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Volunteering Fund - what we’ve learned and what next?

Marking the end of Volunteers' Week, Kristen Natale discusses the evaluation of our Volunteering Fund and how the learnings are influencing what we're doing now, and will do in the future to help volunteering in the sport and physical activity sector.

07th June 2022

by Kristen Natale
Head of volunteering, Sport England

As another Volunteers’ Week comes to a close, we’re celebrating the impact of our Volunteering Fund.

This has been a huge collective effort and I want to say a big thank you to all the volunteers, project staff and CFE Research for their work on the evaluation – as well as Sport England colleagues for their support with this work.

We could not have done it without you!

What we’ve achieved

In 2017 we committed to investing up to £6 million in projects testing new approaches to learn what works best to bring new people into volunteering.

From 2017-2021, almost 9,000 volunteers had been recruited and four out of 10 had never volunteered before.

There was also a positive impact on volunteering habits, with 51% encouraging others to volunteer and 78% reporting they planned to volunteer in the future.

The fund tested new approaches, with new partners, to learn what works best to bring new people into volunteering and projects were successful in reaching those currently under-represented in sport and physical activity volunteering.

More than a third (37%) were from areas of high deprivation, 51% were female, 19% had a disability or mental health difficulty and 38% were from ethnically diverse communities.

Women and people from lower socio-economic groups are currently the least likely to volunteer in sport and physical activity and so to see these groups represented is fantastic.

The engagement of young people was also incredibly successful. More than 5,000 young people aged 10-20 engaged in social action that has helped others to get active, benefitted their peers and improved their local environment.

Our partnership with the #iwill Fund helped us reach new partners that could empower young people and develop youth-led social action opportunities in sport and physical activity.

And we now want to explore how we can embed the principles of a youth-led approach in our wider work – especially in our ambition to improve the experience of children and young people in sport and physical activity. 

An infographic illustrating that 37 projects were funded, 19 for the opportunity fund and 10 for the potentials fund. Also that 8,918 volunteers took part in 94,169 volunteering sessions, amounting to 211,118 hours of volunteering.

How volunteers benefitted

Volunteers experienced improvements in their levels of happiness and life satisfaction, developed new skills and improved their confidence and resilience. 

The more satisfied a volunteer was with their experience on the project, the more likely they were to report an increase across these outcome measures – if we get the volunteer experience right, everyone benefits. 

Volunteers in the fund reported high levels of satisfaction with their activity and the support they received.

This positive experience in not currently the norm, and so what we’ve learned about what a positive experience looks like for different audiences will be key in taking forward our work to improve the volunteer experience.

What we’ve learned about inclusive volunteer engagement

It’s impossible to do the learning justice in one blog, so I’d encourage you to dive into the Impact Report and other Volunteering Fund resources in our Evaluation and Learning hub.

The Learning Report published today provides practical guidance for every stage of the volunteer journey to help make it more inclusive and volunteer-centred. 

Of course, one size doesn’t fit all, so we’ve included examples in the report of how you can address specific barriers and what we have found works for specific audiences.

Here, I have focused on three things that have resonated most with me and that I think could be most helpful to others in bringing to life a more inclusive approach to volunteering. 

Understanding volunteers

Focusing on understanding volunteers from the start when planning and designing projects, helped to ensure barriers were addressed and volunteering opportunities were more inclusive, relevant and of interest to the target audience. 

This could include reviewing existing research, or some projects undertook consultation in a group setting or through individual conversations.

Projects also highlighted the value of working in partnership with other organisations locally who could help provide valuable insight and understanding about their target audience. 

One project lead said it best when reflecting on how to give the best volunteer experience:

“The ideas and the programmes need to come from the people we’re working with…. women from those communities told us what was missing, what was needed and how they would want it to be accessed and we worked with that to develop the programme…. it’s been quite successful.”

Building trust

Building trust with volunteers and partners was key to success. This was usually place-based and time-intensive, but ultimately worthwhile.

Building in time at the start for this can help you to nurture relationships. 

Organic recruitment networks like word of mouth from other volunteers, friends and family and referrals from groups and organisations trusted in the community were also important.

This allowed potential volunteers to connect with role models who were like them and faced similar challenges.

Projects also provided opportunities for volunteers to connect with other volunteers already taking part, to tell them about what to expect from the experience and address any hopes and fears.

Embracing co-design and ongoing engagement

Volunteers themselves often have the best ideas for how barriers can be overcome, but too often co-design is only done at the start of a project or programme.

Successful projects continually engaged their volunteers about the direction of their opportunities throughout delivery and this had multiple benefits.

Volunteers were more likely to take ownership of activities and see a project through if their ideas were listened to. 

So, by engaging regularly you can also respond to feedback and keep opportunities fresh and relevant, and respond to changing motivations.

What next?

With tackling inequalities at the heart of our Uniting the Movement strategy, this learning will continue to be relevant to our work and the work of our partners, as we collaborate to ensure the benefits of volunteering in sport and physical activity are accessible to everyone. 

We’re sharing this learning with colleagues and partners to ensure we embed some of the principles of inclusive practice into future programme design and delivery.

We would love you to help us share this and consider how you can embed this in your work. 

So please tell us if you found the resources useful, or what learning feels most significant to your work.

Email us

This blog is based on data and findings from the national evaluation of our Volunteering Fund, carried out by CFE Research from 2017-2021.

You can read more about the evaluation methodology in the Learning Report report below and our Volunteering Evaluation Toolkit - as well as seeing the impact of the fund in our Impact Report.


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