Is volunteering alive and well in the UK?

15 September 2010 | By Cause4 staff

Last week CAF released The World Giving Index 2010, a research project carried out in 153 countries worldwide and representing around 95% of the world’s population. It is an interesting piece of work which offers analysis of ‘global generosity in giving money, time as a volunteer and helping a stranger.’ It placed the UK 8th with a total ‘Giving Index’ of 53%.

In terms of willingness to give money to charity, the UK scored highly with 73%, placing it third highest equal globally. The US on the other hand, often seen as the epitome of charitable giving, came in with a ranking of 60%. Philanthropy in the UK, at least in terms of the percentage of the population that reportedly gives to charity, would seem in good shape.

The story, however, changes when we consider analysis of the culture of volunteering and of people’s willingness to help strangers. In terms of playing the Good Samaritan, the UK apparently scored a rating of 58%. However, when the report turns its attention to volunteering, the UK is ranked poorly with a rating of only 29%. This compares unfavourably with figures of 39% in the US and 52% and 45% respectively in Sri Lanka and Sierra Leone.

All of this invites a number of considerations, not about the value of volunteering per se, but rather about the way in which the word ‘volunteering’ has evolved and about the current pre-occupation with measuring volunteering participation.

Would we be right in thinking that thirty years ago ‘volunteering’ as a word had much less frequent usage? Would we also be right in thinking that thirty years ago the notion of giving time without expectation of reward to local organisations – and indeed of helping out strangers – was more deeply ingrained in our society? Volunteering was nothing special, nothing of note, nothing remarkable. Giving your time freely to people and organisations was simply something that was expected, part of helping out, contributing, doing one’s fair share.

Nowadays the word ‘volunteering’ is scattered liberally like confetti. The very idea that we should seek to measure the volume of volunteering seems somehow to elevate volunteering above the commonplace, to make it seem remarkable, above and beyond what one could reasonably expect. Is there a paradox, we wonder, in so far that by labouring the point about volunteering we increase the risk of failing to normalise it?

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