has been far greater: by a factor of nearly 3 between the most disadvantaged deciles of some regions compared to the most prosperous parts of others (McCulloch, Mohan and Smith, 2012).

Of course the places where volunteering rates tend to be lowest are therefore those facing the greatest challenges, particularly in relation to poverty and unemployment, as well as in relation to public funding.

Economic change and its effects on volunteering

A feature of the data from the Citizenship Survey in 2009–10 was a clear indication that volunteering rates had declined in the most disadvantaged parts of England and Wales. An innovative study by Lim and Laurence (2015) provides powerful evidence of the negative effects of recession on engagement. They demonstrate, using the quarterly data from the Citizenship Survey, a reduction in the rate of volunteering, and in the average number of hours committed by citizens to voluntary activity from 2008 onwards.

Firstly they find a reduction in the proportions of the population involved in voluntary activity during the recession, and argued that this could not be accounted for by the likelihood that individuals themselves were experiencing hardship, because they controlled for individual characteristics. However the reduction in the rate of engagement was greatest for informal volunteering and there were notable geographical differences, at the expense of disadvantaged areas.

They also find not just a reduction in the rate of engagement but also in the level of engagement. The Citizenship Survey asked people to recall how many hours they spend on voluntary activities (both formal and informal) in the preceding four weeks. Lim and Lawrence’s analysis suggested that for both formal and informal volunteering there were substantial reductions in the hours committed, the timing of which coincided with the economic recession almost exactly. Their estimate was that there was roughly a 25% reduction in community engagement – and on this measure the social recession was considerably bigger than the financial one (Heath and Clark, 2014).

The implication was that adverse economic circumstances have detectable and relatively immediate effects on engagement, weakening the capacities of communities to cope.

Elsewhere Laurence and Lim (2014) show how labour market circumstances from the 1980s have traceable effects on engagement even decades later. In the UK they use data from the National Child Development Study (NCDS), which follows a cohort of individuals born during one week in March 1958. Respondents were followed up at various intervals (1974 (age 16), 1981 (23), 1991 (33), 2000 (42), 2008(50)) and questions on participation were asked in several waves of the survey. In addition the survey gathered data on the labour market histories of respondents. They show that controlling for numerous individual characteristics, adverse labour market experiences, particularly in the 1980s, when redundancy was the largest single mechanism through which people lost jobs, were also reflected in reduced levels of engagement even decades later. They emphasised that job displacement – that is, involuntary job loss through mechanisms such as redundancy or workplace closures - was demonstrably associated with reduced participation in later life. The effects emerged slowly over time, so the negative effects of job displacement which were apparent between the ages of 33 and 42 became more pronounced between the ages of 42 and 50. Their suggestion was that job displacement sets individuals on different career trajectories of engagement, stalling the rates at which they join organisations, and then producing a faster rate of dropout. This they attributed to the ways in which sudden job loss severed people’s networks (workplace, unions) through which they found opportunities to develop and maintain social participation.

This evidence suggests there are long-term effects on participation arising from adverse economic circumstances and – if it is not always possible to manage the economy so as to minimise the impact of job loss - the implication is the need to provide support that keeps people connected to volunteering opportunities.

Demographic change and the future supply of volunteers

Demographic and fiscal pressures are currently forcing consideration of existing arrangements for meeting social needs. In this context, there has been discussion of the place of voluntary action, and specifically the question of whether or not more might be expected of post-retirement age-groups[3], and our work examines what differences there are in voluntary action between age groups, both before and after controlling for relevant socioeconomic differences.

There is a large amount of variation in engagement within age groups. Two people of the same age can differ greatly in their civic engagement, depending variously on their education, their social class, their working lives and so forth. In examining patters of civic engagement for different age groups it is crucial to take account of these other factors that affect engagement.

All age groups are currently civically engaged, to a greater or lesser degree. There is not a major problem of non-engagement but the patterns for different age groups vary by type of civic activity.

We first consider rates of formal volunteering. We show that accounting for socio-economic factors, there is generally an equal likelihood of engagement in formal volunteering across the age groups. The over 70’s age group does, on average, have a lower likelihood of engagement, but there is great variation within this group.

The argument is illustrated with an example of how predicted rates of formal volunteering vary between age groups and of how they vary when controls are introduced for socioeconomic factors[4] which were chosen because of their established relevance for levels of civic engagement generally (Bekkers and Wiepking, 2011; Musick and Wilson, 2008; Wiepking and Bekkers, 2012; Wilson, 2000).

Figure 1 shows the predicted population distribution of the propensity for formal volunteering by age group. This indicates that the likelihood of engagement in formal volunteering fluctuates slightly for groups between 20 and 60. The likelihood tails off for groups that are older. Additionally, the band around the regression line shows the variation around the average likelihood.


Figure 1 Predicted probability of engaging in formal volunteering by age (Citizenship Survey 2009–10)


Figure 4 shows the predicted population distribution of the propensity for formal volunteering by age group, when relevant socio-economic factors are taken into account. It shows that controlling for relevant socio-economic factors further flattens the distribution. The chances of someone being engaged in formal volunteering remain relatively steady between the ages of 20 and 70. The chances of someone being engaged drop off in the groups that are over 70 years old.

The figure also shows that the variation around the average likelihood of engagement in formal volunteering is larger in the age groups over 70. This indicates that these older age groups are quite different in terms of their composition. There are factors that are differentiating between levels of engagement of these groups that are not covered by the socio-economic factors which have been taken into account. Some individuals in these groups are just as likely to contribute to formal volunteering as individuals in the younger age groups (indicated by the top of the shaded area) but others are less likely to contribute to formal volunteering. This variability in the older age groups is notable. It indicates that suggestions about the feasibility of getting more older people to be involved in formal volunteering need to be tempered by an appreciation of the fact that these older individuals are a very diverse group.

Figure 2 Predicted probability of engaging in formal volunteering by age taking into account relevant socio-economic characteristics (Citizenship Survey 2009–10)


Overall, when various forms of civic engagement, including informal ways of contributing to the community are taken into account, it is clear that, on average, older groups in British society are currently already participating in civic engagement to a high degree. There is also clear evidence that older age groups contribute more voluntary effort, in terms of hours, than their younger counterparts, after controls are introduced for socioeconomic factors. This is positive news in one sense for a country in which there is currently an ageing population: we can be reasonably confident that as the large “boomer” generations pass through into retirement and old age, there will be an increase in volunteer input (Commission on the Voluntary Sector and Ageing, 2015)

In another sense the picture is less positive. There is great variability, which is not fully accounted for by our statistical models, in the rate and particularly the level of engagement. The hours that people contribute become less predictable as the population gets older.

And although the contribution of the older age groups is important, the size of those groups, relative to the population of the UK as a whole, will remain constant, not expand; for example, population projections suggest that the 60 – 74 age group will account for between 15 and 17% of the UK’s population for most of the forthcoming century.

Conclusions and implications

The British evidence points to relative stability over time, which appears to hold true over a relatively long period.

At the same time there is evidence that economic conditions have adversely affected citizen engagement, both in the short term, as demonstrated by studies of the consequences of recession from 2008 onwards, and in the long term, as shown by work on the effects of job displacement in the early 1980s on subsequent civic engagement. The effect seems to have been greatest upon informal volunteering, rather than on formal engagement, which tends to be dominated by groups experiencing greater economic security.

The evidence might suggest that voluntary action is, as the UN suggested in 2011, broadly a renewable resource, upon which British society can rely. Other than in response to economic shocks, it has appeared to be resilient. But to what extent might the British public respond enthusiastically to efforts to stimulate greater voluntary action? Here the picture is less positive. Sophisticated analyses demonstrate cohort variations in associational participation, with some related evidence of cohort reductions in charitable giving; we do not know if these translate into similar reductions for voluntary action. Analyses of the relationship between volunteering and ageing suggest that while there is evidence that rates of volunteering seem to increase as people get older (controlling for other socio-economic characteristics) there is nevertheless greater variability, and hence unpredictability, in hours volunteered as people get older. Moreover, engagement is already high: taking together formal volunteering, giving to charity, and associational membership, the proportion of the population not engaged in any of these pro-social behaviours is small (around 15%).  So how much more can reasonably be asked of a populace that is already highly engaged? And how might greater activity be stimulated in communities where volunteers are in relatively short supply?

The post-2010 Government s have displayed a preference for “nudging” people towards pro-social behaviours (John et al., 2011) rather than the more targeted approach of their Labour predecessors but this does not, as yet, appear to have demonstrated substantial results in relation to volunteering. And some policies do not seem readily compatible with voluntarism. Consider housing policy: those who rent properties and receive some public subsidy in order to do so are now subject to restrictive financial limits which will likely result in their moving house more frequently than they might otherwise have chosen; yet residential stability is a good predictor of engagement. Economic policy promotes a very high degree of labour market flexibility, which is difficult to reconcile with regular commitments to voluntary activity. Rapid reductions in public sector funding, spatially concentrated in the most disadvantaged local authorities, also pose challenges for voluntary organisations in terms of the stability of their funding. There are long-term trends towards residential socioeconomic segregation – demonstrated by the work of Danny Dorling and others – which distance the better-off from the more needy communities.

It is not unreasonable to envision a society in which individuals are more likely to be engaged, and more highly engaged, in their communities. There must also be realism about what can be expected. There are many good reasons to encourage individuals to become involved in supporting charities (even if some of the direct individual benefits of volunteering are not as great as is often claimed: Bekkers et al., 2015). But policies need to be tempered with realism about the distributional implications, and the assumptions being made that communities will come when they are called to action. While there is a reservoir of voluntarism to be tapped, it is not bottomless, and it may not be possible to tap it indefinitely.



This paper includes reference to much relevant work by colleagues in the Third Sector Research Centre. I should like to thank a number of current and former TSRC colleagues for their contributions, particularly Andrew McCulloch, Rose Lindsey, Vicki Bolton, Jane Parry, Katherine Brookfield, Matt Bennett and Daiga Kamerade.



Bekkers, R., & Wiepking, P. (2011). Who Gives? A Literature Review of Predictors of Charitable Giving. I – Religion, Education, Age, and Socialization. Voluntary Sector Review, 2(3): 337–365.

Brookfield, K., Parry, J. and Bolton, V. (2014) ‘Fifty at Fifty: Long term patterns of participation and volunteering among the 1958 NCDS cohort at age 50’ TSRC Working paper 119

Clark, T and Heath, A. (2014) Hard Times (Yale University Press)

Commission on the Voluntary Sector and Ageing (2015) Decision time: will the voluntary sector embrace the age of opportunity? (London: New Philanthropy Capital), online at

Cowley, E., McKenzie, T., Pharoah, C. & Smith, S. (2011) Three Decades of Household Giving to Charity, 1978–2008. Available at:

International Labour Organisation (2011) Manual on the measurement of volunteer work, (Geneva: ILO), available online at

John, P. et al. (2011) Nudge, Nudge, Think, Think: Using experiments to change civic behaviour. London: Bloomsbury.

Laurence, J and Lim, C (2014) “The scars of others should teach us caution”: the long-term effects of job “displacement” on civic participation over the lifecourse, Cathie Marsh Centre, University of Manchester

Lim, C and Laurence, J (2015) “Doing good when times are bad”: volunteering behaviour in economic hard times, British Journal of Sociology, 66(2), 319-344

McCulloch, A. (2014) Cohort difference in voluntary association membership in the UK in Sociology 2014 (48) pp. 167–185

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Putnam, R (2000) Bowling alone: the collapse and revival of American community (New York: Simon and Schuster)

Smith, S. (2012) Mind the Gap: The growing generational divide in charitable giving: A research paper. Tunbridge Wells: Charities Aid Foundation. Available at:

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The size distribution of charities

There are conflicting views about the value of small and medium-sized organisations in the third sector. For some, small and local institutions are the bedrock of the sector, and always have been so, as they promote virtues such as innovation and responsiveness; William Beveridge’s remark that “secession is the midwife of invention” is relevant here. For others, scaling up of innovation is the order of the day and large-scale organisation is therefore essential. There are however some contradictory views: the “uniformity of thought and action” of large charities was lamented by Ian Duncan Smith, but the expansion of such charities was surely a logical consequence of government policies designed to expand the role of the voluntary sector.

The debate isn’t helped by widely-varying definitions of what counts as a small organisation. One academic article quotes a Charity Commission definition of “small” as being below £20 000 and then proceeds to define smallness as having fewer than 3 staff – an expansive position since  according to the major surveys of third sector organisations undertaken in 2008 and 2010, it applies to nearly 95 000 charities. 

Definitions of between £25 000 and £1.5Mn – used in some recent studies – don’t narrow the field down much; in a typical year that would encompass c. 50 000 charities, or one-third of the population.

Other work has used definitions of below £250 000, or below £1 MN in the case of the Small Charities Coalition. The latter figure is 97% of registered charities. An upper threshold of £1.5Mn will include organisations in the top 1 per cent of the distribution. But note that this is all relative: Camilla Batmanghelidh described Kids’ Company as a small charity – which it was, relative to the major medical research charities.

The debate arguably isn’t helped by being framed in terms of the position of organisations in income bands widely used in commentary, as derived from NCVO’s Almanac of Civil Society. The point to note is that these are somewhat arbitrary, and do not get us very far. There is much movement between the income bands and very different answers can be given depending on definitions of the population for inclusion.

If figures are not adjusted for inflation there is apparent concentration of resources over time as organisations will move upwards in the size distribution. If one retains consistent sets of organisations over time – e.g. comparing the distribution of resources across income bands as defined at the start of a time period – then one will find a lower degree of concentration of income than if not.

Change over time – particularly growth in the upper income bands – is heavily influenced, in recent years, by the switch of public sector organisations into the charity world; again, this needs to be accounted for. Further details of relevant calculations can be provided if required.

And comparing differential growth rates – as Backus and Clifford (Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, 2013) have done – shows that while large organisations have undoubtedly grown more rapidly than small ones, there is also evidence of considerable growth of small charities. These organisations are not necessarily seeking the same sources of income so a portrayal of large charities squeezing out small ones needs further clarification.

In short, we need a sensible debate about what is distinctive about particular sorts of organisations and the contributions which they make. A debate based on defining them merely in terms of size results in some generalisations which are so broad as to be almost meaningless.

3 January 2017


[1] This paper draws on extensive research in TSRC, most recently work conducted as part of a  project on the ‘Impact of the Third Sector in Europe’ which received funding from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme for research, technological development and demonstration under grant agreement no 613034. See for more details.


[3] see Transcript of evidence taken before the House of Lords Select Committee on Public Service and Demographic Change, Evidence Session No. 5, Tuesday 23 October 2012.

[4] Socio-economic factors included: gender, marital status, social class, education, respondent’s income, employment status, ethnicity, religious participation, self-reported health and social trust.