Is RDA volunteering becoming a luxury?

Volunteers at Abingdon RDA - this group are specifically some of my caller team for my blind rider (mounted), although all fulfil additional roles too!

Volunteering in the UK is on the decline, and I'm not very surprised about it. The National Council for Volunteering Organisations say that the number of volunteers giving their time to run or organise activities has halved (from 14 to 7% of those surveyed in their 'Time Well Spent' study), that people are more concerned about expenses and juggling existing commitments, and that both satisfaction and retainment are down across the voluntary sector. Even for charities which rely on volunteers for core duties, it's getting trickier to find and keep the right people to cover everything. I know that for my RDA group, we have plenty of volunteers on board, but have struggled recently with finding cover for activities and initiatives which previously haven't posed any issue. People seem to be finding it trickier to afford the cost of volunteering - in money, time, and/or spirit. Is it becoming more of a luxury than the "something good to do" that it is traditionally considered?

For an organisation like RDA which is so driven, in so many ways, by volunteers, this all sounds pretty sobering - although I have always liked to consider RDA as "not like normal volunteering". We have a huge breadth and depth of volunteer experiences to offer - no need to shoehorn people into dull voluntary work which doesn't work for them, and ample outlets for learning new and using existing skills. As an organisation where volunteers traditionally make up the sizeable majority of the "workforce", we are much less likely to use volunteers to carry out paid employees' duties - ours do what volunteers have always been relied upon to do.  

On the whole, RDA benefits from a good culture of mucking in to make it happen. I think we could still shout more about the extent of our groups' volunteer DNA, but volunteer power has always been a central part of the RDA movement: not a cynical move to save money on paid employees (my group has always maintained only a very small staff team) nor a box-ticking exercise. Anecdotally, however, it seems that maintaining volunteer numbers is a struggle at the moment, both in and out of my own group. Even one-off holiday activities like Own a Pony Days have struggled for volunteer numbers recently, when previously we've never had any issues. We've got something good here, but we aren't immune to sector-wide decline.

The reporting from the NCVO is centred before vs. after lockdown. Looking back at my own writing during this period, this makes sense - what a weird time of shifting and resetting and uncertainty. The restart of RDA activities was bitty and tentative. The CEO of the NCVO observes that “People who were lifelong volunteers broke their habit during the pandemic and haven’t yet got back to it. Millions more who would have committed to longer-term volunteering didn’t have the chance.” I was blogging about habit-breaking and the difficulties it can cause an organisation like RDA more than two years ago: momentum is essential. At times since, I've felt like my group has more than regained this momentum - at others, I'm wondering how I can have more Saturday volunteers on my list than I did before Covid, but not have enough to run the largest lesson of the day some weekends. I asked on the RDA Coaches Facebook group months ago whether others were having the same issue - the answer was a resounding "yes".

At Abingdon RDA, we saw a big influx of new volunteers when we were able to operate at nearly-full capacity for the first time: I think the "RDA offer" of being able to do something meaningful that got people active and outside again was compelling. While I do think it's still compelling, and the NCVO study agrees with me on active volunteering positions, we have had to adjust to a different kind of pace since the cautious immediate wake of the lockdowns. 

The pace of our lifestyles, for good and bad, is decided by money. Charities have to talk a lot about money, in order to raise more money. For RDA fundraising, it's very easy to point to different costs associated with keeping horses, and then to the unique nature of the services we carry out with them, to justify fundraising. The elephant in the room is what volunteers are able to afford in what and how they give to their RDA groups. The 'Time Well Spent' study found that there was an increase not only in the number of people not currently volunteering, but that those who don't are more likely to cite costs as a reason for it. Just over half of volunteers surveyed (55%) said that their voluntary organisation would reimburse their expenses incurred from volunteering. I have a feeling that in RDA, this proportion would be considerably lower - some might not feel the need to ask, but how many might appreciate the offer?

Realistically, I know my group wouldn't be able to reimburse the basic expenses of its 150+ volunteers to enable them to travel to the stables without taking a significant financial (and administrative) hit. I'd be really interested to hear if any groups are currently doing this successfully. RDA is a disability charity in the typically affluent equestrian world, which definitely makes a difference to the average demographics of those who are able to support it regularly, and who wouldn't think to ask about claiming back expenses. The more people commit to a cause, the more likely they are to spend more of their own money on supporting it. It's worth noting, not unrelatedly, that the 'Time Well Spent' study also found a 7% drop in volunteers perceiving their organisation as a diverse environment. RDA actually occupies a very special space in the equestrian industry in how accessible it is to a variety of people and backgrounds, but I think this is something we are going to have to work harder and harder to preserve.

Has anyone ever worked out how many RDA groups are accessible by public transport? It's not something in any group's power to change (unless yours has some serious connections...), but I know I've overheard comments from volunteers and volunteers' parents about the cost of fuel to get to their RDA commitments since the cost of living crisis began. I'd be surprised if the organisation hadn't lost volunteers due to work commitments increasing - or previously free time being taken up by a second job - or childcare commitments for children or grandchildren. These are not fresh new obstacles or issues, but if volunteering is overall in decline, it's reasonable to assume that more people are being crunched, whether it's in their budgets or their time. For the core of senior, organising, and long-term volunteers, this comes with a double crunch if other volunteers are leaving, or committing to less time.

There is a "cost", even if not an explicitly financial one, in giving time. I think the pandemic gave those in employment the opportunity to assess the value of time spent at work versus time spent not. For me, it really helped to iron out my work-life balance for my day job - my RDA-life balance is still a work in progress. People in 2023 seem much more aware of the value of time without obligation. As volunteers, we are always able to say "no" to these obligations - unlike a paid job we're interested in keeping. For an organisation like RDA we can do nothing without volunteers, but far less high-value work without volunteers who are committed and consistent. 

As a volunteer who manages other volunteers, I feel I'm on a bit of a see-saw between my understanding that you really do get out what you put into RDA (and the people you're doing it for get more out of it too), and my appreciation that this isn't a paid job for any of us, and that volunteers value flexibility in what they do. Trouble is, offering volunteers flexibility - as is their right to receive - does ultimately mean that we need higher volunteer numbers to ensure continuity of our services. If these sector-wide trends are affecting RDA, which I think they are, it seems we are going to have to do more to get more volunteers through our stable doors.

My heart sank reading about an increase in volunteers feeling that volunteering was becoming "too much like paid work" or that they felt their voluntary organisation was expecting too much of them - even though I hear from plenty of volunteers who help with my own classes that they find RDA a refreshing break from the norm. I sometimes struggle with this balance myself, so don't feel I have all the answers for fixing it. I maintain that consistency is really important for volunteers in RDA because of the amount of interaction between people and level of skill required. This in turn feeds into the organisation's strengths: with enough dedication, everyone is able to find a niche and build meaningful relationships. If potential volunteers are on the whole struggling with the practical elements of committing consistently, we need to be looking for ways around this.

Perhaps there is something to be said for volunteering on the whole being too similar to paid work in the wrong ways. I think there are a lot of ways that RDA groups could benefit from being more business-like: clear policies to handle all conceivable potential issues; visible processes for resolving concerns; structures which spread responsibility between senior volunteers and avoid relying too greatly on individuals. I find it much easier to take a break from my day job than I do from RDA. This is partly because of the emotional investment and enthusiasm I feel for it as a volunteer - which is great! I have also, however, struggled with periods of burnout, especially when we have struggled to keep our coach and/or volunteer numbers up. I know that many long-term RDA volunteers will recognise the "keep going at all costs" feeling when we really do believe in our cause.

A willing team from our group - including a current member of staff on her day off! - out and about fundraising with our miniature therapy ponies

The study noted that volunteer satisfaction was much lower for younger age groups compared to those aged 55+: an RDA study in 2019 confirmed that more than 75% of our volunteers are over 50. I am in no way looking to start a generation war between RDA volunteers (I feel this is important to emphasise!), but I have often pondered how we recruit and retain those in lower age brackets. Young(er) volunteers, especially in roles like coaching and governance, are essential for the resilience of the organisation - but these people are very likely to be juggling full time work commitments, lower levels of financial stability, and according to the NCVO are less likely to feel satisfied with their experience of volunteering. It's a luxury to be able to give the time, so I suppose volunteers need more than ever to feel that their time is a satisfying, fun investment. That's not a phenomenon limited to young professionals, either - it's just thrown into starker contrast for less represented types of volunteer. Good volunteer culture can combine past, present and future: there's nobody who isn't included in that. I credit RDA with making me a far more generous, selfless person, but I also really want to be able to carve out a culture which works for my present and future self, so I can keep volunteering happily for decades to come.

While the longer-established groups in our RDA community never would've had to dream of watertight policy and contingency planning during their early days - my own group had a charmingly home-spun genesis, literal pony-in-back-garden stuff - so much is more complicated for volunteers and voluntary organisations in the times we live in. We have much more power over how we set up the "business side" of an RDA group compared to a regular paid job - we can build in fun and friendship as much as we can build in the heavier stuff. A separate question is the solution to recruiting for paid careers in RDA centres and across the equestrian industry, which I know is also an issue for many groups at the moment. 

The study actually noted that people are far more likely to stop volunteering due to time, money, and other commitments, rather than issues with the way their voluntary organisation was run (only 10% listed this as a reason, although I'm unsure how this really tallies up with the overall drop in volunteer satisfaction). This is broadly positive, although I wonder if we give our RDA volunteers enough space and time to voice how they feel about their role and any ways we could improve it - it'd be really helpful to know for sure where the trends are, and much more helpful than being ghosted by new volunteers half way through their training! If it's difficult to keep and/or recruit new volunteers, we're going to need lots of feet through the door - it makes sense to make it as attractive a long-term prospect as possible. There have been times in my own RDA career where I've told myself "this needs to change if I'm going to do it for the next fifty years", even though my heart is well and truly in the cause.

What was heartening about 'Time Well Spent' was its insights into people's motivations for volunteering: they haven't really changed, and most of us (still) want to volunteer because we want to do good things and make a difference: both of which are incredibly tangible in an RDA setting. My volunteers love building relationships with our participants and our horses, and are able to see the difference as riders develop strength and skill. Ultimately, we don't want anything to get in the way of that on our watch - especially as its mutually beneficial to the very core of our activities and purpose. There have been times when the going has been tough and a message from a parent, telling me that "you showing up today has made a huge difference to my child's week" has made the clouds lift: I try as far as I can to spread the same light to other volunteers at my group, who are also making a huge difference. 

Is RDA on the brink of a volunteer crisis? Not necessarily. RDA is going to feel the effects of the current sector-wide decline in volunteering, and for an organisation which relies on so many volunteers for so much, that's likely to provide some big opportunities - and big needs - for changing how that works, both on a national and group level. How well do we actually know our existing volunteers, their motivations, needs, and ideas? What do we understand about the types of people we aren't attracting as volunteers? What about the people who have perhaps stepped away from being RDA volunteers? 

Has volunteering become a luxury? In many ways, yes - but in just as many, it always has been. Volunteers' time is a donation; we have to be able to afford to make any donations we give. Time and money are a squeeze for more people than ever before, alongside a post-Covid loss of momentum and increased scepticism of the value of how time is spent, both in and out of paid work. RDA ticks a lot of boxes in terms of what it can offer to volunteers, but we've got a great opportunity here to look at how we engage our volunteer workforce to retain, and even better, grow our numbers. 

As an RDA volunteer in both a coach and trustee role, I know I'm feeling the responsibility to get this right.

Maiya and May - living proof of the good things we are trying to do!