Nudging to boost volunteer sign-ups during the coronavirus crisis

A blog post from The Behavioural Insight Team (BIT) on the North Yorkshire County Council (NYCC) BI project.

Behavioural Insights team logo

Since March, over 1 million people across the UK have signed up to volunteer as part of the coronavirus effort. From shopping for vulnerable neighbours to cooking for key workers, there has been a huge surge in good will and community spirit. With as many as 2 million shielding, this support has been vital to ensure the wellbeing of at-risk people.

But how can we maintain this momentum as the crisis continues into its eighth month?

To keep the ‘good-will train’ running, BIT and the Local Government Association (LGA) partnered with North Yorkshire County Council (NYCC) to encourage good deeds and maintain altruistic behaviours  throughout the crisis. We developed a set of messages designed to encourage volunteering behaviours. In order to maximise the impact of these messages we incorporated several behavioural insights or nudges into their making. The messages were then disseminated to North Yorkshire residents via Facebook, Twitter, or email newsletter. We identified 3 key aspects of human behaviour that we could leverage in order to make the messages as persuasive as possible:

  1. People like things easy - so make it easy to volunteer

In a recent survey by BIT, 42% of respondents said that not knowing how to get involved would be a barrier to volunteering during the crisis. In difficult times, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the different types of help others might need - this is known as choice overload in the behavioural science literature.

BIT crafted messages to overcome choice overload by presenting readers with a small number of positive actions to choose from:

This week, try to do one extra act of kindness. Here are some ideas!

  • Telephone someone you know who is self-isolating to check if they’re ok.
  • Drop a note through your neighbour’s door to say you're thinking of them/offer help.
  • Donate to your local food bank (find your nearest one)

We also developed messages which might help readers to embed positive behaviours into their routines. Evidence shows that people find it easier to make long-term behaviour changes when they incorporate new behaviours into their daily lives.

The next time you go to the supermarket, why not pick up some extra items to donate to your local food bank? Every tin of beans, packet of cereal, or chocolate bar helps!

Find where your nearest foodbank is

  1.  People do what other people do - so make use of social norms

A key insight from the behavioural sciences is that we are heavily influenced by what others do, particularly those around us. We developed messages which used social influence to motivate North Yorkshire residents to help others in their community.

Previous work by BIT has shown that people are more likely to pay their taxes, attend school, and donate to charity in their will when they believe others around them are doing the same i.e. that it is the social norm. Our messages encouraged residents to volunteer by highlighting that many others are doing the same:

Be part of the movement in North Yorkshire to fight Covid-19.

Volunteer numbers in North Yorkshire have tripled since March. Join them and sign up today to make a difference.

Have you ever heard of the saying: 'If you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours'? This is an example of reciprocity - the idea that one good deed should be returned by another. For example, BIT found that people are more likely to sign up to be an organ donor when asked “If you needed an organ transplant, would you have one? If so please help others.” We crafted messages that highlight the contributions of others:

Think of key workers you know (nurses, supermarket staff, teachers, doctors, police officers) - they are doing incredible work helping your community to get through this crisis.

You can do your bit too - sign up

3. People think about their identity - so make volunteering part of theirs

Although we all sign up to volunteer with the best intentions of doing it for a given period, sometimes life can get in the way. Previous work by BIT found that messages aimed at cultivating a sense of community and identity halved resignations amongst 911 call takers.

We worked with North Yorkshire to design messages which include quotes from current volunteers where they share their experiences and reflections. The messages tried to foster a sense of belonging amongst volunteers, and encourage others to get involved.

In Harrogate Michelle Hayes and Catherine Crompton have been delivering crucial food supplies to those who need it most through the charity Resurrected Bites.

Michelle said: “Some are people who are struggling to cope, people who were self-employed or on zero hours contracts who have lost their source of income and are waiting for universal credit to kick in. It’s made such a difference to them.”

Read more inspiring stories shared by residents in North Yorkshire.

What next?

As the coronavirus crisis drags into the winter months, a time traditionally characterised by greater financial, physical and mental hardship among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in our communities, it’s important to maintain momentum and explore new approaches to fortify and sustain community spirit. Applying behavioural insights to volunteer communications is one way to do this.

If you’d like to encourage altruistic behaviours by building nudges and behavioural techniques into your communications get in touch with our Communities and Social Capital team at 

Read more details on the behavioural solutions developed by BIT in this project.

You can find out more about the LGA Behavioural Insights Programme, part of the LGA’s Sector Led Improvement offer.