Power of Connection: our research with the University of Kent on the relationship between social cohesion and volunteering

Author: Belong Manager
Published: September 7, 2023

Research carried out by the University of Kent in partnership with Belong – the Cohesion and Integration Network and the Shaping The Future with Volunteering group provides new insight into the relationship between volunteering and social cohesion, with important evidence about how volunteering opportunities can be used to increase feelings of belonging and trust within communities. The research will be of interest to those designing and offering volunteer opportunities but also those funding, supporting or researching volunteer-involving organisations or developing policy in this area. 

The research is being launched with an online event on Tues 19 September, 2-3.30pm.

Join Professor Dominic Abrams and his colleagues Zoe Horsham and Dr Ben Davies from the Centre for the Study of Group Processes in the School of Psychology at the University of Kent to hear more about the findings and the insights it can give us into designing, researching and funding volunteer work which promotes social cohesion.

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The Power of Connection – research summary

The research looked at the relationships between volunteering and social cohesion, finding they form a ‘virtuous circle’, with each one likely to promote the other. Volunteering and social cohesion are described as having a ‘bi-directional, causal relationship’.

The extensive review of academic studies and wider literature also finds:

Formal volunteering [a structured, supervised role through an organisation] has a greater impact on social cohesion than informal volunteering [ad-hoc and/or organised outside of an organisation between individuals]

  • The type of volunteering a person does can also impact feelings of social cohesion:
    • Volunteering to support others was associated with perceptions of higher social cohesion
    • Volunteering to prevent harm was associated with perceptions of lower social cohesion
  • The same barriers that inhibit volunteering – such as increased cost of living, lack of travel means or time constraints – are also likely to inhibit a person’s perceptions of social cohesion, and disproportionately affect those who are elderly, disabled or on low incomes
  • Horizontal cohesion (cohesion within society) has a bidirectional relationship with volunteering, I.e. volunteering is associated with subsequently greater feelings of cohesion and greater cohesion is associated with a subsequently higher likelihood of volunteering
  • However vertical cohesion (perception of social cohesion between the individual and the state) has a unidirectional relationship with volunteering, I.e. volunteering is associated with subsequent feelings of cohesion, but initial feelings of vertical cohesion do not anticipate higher volunteering

These findings offer useful insight into the ways volunteering could be used to build trust and connection between individuals, and increase belonging and resilience at a wider community level, such as: 

  • Thinking about the ways volunteering opportunities are presented – talking about ‘helping others’ rather than ‘preventing negative outcomes’ could increase feelings of social cohesion.
  • Finding ways to offer more structured volunteer opportunities – particularly to those more likely to face barriers to volunteering
  • Focussing funding or programme design on removing barriers to volunteering – particularly among under-representing groups

Practical applications: 

Belong Network and the University of Kent have already used the above research to create a Theory of Change illustrating the bi-directional relationship between volunteering and social cohesion. This Theory of Change has been used to develop the Power of Connection Toolkit, a free online resource for any volunteer-involving organisation looking to increase participation among under-represented groups and improve cohesion in their wider community.

Social cohesion – a definition: 

Social cohesion can be defined as the ‘social glue’ in the places we live, work and socialize. Its presence means that we get on with and trust our neighbours, colleagues and acquaintances. We feel safe and connected to others – a sense of belonging.

Several conceptions of social cohesion exist in the literature, many key features of which are identified in the British Academy’s Cohesive Societies analysis (The British Academy, 2019). This has identified 8 features of social cohesion: (i) sense of belonging, (ii) homogeneity of values, (iii) attitudes and regard for diversity, (iv) participation or collaboration, (v) rules and institutions which rely on consensus, (vi) wealth/income equality, (vii) equal access to resources, and (viii) personal and collective autonomy.

Watch this short video on social cohesion for more information:

About the research:

The above findings are drawn from two pieces of work, carried out by Belong and the University of Kent for the UK Government’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

1. Literature Review – Linking Volunteering and Social Cohesion: Causal Evidence in the UK and Beyond

  • Systematic assessment of academic and grey literatures on the relationship between social cohesion (including social capital) and volunteering.
  • It first considers definitions and ways of evaluating cohesion and volunteering, then examines evidence on how each can influence the other.
  • The review also considers the role of relevant demographic factors in volunteering and barriers to volunteer recruitment.
  • Evidence is drawn from a broad literature focusing primarily on evidence in the US and UK from the year 2000 onwards to determine both what may be generalisable and what might be specific to different contexts.

2. Causal Connections: Secondary Data Analyses of the Links Between Volunteering and Social Cohesion in the UK

  • Findings from analyses of three large-scale surveys assessing the relationship between social cohesion and volunteering, and the factors that may encourage or hinder them.
  • The three surveys cover a combined total of approximately 77,000 respondents and cover time periods from 2014-2021.