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How the future of volunteering can build from change

Our strategic lead for volunteering, Jenny Betteridge, blogs on the importance of volunteering in the sport and physical activity sector, and how coronavirus has changed the landscape.

28th April 2022

by Jenny Betteridge
Strategic lead for volunteering, Sport England

Last year continued to be an intense period of change within our sector and across all forms of volunteering. But now, in 2022, we’re building on the lessons from the pandemic to look to the future of volunteering.

Today’s Active Lives Survey results,covering the period Nov 2020-21,  is an important step to understanding the implications of this change and how we work collaboratively to support volunteers in the future – something we are doing both within our organisation, and as a partner of the Vision for Volunteering project.

The survey results show that 6.6 million people, 14% of the adult population, gave up their time to support others to be active last year. This is a substantial fall of more than 3.1 million people compared to Nov 2019-20 and follows a drop in numbers in the years prior to the pandemic, reported under our previous Active Lives volunteering measures (2016-2019).

More than six-and-a-half million people giving their time, energy, passion and skills to support our communities to take part in sport, activity and movement is still to be celebrated and recognised, though.

At a time of huge turbulence for individuals, communities and society, those who were able to give their time to support others is people power at its best.

When we launched our 10-year strategy Uniting the Movement in 2021, we described this people power as having ‘limitless potential’, and this is true.

Our future vision is one where volunteering in community groups, clubs, at sporting events, informally, with friends, or through social action to bring about change, is impactful, open to all and part of daily life.

Uniting the Movement recognises volunteers for all they do to support communities tackle some of the big issues, such as health, wellbeing and social impact. But also, for its dual benefit, i.e. the outcomes it can also offer to those who give their time.

Active Lives shows that those who volunteer can benefit from improved mental wellbeing, personal development – whether that’s developing skills or building friendships – and increased connections and trust within communities.

More than six-and-a-half million people giving their time, energy, passion and skills to support our communities to take part in sport, activity and movement is still to be celebrated and recognised.

And while we should absolutely be celebrating the importance and impact of volunteers and volunteering, we also need to acknowledge that it doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

Volunteering happens because of the other things going on in our lives, our communities, or our nation. The last two years have shown this in abundance.

Looking back on our blogs from 2020 and 2021, we have seen how much the pandemic has affected people’s volunteering habits.

So much so that, in our 2021 Savanta ComRes research, four out of five volunteers said their volunteering had changed as a result. And we’ve seen volunteers and their organisations adapt and innovate to keep activity going throughout the pandemic.

The latest Active Lives (Nov 20-21) data poses a challenge; the biggest falls came from those people who volunteer less frequently – e.g. monthly, a few times a year or just as a one-off, while regular weekly volunteering held up better.

But this, less frequent, volunteering is no less important to helping activity take place, and accounts for 70% of all volunteers.

So, the fall of 1.7% for those who volunteer once/ad hoc compared to 0.7% for weekly volunteers, will have a considerable impact.

This has disproportionately impacted those from already under-represented groups within sport and activity volunteering, who tended to give their time in this less frequent way, such as women and people with a disability or long-term health condition.

We have also seen disproportionately fewer new volunteers in their first two years of volunteering. Yet those who have volunteered for 5+ years have been less affected.

This raises some important questions for volunteering in the sport and activity sector – in the immediate period, to help people get back into activity and preventing burnout of those fantastic volunteers who continue to give their time, but also for meeting the motivations and expectations of new and returning volunteers and participants in the future.

The challenges of diversity, unequal opportunities, volunteer experience and utilising technology are more prominent, but so too are the opportunities.

It’s too early to draw conclusions from this release of Active Lives data on its own, remembering that this is only the second data point on these new in-depth questions. But these questions have also surfaced in wider cross-sector analysis from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) and the government’s Community Life surveys, with both showing trends away from formal volunteering, and into newer ways to make a difference – such as self-organised mutual aid groups, neighbourly ad hoc opportunities and the use of technology.

Together with sport and activity partners, we need to understand these wider trends and ensure our sector’s remaining volunteers aren’t left behind, shouldering even more responsibility. We know volunteering is changing and there can be a different and exciting future for volunteering in sport and activity.

The response

There’s positive work already underway, demonstrating how this can happen in practice. Below are some of the things we’ve learned from projects we’re involved in, demonstrating that both how people are volunteering, and who is taking part. is changing.

Together Fund

In October last year we enhanced our Together Fund which was launched in response to the pandemic and focusses on tackling inequalities in sport and activity – it includes supporting small, local community organisations to invest in their volunteering to adapt, embed and grow.

Innovative responses

This January, we published a research project exploring innovations within sports volunteering in response to coronavirus and its aftermath. These changes included things such as starting ‘buddy’ volunteering, using social media, utilising apps and volunteer platforms, focussing on inclusion or pivoting to support their local community.


In March, we announced our investment into Gen22, to develop a volunteering legacy from the Commonwealth Games, away from the stadium, through youth social action opportunities across communities in the West Midlands – sharing the learning from our successful Potentials Fund partnerships.

Volunteering Funds evaluation

In June, we’ll be sharing the final evaluation from our three-year, £6 million investment into our Volunteering Funds, which have seen more than 8,900 people get involved. More than half (51%) have been women and girls, with 38% from ethnically diverse communities, 19% were disabled or have a mental health difficulty and 37% were from areas of high deprivation.

One great example is the Kent Wildlife Trust, which has 80 local mums and families involved in volunteering and supporting others to connect with physical activity and nature.

And you can check out the ADAPT framework to see how many of the projects changed and innovated during the pandemic.

Vision for Volunteering

Launching on Friday 6 May, is the Vision for Volunteering, a cross-sector conversation looking ahead to the next 10 years of volunteering. Sport England is a proud partner with the NCVO, Volunteering Matters, NAVCA and the Association of Volunteer Matters on the Vision, and together with our partners across the sport and activity sector, we’ll be looking ahead to how we can create a diverse, innovative, sustainable, ambitious and person-centred future for volunteering – supporting the limitless potential of people power, embracing the opportunities in change and not shying away from the challenges new and old. Go to the Vision for Volunteering website to sign up to hear more when it launches.

This is just the start, though, and we would love partners and volunteers to join us on this journey.

Explore the latest Active Lives Survey results in full

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