Standing in the afternoon sun next to a noisy dog kennel at the Leybourne animal center in Kent, south-east England, John Golding explained he had decided to volunteer for the first time to avoid feeling lonely over the bank holiday weekend.
“It’s quite therapeutic” the 32-year-old said, as fellow volunteers enjoyed cake and scones while others stood in a circle digging up turf before sprinkling wild flower seeds into the soil. “It’s a community atmosphere, everyone’s pulling together.”
The activities have been organized by the RSPCA as part of the Big Help Out, a nationwide initiative of 55,000 charitable events to mark the coronation of King Charles III. Organizers were expecting about 6mn people would participate.
The aim was to highlight the importance of volunteering to UK society and economy, with data showing a drop in formal participation in England in the voluntary sector following the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to the government’s Community Life Survey of volunteering habits, only 17 per cent of respondents said they had taken part in formal volunteering at least once a month in 2020/21, the last year for which data is available.
This figure was the lowest recorded by the survey and marks nearly a decade of long-term decline in rates: in 2013/14 the figure for monthly volunteering stood 10 points higher at 27 per cent.
The importance of the charitable sector has been highlighted by both the Covid-19 pandemic and cost of living crisis which triggered a sharp rise in demand for food and clothing banks, and other forms of assistance.
Earlier this year, the government announced a community wealth fund which will tap £740mn in forgotten bank and building society accounts over time for ‘social or environmental causes’.
Brendan Cox, co-founder of the Together Coalition, an alliance of community groups which helped to organize the Big Help Out, said the day was designed to draw attention to the rewards of volunteering for both individuals who gave their time, and the wider community He plans to make the Big Help Out an annual event.
“We know from the social science literature that the first step is the most difficult one for people to take,” Cox said. “Once they’ve turned up and tried something it’s very likely that they’ll stay involved.”
The Big Help Out is also intended to tackle one of the biggest barriers to volunteering — access to information about opportunities. Survey data shows that about one in five people don’t volunteer “because they don’t know how to get involved”, Cox added.
To help address this, a smartphone app was launched to co-ordinate Monday’s events, providing a way for local charities and organizations to advertise volunteering opportunities in their communities.
Nicole Sykes, policy director at Pro Bono Economics, a charity providing advice to the sector, said volunteering plays a “serious role” in the UK economy.
Andy Haldane, the former chief economist at the Bank of England and co-founder of PBE, estimated the voluntary sector contributes more than £200bn in social value each year, equivalent to around 10 per cent of the UK’s gross domestic product. tenth of that makes it into the official data because 90 per cent of the value is made up of 2bn hours of unpaid volunteering each year.
Sykes suggested the decline in volunteering overall may be exacerbated by a shift towards more people working for free in public services, including schools and hospitals, at the expense of traditional charitable work.
More women also offer up their time than men and the decline in overall volunteering rates could be explained by their rising numbers in the workplace, she added.
Sykes warned that the fall could have serious implications for charities, particularly smaller ones. struggle,” she explained.
At the event in Kent, people of all ages enjoyed a range of activities, from planting silver birch trees and collecting twigs to filling an insect house in the shape of ‘Bugingham Palace’.
Like Golding, Nicola Hamlin is also volunteering for the first time. The 44-year-old full-time mother has brought her three daughters — Lilly, Anna and Charlotte — along. She is hoping to impart a lesson on them that “sometimes you have to just do things because you want to help out.”
Roger Brown, who has been volunteering with animal charities for about 30 years, said it was great to see so many young faces. “What I like is all the children involved” said the 78 year-old retired landscape gardener, adding: “They ‘re actively involved, they’re not just passively here with their parents, they’re leading them.”