Quantitative approach

Secondary data analysis of volunteering trajectories


The initial quantitative analysis explored individuals’ volunteering in the years between 1996 and 2011. The aim was to uncover common patterns of continuity in volunteering behaviour or change over time (volunteering trajectory). The analysis then looked at how differences in patterns of volunteering behaviour related to the characteristics of the people following these trajectories.


The British Household Panel survey (BHPS) and Understanding Society (US) survey are related longitudinal survey’s that ran from 1991-2009 and from 2010 respectively.  The US continues the BHPS survey questions with the same people for the year 2011.They aim to understand social and economic change in Britain and the UK. The data we have used came from waves 6 to 18 of the BHPS linked with wave 2 of the US.

An appropriate survey question was asked every other year throughout the BHPS, a similar question is asked within the US in its second wave. The data used comes from the years:

1996   1998   2000   2002   2004   2006   2008   2011

The distributions of years are not balanced due to the crossover period between the BHPS and US.

Method of analysis

Individuals’ volunteering trajectories were analysed using sequence analysis and cross-sectional exploration.

Sequence analysis (optimal matching) was used to explore the volunteering trajectories present. Hierarchical clustering of these trajectories was then used to group together the people that follow similar volunteering trajectories and hence identify the most prominent patterns of volunteering trajectories.

The cross-sectional exploration used frequency tables and graphs. The aim was to identify similarities and differences in the demographics and attitudes of people that followed the different identified volunteering trajectories.

The insight into volunteering trajectories and the people that followed these trajectories were then written up into narratives. These narratives were then used to make comparisons to the general population and to people that did not volunteer.


Volunteers were considered to be people from the BHPS/US that between 1996 and 2011 undertook unpaid voluntary work (at least once a month) or cared for a non-relative that did not live with them for at least one year.

Who volunteers?

In comparison to people that did not ‘volunteer’, individuals volunteering between 1996 and 2011 were older, more highly educated, were more likely to be married, and a higher proportion were women.

Attitudes also tended to differ between people that volunteered and those that did not. For example volunteers were more likely to be interested in and feel that political beliefs were important, and have a higher level of trust towards other people

General patterns:

Three general patterns of volunteering trajectories were initially uncovered:

  • Off-one volunteers: People who only volunteered for short periods of time,  only once between 1996 and 2011
  • Continuous volunteers: People who volunteered for the majority of the years considered between 1996 and 2011
  • Late starters: People who did not volunteer initially but continued once they had started

Cross-sectional findings

The demographics and attitudes of people that volunteered were looked at within different years. The date from which the data is taken is displayed within Table 1. This enabled comparisons to be made between the type of people that were classified as ‘one-off’, ‘continuous’ or ‘late starters’.


Table 1

From this cross-sectional analysis it can be seen that there are considerable differences in the ages of people who follow different volunteering trajectories. This finding lead to further analysis being undertaken based on people of similar ages. The age ranges looked at were people in there 20’s, 40’s and 60’s. This further analysis aimed to assess the effect of age on the volunteering trajectories uncovered.

It was found that people in their 20’s had two volunteering trajectories: ‘one offs’ and ‘continuous’. People in there 40’s or 60’s fell into three types of volunteering trajectories: ‘one-offs’, ‘continuous’ and ‘long term’ volunteers.

Long term volunteers consisted of people that either starter volunteering later on in the time period (similar to those within the original analysis), starter early on in the time period considered and then stopped or volunteered for long periods on time in the middle of the time period considered.

Discussion of results

The majority of people fell into the ‘one-off’ volunteering trajectory – only volunteering once. These people tended to be younger and were the most likely to be employed when compared to the other two trajectories. They were also the least likely to feel financially comfortable which might imply a time/finance capacity issue contributing to these differences. ‘One-off’ volunteers were least likely to believe that people could be trusted and less likely to think political beliefs were important to who they are.

This cross-sectional analysis of demographic and attitudinal data does not consider the complex combination of influences underpinning attitudes and behaviours in volunteering.  For example people who are ‘one-off’ volunteers are most likely to not feel financially comfortable. However we do not know whether there is a relationship between ‘one-off’ volunteers feeling financially comfortably and ‘one-off’ volunteers actually being financially comfortable. Further, more complex analysis is needed to uncover these associations, and how they relate to volunteering behaviour.


Volunteering trajectories

Is mixed-method research into volunteering behaviour complicated by the lack of an accepted definition of volunteering? This was discussed in our previous post. In our monthly team meeting we had a lively discussion about this issue, asking a variety of questions, such as:

  • Is it important or appropriate to define volunteering at this point in the project?
  • Is it possible to define formal and informal volunteering?
  • Are definitions more useful to quantitative analysis than qualitative analysis?
  • Is it appropriate to enforce a definition of volunteering when using different methodological approaches?

What happens if put the question of strict definitions to one side? What are the different possible approaches that we could take within a project with a mixed method longitudinal framework? We decided that one approach for analysis of volunteering behaviours is to look at differences in individuals’ transitions in and out of volunteering over time. By not restricting the analysis to a certain definition of volunteering, this approach could enable insight into similarities and differences in different forms of volunteering, and into changes in volunteering behaviours over time. Trajectory analysis of very loosely defined volunteering behaviour could be an approach that opens up discussion between the different quantitative and qualitative methodologies that we are using.

From a qualitative perspective this approach should work well. During our meeting we read and discussed examples of Mass Observation writers’ responses to different directives, in particular the 1996 Directive ‘Unpaid work’ and the 2012 Directive ‘The Big Society’. This was an opportunity to look at how writers are describing and conceiving of their volunteering behaviours, as well as for the whole team to ‘meet’ some of the writers. We noted that volunteering mean different things to different writers. We agreed that undertaking analysis of writers’ descriptions of their volunteering, without our imposing preconceived definitions of volunteering onto these narratives, should allow us to gain an idea of the nature and shape of the volunteering and unpaid work that Mass Observers undertake across time.

But, when we use a quantitative approach, it is more difficult to allow the material to ‘speak’ for itself.  The information we can retrieve on volunteering and unpaid work is restricted by the questions asked within the surveys that we are using: the British Household Panel Survey/Understanding Society, the General Household Survey/General Lifestyle Survey and the British Attitude Survey. By their very nature these questions impose definitions which are then reflected in the answers that people give. So our quantitative approach has to be different from our qualitative approach.

We decided to look at all possible types of volunteering, and search for similarities and differences in trajectories into and out of volunteering, within and across all these forms of volunteering. The different groups we will investigate are:

  • All volunteers: all individuals who have responded positively to surveys asking about volunteering and caring for others.
  • Formal volunteers: this includes individuals who volunteer for organisations, and people who view their volunteering as unpaid work
  • Informal: people who don’t volunteer for organisations, but volunteer on an individual basis, this includes helping others and all forms of caring

The surveys we are using break caring down, into four types of categories. We intend to look at all of these, which include:

  • Non-residential: individuals who provide care for people that do not live with them
  • Residential:  individuals that provide voluntary care for people that live with them
  • Non-resident, non-relative: individuals who provide voluntary care for people that are not relatives that do not live with them
  • Non-resident relative: individuals who provide voluntary care for relatives that do not live with them

We realise that for the quantitative work this trajectory approach is still underpinned by definitions of volunteering.

Your thoughts on taking this approach, as well as how best to integrate our qualitative and quantitative findings on volunteering behaviour trajectories would be greatly appreciated.

ven diagram