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Taking an honest look at the volunteer experience

Our head of volunteering blogs about new research published today - the good news, the bad news and what needs to change.

15th November 2022

by Kristen Natale
Head of volunteering, Sport England

Let's start with the good news, shall we?

New data published today shows that most people who volunteer in sport and physical activity find the experience enjoyable and rewarding.

Volunteers are motivated, passionate and give their time incredibly generously.

They also benefit from taking part, experiencing positive impacts on their wellbeing and individual development.   

We should never lose sight of this.

The contribution that over 6 million people make every year to sport and physical activity is something we should never stop celebrating.

Even in the face of the pandemic, volunteers showed resilience and were innovative in their approaches to keep activity going.  

The bad news 

Yet, this incredible effort has been taking place against a backdrop of falling volunteering numbers.

It’s important therefore to ask ourselves tough questions.

What’s behind this decline in numbers? What’s happening to volunteers and why might they be choosing to leave? 

In Uniting the Movement, we made a commitment to take an honest look at the volunteer experience to help understand how it could be improved and opportunities made more inclusive and accessible.

Taking an honest look means we need to face up to the bad news as well as the good.

We need to understand what’s not working and why some volunteers may be having a poor experience.

The contribution that over 6 million people make every year to sport and physical activity is something we should never stop celebrating.

This new data gives us insight into the volunteer experience that can help us start to answer these questions.  

Half of current volunteers surveyed could be classified as ‘at risk’ of dropping out or burnout owing to a combination of factors including: 

  • increased demands of time and responsibility 
  • pressure in the role  
  • lack of enjoyment and motivation.

Many volunteers said they intended to continue to meet increased demands placed on them, but we’d be doing volunteers a disservice if we’re complacent in the light of these warning signals.

If ignored, the risk is that numbers continue to decline and, even worse, the positive volunteering culture in the sector is eroded.

A positive culture of volunteering, where volunteers are valued and listened to, is essential to maintaining their support.

Together, we need to act on this insight, and we need to put the volunteer and their experience at the heart of these actions.  

What needs to change?  

Both current volunteers and lapsed volunteers had similar views on what would improve their volunteering experience. They highlighted four key things:   

  • Ensuring demands on their time are reasonable and flexible
  • Reducing the level of responsibility  
  • Providing additional support when needed  
  • Making sure they felt their efforts were appreciated

The desire for more flexibility is important to highlight.

Our Volunteering Fund evaluation showed flexible opportunities that fit in with people’s lives can help to make volunteering more accessible to those not currently taking part.

This is an important way volunteering in sport and physical activity needs to change if we want to engage a more diverse range of people as volunteers.

The resources from the Volunteering Fund in our report library provide examples of what this looks like in practice.  

Fit for the future  

Keeping volunteers engaged and ensuring volunteering feels like an attractive proposition in the future is not a challenge unique to sport and physical activity.

Vision for Volunteering identifies a need for change across sectors to make volunteering fit for the future, by 2023.

How people want to give their time is changing and the pandemic may have accelerated these changes.

A man runs with a boy

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations’ Time Well Spent research series has also reported a risk of burnout for volunteers as pressures increase.  

People are re-prioritising where volunteering fits in their lives and, for some, this means volunteering is no longer a priority and they’re stepping back

Volunteering doesn’t happen in a bubble and so considering how volunteering opportunities in sport and physical activity can be adapted to fit into people’s lives will be essential to continue to ensure it feels relevant and is resilient to wider changes in society.  

Taking action  

Meeting changing demands from volunteers and stemming declining numbers is a big challenge but is not insurmountable with further attention placed on the volunteer experience and volunteer management.  

You can join a Club Matters Volunteer Experience workshop if you’re interested in exploring this more with others and getting support with planning changes in your approach. 

The report also gives some ideas on how clubs, groups and organisations working with volunteers can act on this insight, but we’d also love to hear from you on how you’re approaching this challenge.

This requires creative thinking and an approach that responds to the feedback from your volunteers on their experience.

Get in touch if you’re doing volunteering differently or have made changes to make volunteering more flexible and enjoyable. 

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