Invalid Official Statistics on Volunteering?

I caught an episode of Woman’s Hour last week in which the presenter kept mentioning that according to a recent survey 62% of people in the UK had volunteered in the last week, and inviting people to discuss their experiences of voluntary work.

The survey in question (excuse the pun) was the Volunteering and Charitable Giving Community Life Survey 2020-2021.

The show was then peppered with references to people’s volunteering efforts, such as working with the homeless at Christmas, staffing food banks, helping out with the Covid-vaccination efforts and so on.

And such examples fit very well with my own imagination of what ‘voluntary work’ involves – to my my mind a volunteer is someone who commits an hour or maybe more a week (I have a low bar in terms of time!) to do something such as the above, probably in conjunction with a formal charity or at least other people as part of a team.

But I just couldn’t believe that 62% of people did that kind of voluntary work last year.

And it turns out that they don’t

The government survey (a form of official statistics) that yielded these results distinguishes between formal and informal volunteering.

The former type: formal volunteering is what I (and probably most people) think of as ‘real volunteering’ – it was these kind of things the Woman’s Hour presenter was interested in hearing about and publicising.

However, only 17% of people did formal volunteering last year…..

Just over 50% of people did ‘informal volunteering’ but this has a VERY LOW BAR for inclusion. Basically, if you babysat your friend’s kids for one day at some point last year, you get to tick the box saying that you did ‘informal volunteering’.

This basically means that ANYONE with a young family has done what this society defines as ‘informal volunteering’ – I mean surely EVERY FAMILY babysits once in a while for their friends – this is just normal parenting – children have friends, parents want a day to themselves every now and then so you ‘babysit swap’ – or sleepovers, technically you could count having your friends’ children over for a sleepover with your own kids as ‘having done voluntary work’ in the last year’.

Add formal and informal volunteering (/ mutal parental favours) together and you get that 62% figure that the Woman’s Hour presenter was talking about.

However to my mind 62% is a completely misleading figure – 17% is how many people ACTUALLY volunteer every year!

It’s a bit annoying TBH – as also in the ‘informal volunteerin’ category are things such as buying shopping for someone who can’t get out of the house and that’s LEGIT, or valid volunteering in my mind, but the category is too inclusive to give us any useful data on this.

Relevance to A-Level Sociology

This is a wonderful example of how a definition which is too broad, in this case what counts as ‘volunteering’ can give a misleading, or invalid impressing of how much actual voluntary work really goes on in the UK.

This survey is a form of official statistics, so you can use this example to be critical of them.

it is possible that the government officials deliberately made the definition so broad so as to give the impression that there is more community spirit, or more of a ‘big society’ around than there actually is – because if there’s lots of community work and voluntary work going on, it’s easier for the government to justify doing less.

However, even with these very broad definitions, the trend in volunteering has still been going down in recent years!

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