Question 1: How do families currently engage with your organisation?

Family volunteering is diverse

Family volunteering looks and feels very different in different families and organisations. It includes, but is not just about, parents and children volunteering together; more often it means couples and sometimes siblings, or grandparents and grandchildren. It goes beyond what people typically think of as ‘family volunteering’ and family members volunteering together. We identified five different types of family volunteering: do together, do alongside, do for, bring along and do separately (figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1: Types of family volunteering

Types of family volunteering

Figure 2: Examples of types of family volunteering

Examples of types of family volunteering

Family involvement changes and evolves over time

Families may get involved in these different types of volunteering at any one time, or at different stages of their lives. Often, they move between them as their circumstances change. On moving to a new area, couples may, for example, volunteer together to integrate themselves into the community. Parents may volunteer for activities in which their young children are involved, but as their children grow older, they may volunteer alongside each other. After the children leave home, the family members may all volunteer separately. It is rarely, however, such a linear journey.

Question 2: How do you want to involve families and what approach to family volunteering is right for you?

Family volunteering can develop across organisations in different ways for different reasons

Our research found a variety of approaches to involving families in volunteering (see figure 3). In some organisations, family volunteering is ‘by design’, where organisations have designed specific family volunteering schemes in which families (particularly parents and children) are explicitly encouraged to volunteer together. These schemes are often driven by a desire to fulfil organisational aims or values or as a way to widen participation in their organisation, particularly to diversify their volunteer base.

In other organisations, family volunteering might be ‘going unnoticed’, or it might be something that has developed organically, largely ‘by default’. Family volunteering is often not a discrete thing, but a core part of an organisation’s engagement with volunteers, and often reflective of its work with families or communities.

Figure 3: The spectrum of ways that family volunteering can develop

The spectrum of ways that family volunteering can develop

Some of the barriers to volunteering could be tackled through family volunteering

Specifically designed family volunteering schemes offer the potential to overcome some of the barriers to volunteering. This might be through, for example, allowing parents to volunteer with their children or to bring them along while they are volunteering.

However, this can be resource intensive and the variety of opportunities which organisations are able to develop for families might be limited. Family volunteering by default offers a more organic approach with the potential to involve a wider range of families and types of participation but may require strong leadership and a shift in culture and practices.

Question 3: Can you enhance the volunteering pathways for families within your organisation?

Family life can provide a route into volunteering

Our research found that family life can often provide triggers for, and routes into, volunteering. Having children was itself an important trigger for volunteering, and children’s involvement in education and leisure activities opened up volunteering to parents. When those activities came to an end for the children, however, this often meant the end of volunteering for those parents. Others might be encouraged or asked to get involved by another family member.

For example, a husband ‘mucking in’ to support his wife’s volunteering. But some volunteers and family members highlighted that sometimes they weren’t choosing to get involved; they felt obliged to help out a partner, for example, or had been told to help out by a parent.

Volunteering pathways are breaking down for family members

Some organisations in our research had clear routes or pathways for families to move into different roles, activities or wider forms of engagement. For instance, a pathway for young people to move on from participating in an activity to volunteering to help with the running of that activity.

However, it was also clear that pathways which in the past had helped to promote family volunteering have begun to break down due to societal changes, and, in part, to a lack of attention and/or leadership. In some organisations, for example, there used to be a ‘natural migration’ of parents moving from volunteering to help with their children’s activities into wider roles.

Question 4: Can you do more to help families balance volunteering with family life?

Fitting volunteering into a busy family life can be challenging

Volunteering is one of many roles and responsibilities that families juggle on an ongoing basis. Fitting volunteering in can be especially challenging when other responsibilities and activities take priority within families. Our research found that there are important gender dimensions to family volunteering too, which reflect those within wider society. This includes women often shouldering the responsibility for making volunteering fit within the family schedule.

Support within the family influences volunteering

The level of support provided by other family members affects the possibilities for and experiences of volunteering; this is critical if the volunteering role is particularly intense. Both practical and emotional support were found to be important in our research. Practically, a family member may, for example, directly help their partner or parents with a volunteering role.

Emotionally, families can be a source of encouragement for volunteering and recognition, a boost in confidence, an ear to listen to and a shoulder to cry on. In supportive families, volunteering was described as a ‘team effort’ but in others a lack of support can cause tensions and resentments. Some families, including some single-parent families, will have no or limited support from others to draw on for volunteering and will find it more challenging to fit volunteering in.

Flexibility can help families fit volunteering into their lives

Our research highlighted that organisations need to recognise that family life is increasingly busy and support their volunteers with this. Organisations and families felt that a key way to do so is by being flexible. This does not necessarily mean moving to short-term, episodic volunteering roles with no expectation of commitment; it means being specific about what levels of commitments are required and then being flexible in terms of how these are met. Some organisations, for example, offered:

  • greater flexibility in the duration and frequency of volunteering, recognising that different ‘working’ hours suit different people at different stages in their lives and that volunteers may be able to do more on some days than others
  • flexibility in who does the volunteering, recognising that families can share volunteering roles/responsibilities amongst themselves.

Family volunteering can help overcome family barriers and constraints

We found that family volunteering can help to overcome some of the barriers to volunteering by making it an extension of other roles and responsibilities or helping it to become part of ‘family time’. This included allowing parents to bring along their children when they are volunteering, encouraging family members to volunteer together or making sure volunteering is enjoyable for all so it becomes part of leisure time rather than competing with it.

Recognising and accommodating families in these kinds of ways helped to create a family-friendly environment within organisations. It is, however, important to remember that some people want to volunteer as part of ‘me time’, as something separate from other family members/commitments.

Question 5: How can you ensure that family volunteering is as inclusive as possible?

Family volunteering can help to engage different groups but can also exclude people

Family volunteering helped to widen participation for the organisations we spoke to, with the involvement of a more diverse range of volunteers – particularly children, and parents of young children. Creating a family-friendly atmosphere, providing flexibility opportunities, allowing children to be brought along and providing childcare facilities were all examples of how organisations felt they had achieved this.

However, some recognised that family volunteering could have the opposite effect and lead to the exclusion of some groups. Efforts at engaging mothers and their children, for example, had not been successful at involving men. There were also examples of ‘family takeover’, with certain families dominating an activity, group or organisation, which risked excluding and putting off others.

Question 6: How does the balance you are striking between risk management and being inclusive affect that the involvement of families in volunteering?

Concern over risk and regulation is a key barrier to family involvement in volunteering

A specific challenge for family volunteering is the management of risk and regulation (particularly safeguarding) and the wider processes of formalisation and professionalisation in organisations. These have tended to work against the flexibility that families need to get, and stay, involved in volunteering. In our research, the balance that organisations struck between risk and regulation, and flexibility and formality, influenced their approach to family involvement. Fears and uncertainties about what was and wasn’t allowed, particularly in terms of involving young people, had led some organisations to be particularly cautious.

Family members volunteering together can help reduce concerns over risk

On the whole, people felt that a growing amount of ‘red tape’ has created barriers to family volunteering. It was seen as increasingly difficult, for example, for parents to bring young children along with them when volunteering. Sometimes, organisations adopted blanket policies which ruled out volunteering by people under the age of 18 or 16, creating a direct barrier to some forms of family volunteering and limiting the potential to build pathways through participation. Developing specific family volunteering schemes was seen as one way to overcome some of these issues within a contained programme, enabling children and young people to get involved.

Question 7: How can you help to ensure that families, and your organisation, get the most out of volunteering?

Family influences and shapes an individual’s volunteering

Our research highlights the influence that family has on how and why people get involved in volunteering and how they experience it. Family can provide the reason for volunteering, the route in and the resources volunteers draw on (see figure 4). This is important for understanding not only the motivations of family volunteers and the factors that keep them volunteering, but also the barriers and constraints that they face. Family was a motivation for volunteering amongst many of those we spoke to in the research.

The reasons that people gave included those specifically related to their children or their sense of family and their role within the family unit. Family also provided triggers for, and routes into, volunteering. Lastly, family can provide resources to help (or hinder) a family member in their volunteering. This might be in the way that they share family chores to make time for volunteering or providing practical help. All of these factors can shape not only why and how family members volunteer, but also what they get out of the experience.

Figure 4: Family as a driver for volunteering

Family as a driver for volunteering

Family volunteers perceive a range of benefits from their volunteering

Volunteering can make a considerable difference to those families that get involved. It can be an enjoyable way to spend quality, meaningful, active time together. Perhaps more significantly, it can deepen the bonds between family members, providing a point of commonality and an expression of shared values and identity. It can be a route to new opportunities and experiences. However, it can also add to the stresses and strains of family life. When volunteering becomes too much – in time and/or energy – it can take its toll not just on those individuals directly involved, but also on the wider family.

Family volunteering can make a positive difference to organisations but also brings challenges

Family volunteering benefited the organisations, enabling them to bring in additional resource and diversity to their volunteer base, as well as support them in achieving their mission. For organisations focused on improving outcomes for families, family volunteering could be a direct way to achieving that: both through the volunteering itself and through what it achieved for others.

In other words, family volunteering was a means to an end as well as an end in itself. However, family volunteering did pose challenges for volunteer management. Alongside concerns about risk and regulation, replacing families that leave could pose challenges for organisations – when one family volunteer leaves, the whole family can stop volunteering, which risks leaving gaps within organisations. Organisations also suggested that the risk of conflict was higher when whole families were involved. Domestic tensions within families may bubble over into the organisation and create an uncomfortable environment for others.

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 01 September 2020