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Sociology, Social Policy and CriminologyPart of Economic, Social and Political Science

TSRC research suggests 'Big Society' may be threatened by lack of volunteers

Published: 25 August 2010

New analyses from the Third Sector research centre suggest that achieving the goals of the 'Big Society' may run up against challenges of recruiting volunteers.

"Long run statistics show a great deal of stability in the extent to which people give unpaid help to voluntary organisations" says John Mohan, deputy Director of the Third Sector Research centre, who led the research. The proportion of people volunteering at least once a year has remained between 45 - 48% over many years, notwithstanding the rapid growth of the third sector.

Professor Mohan also comments that a substantial proportion of voluntary effort is given by small numbers of committed individuals, who also give regularly to charity and participate in civic organisations. These people tend to be well-educated, middle-aged or retired, and live in the most prosperous parts of the community. They have the time and money to contribute voluntary effort. These patterns pose two challenges. Firstly, there is a need to expand volunteering beyond these core groups. Secondly, the areas in most need of voluntary effort, especially those parts of the community more reliant on public expenditure, are not necessarily the locations where volunteers are most likely to be found.

These findings echo the conclusions of a well-known study of the voluntary sector written in 1979 which argued that "the soil for voluntary action is more fertile in some communities than others". Like any other kind of soil, it needs nurturing - the 'Big Society' won't come about by accident, but requires investment to enable recruitment of volunteers and managing them in order to maximise the impact they have.

The research by TSRC and Professor John Mohan featured in an article in The Guardian on 24 August.

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