Shortly before and after the last general election, there was a loud call to action for more volunteers. Five years on, the evidence on whether this made any difference is distinctly mixed. Figures suggest we like the idea of volunteering in principle – it’s just that most of us don’t sign up to it in practice. We take a look at what’s stopping people getting involved – and what charitable and other organisations can do to remove those obstacles.

Did the big society persuade us to get involved?

A big part of the Government’s flagship policy involved encouraging people to take a more active role in their communities through volunteering. Did it work? The jury’s still out. According to UK Civil Society, the number of volunteers actually declined when the recession was at its height and when The Big Society was at the forefront of Government policy.  A couple of years later though, the Government’s Community Life Survey was suggesting there was an increase in volunteering activity – in some form or other – between 2010 and 2012.

Experiences differ between organisations. The London Olympics, for instance, did not seem to have a positive effect on the number of sports clubs volunteers. On the other hand, organisations as diverse as The Samaritans and The National Trust were reporting record numbers of people offering their services. Recent figures suggest a big rise in the number of volunteers helping to keep local libraries afloat.

Quite a lot of us are keen on the idea but don’t quite get around to doing anything about it. A survey from the Royal Voluntary Service for instance suggested 13% of us said they were planning on volunteering in January last year – but by December, the number of volunteers only grew by 2%.

What’s stopping you getting involved? 

‘I can’t afford the time’

Effective management of volunteers involves not only marrying skills to requirements but also recognising that many volunteers are limited in terms of the time they can devote to voluntary activities. Your skills and time will be welcome – even if it’s just for a few hours a month.

Although being out of work offers people the time to get involved, it also seems those out of work are less likely to volunteer for formal activities (something which may explain the fall in volunteering rates when the recession was at its worst). It’s worth bearing in mind that volunteering does not affect your entitlement to Jobseeker’s Allowance – so long as you are still able to look for paid work in the meantime.

‘I won’t be able to do anything useful’

Are you going to be able to genuinely add value to the organisation? Will you be able to develop your own skills in the process? Look at whether the organisation has something specific in mind for you. Most of us do not want to offer our time – only to find ourselves scratching around looking for something to do. From the point of view of the organisation, a useful way forward is a formal induction and interview; assessing the existing talents of the individual and looking at how they might be developed whilst meeting the needs of the organisation.

‘I won’t be allowed to “get stuck in”’

The development of tailored charity insurance solutions means there is no excuse for charities not to obtain effective coverage that ensures volunteers are protected. From the perspective of organisations, the appropriate way forward is to liaise closely with brokers – telling them what activities they have in mind for their volunteers and ensuring the protection is in place to enable them to get fully involved.

Risk management and assessment is part of this too. Provision of proper training, supervision and progress monitoring: these all help to ensure volunteering is a rewarding experience for all involved.

You’re likely to be pleasantly surprised at just how many opportunities are out there that fit in with your lifestyle. Forget the obstacles and get involved.