The equivalent of 1.3m new volunteers stepped forward for the first time in the past year, with social issues such as community cuts, concern for older people and disconnection from communities being significant motivators. This is according to the new report from Royal Voluntary Service, First Timers: Kickstarting a Volunteer Revolution. Authored by Dr Justin Davis-Smith, Nick Ockenden and Dr Helen Timbrell, the report investigates the motivations and barriers faced by those volunteering for the first time. The data is based on a sample of 4,007 UK adults, boosted by 500 people who volunteered for the first time since 2013.

A significant driver for the new cohort of first-time volunteers – equivalent to 2.5% of the UK adult population – is responding to urgent social need. Nearly a quarter (24%) of first-timers said their decision to volunteer was influenced by cuts to community projects and local services, with a similar proportion (23%) citing concern for older people and care cuts. Meanwhile, almost one in five (19%) were motivated in part by a visible rise in homelessness and poverty in their community.

Furthermore, volunteers also consider supporting the NHS (45%), and the care sector (44%) to be the greatest areas of future need for the UK too. As a result, among all new, active volunteers, a third (32%) are set to increase their involvement over the next 12 months while more than half (53%) intend to retain their existing level of commitment. This finding has been borne out by the recent campaign by Helpforce, a partner of Royal Voluntary Service, which saw 30,000 individuals step forward to support the NHS.

The report is launched as the volunteering charity sets out its commitment to scaling up the number of volunteers supporting in hospitals and communities – a need it recognizes has increased dramatically as a result of the ageing population.

However, volunteers are not driven solely by altruism, and in order to tempt more to give their time, organisations must also appeal to personal motivations. First-time volunteers reported that wanting to meet people and make friends (36%) and simply to have fun (30%) were also significant factors in making the first step. This may be influenced by the fact that nearly one in five (18%) felt cut off from their community before volunteering for the first time.

Among all volunteers, respondents felt more useful (60%), fulfilled (56%), socially aware (53%) and more connected to the local community (52%) after their experience. Many also reported health and wellbeing benefits, with just under one third (29%) saying they felt more mentally calm due to volunteering.

First-timers were slightly more likely to say they experienced improved wellbeing after volunteering however, with 34% of this group feeling less stressed, compared with 21% of volunteers overall, with similar results when looking at positive effect on physical health (42% vs 26%) and happiness (65% vs 49%). Furthermore, almost four in ten (37%) first-timers said their volunteering had made them less lonely.

Despite the reported benefits on offer, many still struggle to overcome barriers to volunteering. Chief among them was work commitments (cited by 40% of respondents), wanting to do other things with any spare time (23%), children and home responsibilities (20%), or just never having thought about it (20%).

These time factors may explain a dip in volunteering rates among 35-54 year-olds – 52% of this age group have volunteered at some point in their life, compared with 58% of both the 18-24 year-olds and 55+ cohort. The growth of digital and micro volunteering, which enables people to engage at a time and place that suits them, aims to support these busy groups.

Stretched resources are also likely to be fuelling the clear link between participation and social class. Whilst only about three in ten (34%) of people from the highest socio-economic groups have never volunteered, the figure was 56% for those from the lowest groups. Given the established correlation between loneliness and economic disadvantage, the report suggested there is further reason to try and open up volunteering to those outside the middle class “civic core”.

"While it is great to see a new swathe of inspired people giving their time and energy, volunteering cannot be a cure-all for public services. Our report shows that if we are to make the most of the huge opportunities that volunteering can offer, organisations need not only make volun-teering more accessible and flexible but play up the personal benefits of volunteering – in health terms, socially, in connecting to local community, and perhaps, most strikingly, in terms of enjoyment and fun."

Dr Justin Davis-Smith, Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Charity Effectiveness, Cass Business School

"By taking an in-depth look at those who have recently volunteered for the first time, we can begin to better under-stand the complex tapestry of motivations and emotions that underpin the decision. Similarly, it is an opportunity to examine the barriers that can prevent people from taking that step forward and giving their time. Our challenge is to inspire more people than ever before, from more diverse backgrounds, to volunteer to support the NHS and to help older people in the community. Together, we can change lives, change communities and change society."

Catherine Johnstone CBE, Royal Voluntary Service, Chief Executive

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