Critique of the government's "Citizenship Survey"

Critique of the government's "Citizenship Survey"

  • “Flabby” Government definitions exaggerate volunteering figures
  •  Pet-sitting, pub-pointing, child-cheering and picketing could all, officially, count as “volunteering”
  • “Tighter definitions needed to uncover true volunteering levels; and to plan/evaluate Government strategy and investment,” vies nfpSynergy’s Baker

Looking after a pet for a friend, pointing out a pub to a stranger, cheering your child at cricket or even joining a picket: these are all countable instances of volunteering according to Government definitions - thereby erroneously inflating official volunteering levels in England and Wales.

This is the key finding of a new briefing (click here to read) from leading not for profit sector think tank and research consultancy nfpSynergy, following forensic examination of the definitions and methodology employed by Government to compile its Citizenship Survey data, used to gauge the fluctuating levels of volunteering in England and Wales since 2001.

Volunteering has been a key part of the Labour Government’s strategy for the voluntary sector since it came to power in 1997. Not only has it invested a considerable amount of money in promoting volunteering (£400m per year total, from central government plus local and health authorities -…) but it has also used levels of volunteering as a key Public Service Agreement target for the third sector; and as an indication of a healthy society. Yet, when the Government claims that “73% of all adults had volunteered (formally or informally) at least once in the last 12 months, with 48% having volunteered at least once a month” (…), such statements must naturally be based on a research methodology that measures activities which most people would, at least intuitively, call volunteering.

The Government’s Citizenship Survey divides volunteering into “formal volunteering” and “informal volunteering”.

Informal volunteering – defined by Government as covering unpaid help that is given to other people, excluding that given in the context of a group, club or organisation, but including help for a friend, neighbour or someone else other than a relative. Citizenship Survey questions/criteria could deem as (informal) volunteering such counter-intuitive examples, as:

  • Advising an enquiring stranger as to the direction of the nearest library - or pub. 
  • Looking after your neighbours’ pet whilst they are away on holiday. 

Formal Volunteering - defined by Government as covering unpaid help that is given to other people within the context of official groups, clubs or organizations. Relatives are not explicitly ruled out as end beneficiaries. Citizenship Survey questions/criteria could deem as (formal) volunteering such counter-intuitive examples, as:

  • A parent who helps their own child prepare for the nativity play; or who reads in their class. 
  • A grandparent dropping their own grandchild off to play sport at a local club. 
  • A trade union member on a picket line. 
  • A regular church-goer giving a lift on a regular basis to another church-goer. 
  • Any person who plays sport as a hobby - or someone who even just watches them play from the sidelines! 

nfpSynergy’s Top 4 recommendations for making volunteering definitions more intuitive, relevant and accountable:

  1. Keep informal and formal volunteering quite separate.
  2. Rechristen informal volunteering as neighbourliness, community spirit or social capital.
  3. Tighten the survey definitions/criteria to exclude loop-holes.
  4. Report on volunteering with a more fine-grained approach.

nfpSynergy’s researcher, Jonathan Baker, said:

“This briefing suggests that the Government’s current Citizenship Survey over-estimates the number of volunteers in England and Wales - which may well mask a failure to increase levels of volunteering, despite the Government’s focus on, and high level of investment in, this area. Much of what the Citizenship Survey measures is not what most people would intuitively mean by volunteering. Tighter, more intuitive definitions are needed to uncover true volunteering levels; and to better plan and evaluate relevant Government strategy. Much good work is done in volunteering but, unless we can measure it properly, future investment could be misdirected.”



MEDIA COMMENT: To interview nfpSynergy’s Joe Saxton about these findings, please contact him direct on 07976 329 212 or; or, alternatively, contact Adrian Gillan (0774 086 7215; E: for further assistance.

Note to editors:

nfpSynergy ( is the UK’s only research consultancy dedicated to the charity sector and not-for-profit issues. It provides ideas, insights and information to help voluntary and community organisations thrive in an ever-changing world. Regularly harvesting the social and charity-related views of public and parliament, media and business - not to mention not for profit organisations themselves - nfpSynergy has a vast and ever-growing knowledge pool from which to extract and deliver insights.