The volunteerism rate has doubled. But why exactly?

Mar 20, 2017 05.00PM |

by Kwan Jin Yao

THE rate of volunteerism in Singapore almost doubled from 2014 to 2016, rising from 18 to 35 per cent. And this trend – according to the Individual Giving Survey 2016, conducted by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) – “could be related to the resurgence in informal volunteerism” (emphasis mine), through which Singaporeans volunteer directly without going through an organisation. In its press release, NVPC then detailed examples of social and ground-up movements in Singapore, to illustrate a second point that the number of volunteers who serve informally has increased from 25 to 51 per cent, over the same time period.

Straits Times christened this “a resurgence of the kampung spirit” (Mar 16). TODAY quoted NVPC director for knowledge and advocacy, Jeffrey Tan on this “giving revolution”, “where people are volunteering and donating informally, directly with beneficiaries, without going through the formal routes” (Mar 16). Notwithstanding the questionable hyperbole, everyone seems to take for granted this causal relationship between the rise in the volunteerism rate and the increase in informal volunteerism. Correlation is not causation. In fact, we still appear to know little about what exactly drives volunteerism in Singapore, and how it can be sustained in the long-term. NVPC said it could be informal volunteerism, but we do not know for sure.

And in its current incarnation, the NVPC’s Individual Giving Survey provides few useful answers.

Volunteer rate and sample size

In the 2012 survey, when it was found that 32 per cent of Singaporeans volunteered – the previous high – the cited reason was also informal volunteering. In the 2010 survey, when the rate increased to 23 per cent from the previous high of 17 per cent in 2008, no explicit reasons were offered. And likewise nothing insightful was offered in 2014, when the volunteerism rate fell by almost half from 32 per cent in 2012 to 18 per cent. The accompanying media release in 2014 briefly mentioned the lack of time as a top reason for non-volunteers, as if it was a new finding, yet this concern was already established from the very first edition of the survey in 2000, when 74 per cent of the respondents said that “no time” was their main reason for not volunteering.

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Just knowing how the national volunteerism rate has changed from survey to survey is not enough. If the intent is to encourage more Singaporeans to volunteer – and to make sure they keep volunteering – then the NVPC needs to better understand the needs and the motivations of volunteers and non-volunteers alike, and to shape endeavours accordingly. Suppose the NVPC is absolutely convinced that informal volunteerism does cause higher volunteerism rates. It should therefore channel its resources to more financial grants for these community groups, for instance, to facilitate capacity-building and to reach out to more in Singapore.

Such causal findings will be productive for government agencies too. The Ministry of Education can ascertain whether learning experiences through Values in Action – in different permutations, such as within-school or community activities – increase the likelihood of volunteerism in the future. The National Council of Social Service, with similar information, can better advise the volunteer-management units of charities, in terms of how they can appeal to and retain long-term volunteers.

Comparisons of the findings across the past eight editions reveal something more troubling about the sampling size. Only 389 respondents were interviewed for the 2016 survey compared to the 1,828 interviewed in 2014. The mean or average across the eight biennial surveys from 2000 to 2014 was 1,698 (the median was 1,752), and so the sample size for 2016 is barely one-quarter of that. The disparity raises obvious questions about the sampling method, the representativeness of the findings and if it can be generalised for the whole population, and whether comparisons can be fairly made across demographic or socio-economic indicators.

Further doubts emerge when the 2016 is compared with the World Giving Index 2016 – released by Britain-based Charities Aid Foundation – which found that only 20 per cent of Singaporeans volunteered their time and efforts for a cause in the past year. In this particular area Singapore ranked 54th out of 140 countries, compared to its ranking of 19th for donating money to charity. The World Giving Index collected questionnaires, face-to-face, from exactly 1,000 Singaporean respondents. But like the Individual Giving Survey, it provided no additional details on the potential factors which will prompt more to volunteer.

So in addition to the woeful sample size, what changes can be made to the Individual Giving Survey? Or what more can it do?

Three related proposals. First, having determined the reasons for non-volunteerism – from the lack of time to the difficulty of balancing work and family commitments, for example – focus group discussions with existing volunteers will allow for the aggregation of practical perspectives or good practices, on how to overcome these challenges. Second, with these perspectives and practices, the NVPC can better design interventions for Singaporeans of different age-groups, in different industries, and for different beneficiaries, and use the survey as an instrument to measure the effectiveness of these implementations. In other words, did a new volunteer programme or an awareness campaign drive more Singaporeans to actually volunteer? And for how long?

And finally, a longitudinal component to the Individual Giving Survey could yield valuable information too. In an experimental set-up like this, having identified a representative sample, NVPC will track the same group of respondents over two, four, or even six years, measuring their rates of volunteerism and how they respond to volunteer programmes or awareness campaigns. If implemented effectively, the NVPC could even track the impact of nation-wide policies – such as the inception of the Youth Corps and the changes the MOE made to the community involvement programme in schools – over the same time-frame.

The Individual Giving Survey and its top-line figures may have sufficed in the past 16 years. Much more is desired – and needed – if we want to turn Singapore into a more compassionate nation of regular and committed volunteers.


Featured image by Sean Chong. 

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