Today the Centre, in partnership with Spirit of 2012 publishes a review: Volunteer wellbeing: what works and who benefits? For this review, our team at the Institute for Volunteering Research looked at over 17,000 published reports, and included evidence from 158 studies from the UK and internationally.
The evidence is already clear and overwhelming that volunteering can be good for volunteers’ wellbeing, and that volunteering is best for the wellbeing of those who need it most, people who may experience lower levels of wellbeing.
The review out today also suggests that high levels of wellbeing are good for volunteering – and that happier people are more likely to get involved in their communities.
Wellbeing might create a ‘virtuous cycle’ by making volunteers feel better when they need to feel better. And feeling better can then enable volunteers to increase their volunteering, and experience greater wellbeing. What’s more, our own volunteering and increased wellbeing can then lead to improvements in our community.
Yet, the benefits of volunteering are not experienced equally in society.
Older people, people on low income or unemployed, people living with long term health conditions and people who already have lower levels of wellbeing can benefit more from volunteering, compared to other groups.
∞ If we are experiencing low wellbeing, volunteering can improve it. This supports those at the lowest point of the virtuous cycle.
Unfortunately, the groups who may benefit most from volunteering may not be able to volunteer. They may lack social connections to introduce them to volunteering; or the means to travel to volunteer; or may have access needs that the volunteering ‘opportunities’ will not meet in their case.
∞ For sustained, long-term wellbeing effects, people, from all backgrounds and with all sorts of additional access requirements, need be able to volunteer more than just once. This starts, and continues, the virtuous cycle.
The evidence is compelling. If a volunteering opportunity does not achieve anything meaningful or over-burdens the volunteer, there are no wellbeing effects. There might even be negative effects on wellbeing.
∞ Our volunteering experience needs to be a positive – and purposeful – one. This contributes to the virtuous cycle.
Pathways through participation
One-off or very infrequent volunteering does have fewer wellbeing effects than regular, more frequent volunteering. We also know that individuals over their lifetime might have periods of more intensive volunteering, and then periods when they will not volunteer at all.
Life transitions and crises
We also know that volunteering may be good for you during life transitions or life crises such as retirement or bereavement, when volunteering can bring a new sense of purpose, identity and belonging.
∞ On that ‘pathway through participation’, when volunteering starts again the virtuous cycle can resume.
The connection between wellbeing and volunteering is cyclical and reciprocal
Some of the studies we reviewed suggest that happier and healthier people are more likely to get involved in volunteering in the first place, and that this is what makes the difference in their wellbeing.
This finding, if proven correct, does not contradict the idea of the virtuous cycle; it may even strengthen it. Volunteering fits into the wellbeing cycle of communities. Either because volunteering leads to improved wellbeing for volunteers, or because when people feel well they are more likely to get involved.
What this means in the Covid-19 context
In these challenging times volunteering is both difficult and easy.
In the face of such high need and changed circumstances, those who organise volunteering might find it difficult to create the enriching opportunities that boost volunteers’ wellbeing.
On the other hand, nobody has to wait or ask for permission. We have seen how people volunteer without being organised, and how communities come together in mutual aid and support.
Here, as in all volunteering, there is no guarantee that it will strengthen volunteers’ wellbeing. But chances are that it may – especially if done thoughtfully – and volunteers can see that they are making a difference.
Indeed, we may see virtuous circles emerging where we least expect them. For the Institute and for me personally, a good idea may be to focus our next research on how people volunteer without being organised by someone else.
Volunteer wellbeing: what works and who benefits?
We are working with Spirit of 2012 to build an evidence base of what works in delivering effective, inclusive and sustainable projects, and share this knowledge with community groups, clubs and other organisations to support current and future activities and programmes.