National Child Development Study (NCDS) members help researchers to gain deeper insights into community participation and volunteering

Street partyWhy do some people become involved in local clubs or volunteer to help in their community while others prefer to stay at home?

And how does a person’s life stage or key life event, such as a change of job, affect their willingness or ability to take part in environmental, charitable or social activities?

These are the type of questions addressed by a new study from the University of Birmingham that uses not only quantitative data from the National Child Development Study (NCDS) but qualitative biographical interviews collected by the NCDS’s spin-off project, the Social Participation and Identity Study (SPIS).

The authors of the ‘Fifty at Fifty’ study analysed 50 of the 220 interviews that NCDS members provided as part of the SPIS project in 2008, when participants were aged 50. They chose interviews by three types of cohort member: frequent participants, perennial participants and non-participants.

Frequent participants had volunteered at least once a week, or joined in with the activities of at least three organisations in a typical week. Perennial participants reported, in every NCDS survey, that they contributed to at least one group and/or activity. Non-participants had consistently said that they did not volunteer and took no part in social activities and groups.

Like previous research, the Fifty at Fifty study found that graduates and women were most likely to be frequent or perennial participants. However, the study also produced several recommendations that could prove useful to policy-makers and community/voluntary groups:

· As many of the interviewees had joined organisations as a result of personal invitations it may be worth developing networking programmes to reach people whose skill sets meet an organisation’s needs.

· Personal benefits and fulfilment repeatedly emerged as a key motivating force in social participation. Publicity campaigns spelling out the personal rewards from participation and volunteering may therefore prove highly beneficial.

· Community and voluntary groups need to recognise the diversity of people’s working and family lives in order to try to provide participation and volunteering opportunities that fit around competing time commitments.

The researchers also point out that their study demonstrates how different research methods can tease out different ‘stories’ from the same individuals. For example, people identified in the NCDS as non-participants often emerged in the SPIS as low, occasional and past participants. In addition, while the NCDS data indicated relatively widespread trade union and political activity amongst the Fifty at Fifty sample, this involvement was rarely mentioned in the SPIS interviews.

Katherine Brookfield, Jane Parry and Vicki Bolton, the study’s authors, say their findings will therefore contribute to the debate about data triangulation and the status and nature of quantitative vis-a-vis qualitative data.

Fifty at fifty: long term patterns of participation and volunteering among the 1958 NCDS Cohort at age 50 was published by the Third Sector Research Centre at the University of Birmingham.