Volunteer participation

In this report, we use the term ‘global majority’ to refer to all ethnic groups except white British and other white groups, including white minorities.

Learn more in the language and definitions section.

The language of giving help

There are many ways people can give unpaid help. This is reflected in the variety of language used to describe volunteering. Our diverse understanding of volunteering is shaped by a range of cultural constructs.

While we've used terminology that we feel is best suited to the report findings, we recognise that our definitions of volunteering may not always reflect how people think about helping others, particularly in communities that are marginalised and experience structural inequality.

In recent years, volunteering practitioners and researchers have argued the language of volunteering should be ‘decolonialised’. This involves acknowledging the presence of similar concepts in wider cultures.

The United Nations has also led efforts to understand the range of unpaid help given in the global south (pdf, 20MB).

In the UK, there are some concepts and practices of giving unpaid help that are particularly shaped by culture and religion.

For example, Breakthrough's focus group research with British Bangladeshis and British Pakistanis found that volunteering activities were seen as simply part of ‘being a Muslim’ for some. In this context, discussions of volunteering were also often tightly bound up with ‘Zakat’, the mandatory giving of money to charity.

Another study of South Asians in the UK found that volunteering was seen as an act of faith. This was embodied in the term ‘seva’, meaning ‘selfless serving’, or providing a connection to others.

Further research will help us understand the different ways volunteering is conceptualised in a range of cultural and religious contexts, and how it shapes volunteer expectations and experiences.

Volunteer participation among the global majority

While we recognise the challenges of defining volunteering, we have some existing data on participation rates among the global majority. The Community Life Survey is the most reliable source of data, especially when looking at participation rates over time.

When the Community Life Survey started measuring volunteering rates there were bigger gaps in participation across ethnic groups. Since then, rates became steady and gaps narrowed.

For example, 45% of white respondents, 40% of Asian respondents and 53% of black respondents formally volunteered once a year in 2013/14, compared to 27%, 25% and 30% in 2021/22.

Volunteering rates dropped in 2020/21. This could be due to the pandemic, however we do not have enough evidence to confirm this.

Formal volunteering participation has declined across almost all ethnic groups.

There has been a consistent decline in rates of formal volunteering across all ethnic groups from 2013/14 to 2021/22, although some ethnic groups experienced more fluctuation than others.

Chart 1 below shows that rates of volunteering have decreased sharply for those identifying as black. In 2020/21 about a quarter (23%) of black people volunteered at least once a month. This has dropped to 15% in 2021/22.

However, volunteering rates have increased between 2020/21 and 2021/22 for those identifying as being from a mixed ethnic group.

The number of people volunteering at least once in the last 12 months has fluctuated over the years. As seen in regular volunteering (at least once a month), all ethnic groups’ participation declined in 2020/21. With the exception of the mixed ethnic group, rates have not recovered in 2021/22 even as covid restrictions lifted[1].

A number of wider studies focused on how the global majority took part in volunteering during the covid-19 pandemic. The evidence is somewhat mixed.

For example, the Community Life re-contact survey found that global majority groups (referred to as ‘ethnic minorities (excluding white minorities)’ in the survey) were more likely to start volunteering formally during the first four months of the pandemic compared with those from a white background (12% compared to 8%).

Other evidence from the Centre for Ageing Better's study (pdf, 1MB) has shown that global majority volunteers were more likely to stop volunteering between July and November 2020 (10% compared to 5%).

The lowest formal volunteering participation rates are among those who identify as Asian.

As seen in chart 1 above, while volunteering among those identifying as black has dropped most sharply in recent years, the lowest formal volunteering participation rates overall within the global majority are those identifying as Asian.

10% volunteer formally once a month and 25% once a year in the latest data (2021/22). This can be seen in both regular (at least once in the last month) and occasional (at least once in the last year) volunteering.

Leeds Beckett University’s Jump research (pdf, 376KB) has suggested that lower rates of formal volunteering among the global majority has been driven by the under-representation of British Asians in formal volunteering.

Global majority volunteers compared with volunteers overall

Global majority volunteers tend to be younger, more religious and are more likely to live in urban areas.

Our Time Well Spent data highlights that global majority volunteers have a number of distinct features compared to volunteers overall. They are:

  • younger, aged 18‒34 (46% vs 31%)
  • more likely to be in paid employment (68% vs 59%) and to have children under 18 (47% vs 29%)
  • more likely to have a particular religion (75% vs 47%). This is particularly the case for black volunteers (83%) and Asian volunteers (80%), and less so for those from a mixed ethnic background
  • more likely to live in urban areas[2] (94% vs 76%).

There is also an indication that the way age and disability interact looks different for global majority volunteers. Global majority volunteers aged 18‒34 are more likely to be disabled compared with volunteers overall (39% compared with 26%).

Wider research highlights the importance of viewing experiences through the lens of intersectionality and the effect of different socio-demographic factors on participation in volunteering. These include gender, age and socio-economic status.

For example, Jump's analysis of the Understanding Society and Community Life Survey (pdf, 376KB) highlights that:

  • people from lower socio-economic groups are less likely to volunteer than those from higher socio-economic groups. This socio-economic difference is also present within the global majority
  • older individuals (aged over 46) in the global majority are less likely to volunteer compared to both older white British, and younger global majority and white British groups.

The authors point to how this suggests that lower levels of global majority volunteering are partly driven by older individuals.[3]

Demographic differences by ethnic group

The global majority population is a diverse group containing multiple ethnic groups. It is important to acknowledge that there are distinct differences among the global majority volunteer population.

Black volunteers compared to global majority volunteers overall

  • More likely to have a particular religion (83% vs 75%)
  • Less likely to have a disability (26% vs 35%)
  • Relatively less likely to be younger, aged 18-34 (38% vs 46%)

Asian volunteers compared to global majority volunteers overall

  • More likely to have a particular religion (80% vs 74%).

Differences between volunteers from Indian and Pakistani backgrounds[4]

  • Volunteers from Indian ethnic group are relatively older (22% aged 55+ vs 15%) and more likely to be disabled (53% vs 35%).
  • Volunteers from the Pakistani ethnic group are younger (6% aged 55+ vs 15%) and more likely to have a particular religion (93% vs 74%).

Volunteers from mixed ethnic backgrounds compared to global majority volunteers overall

  • Relatively younger, aged 18‒34 (63% vs 46%)
  • More identify as disabled (42% vs 35%)

Volunteering activities

Global majority volunteers are involved in a range of volunteer activities.

Some roles are more common among global majority volunteers aged 55 and over. These include:

  • leading a group, being a trustee or committee member (35%)
  • representing a group (29%)
  • providing transport/driving (23%).

On the other hand, younger volunteers aged 18–24 are more likely to do activities like campaigning on behalf of a group (21%).

Leadership representation

Global majority volunteers are slightly underrepresented in leadership positions.

Our data has found that global majority volunteers are less likely than volunteers overall to:

  • organise/help run activity or event (27% vs. 32%)
  • raise money/take part in sponsored events (18% vs. 24%)
  • lead a group/be a trustee or member of a committee (21% vs. 26%)
  • get other people involved (17% vs. 21%)
  • provide transport/driving (14% vs. 20%)
  • represent the group at meetings or events (17% vs. 25%).

In comparison, some volunteer activities are more common among the global majority. These are:

  • giving advice/information/counselling (29% vs. 26%)
  • befriending and mentoring people (20% vs. 15%)
  • keeping in touch with someone (20% vs. 17%)
  • handling money for sponsored events (12% vs. 8%).

These comparisons show that some volunteering activities that come with organisational responsibilities and leadership – such as representing and leading the group – are less common among the global majority.

Existing case studies have suggested that the global majority are significantly underrepresented in leadership roles.

Charity Commission research (pdf, 1.3MB) found that 92% of trustees in England and Wales are white.

Research by Reach Volunteering has suggested that despite a strong appetite for leadership, the global majority are less likely to be given responsibilities when volunteering[5].

Volunteering areas and causes

Global majority volunteers are most likely to contribute to health and disability, religion, and local community groups.

Global majority volunteers who exclusively volunteer remotely (online or over the phone) are more likely to volunteer for:

  • children’s education causes (28% remote volunteers vs 16% those who volunteer in-person)
  • education for adults (24% remote vs 13% in-person)
  • political organisations (23% remote vs 10% in-person).

Global majority volunteers are over twice as likely to volunteer for a religious cause.

Among volunteers overall, local community and neighbourhood groups, and health, disability and social welfare groups are most popular. However, the prominence of religious belief among the global majority is visible. Religion is a much more popular cause for global majority volunteers (21% vs 10% volunteers overall).

Black volunteers are more likely than Asian volunteers to give time to a religious organisation (39% vs. 16%). This seems primarily to be driven by black volunteers who identify as African (45%).

Volunteering sector

Global majority volunteers mostly volunteer for civil society organisations (45%). However, they are less likely to volunteer for civil society organisations compared with volunteers overall (45% vs 60%). They are more likely to volunteer for public (29% vs 23%) and private sector organisations (19% vs 11%).

There are some demographic differences within global majority volunteers.

  • Those aged 18‒34 are less likely to volunteer in civil society organisations (35%) compared with those aged 35‒54 (50%) and 55 and over (58%).
  • Women are more likely to volunteer for civil society organisations than men (51% vs. 37%). There are no notable differences between ethnic groups.
  • Disabled volunteers are more likely than non-disabled volunteers to volunteer for public sector organisations (43% vs. 20%). However, they are less likely to volunteer for civil society organisations (35% vs. 52%).

The intersection of age and disability with volunteering sector differs between global majority volunteers and volunteers overall.

  • Compared with volunteers overall, in all three sectors the proportion of global majority volunteers who are aged 55 and over is considerably lower (civil society: 20% are aged 55+ vs 45%, public: 12% vs 24% and private sector: 10% vs 27%). This is linked to the younger age profile of global majority volunteers overall, as discussed in the demographic differences section above.
  • Volunteers from the global majority in the public sector were slightly more likely to be aged 18‒34 than overall volunteers in the public sector (53% vs. 41%).
  • Global majority volunteers in the public sector are more likely to be disabled compared to volunteers overall (54% vs. 33%). There is no difference in the number of disabled global majority volunteers and disabled volunteers overall in either civil society or the private sector.

These interactions are interesting to consider when we look at volunteer satisfaction and impact.

Location of volunteering activities

Geographic location

Over two-thirds of the global majority volunteer locally.

67% of global majority volunteers carry out volunteering in their neighbourhood.

Just under one-third (31%) volunteer outside their neighbourhood (still in the UK), and a smaller proportion (15%) volunteer outside the UK. (Note, survey respondents could select more than one option).

Demographic differences

  • Volunteering in their neighbourhood is particularly common for older global majority volunteers (85% of those aged 55 and over).
  • Younger volunteers aged 18‒34 are more likely than older volunteers to give unpaid help outside of the UK (18% vs. 0%).
  • Male volunteers are twice as likely than female volunteers to volunteer outside of the UK (20% vs 10%).

There is no statistically significant difference between ethnic groups within the global majority or between disabled and non-disabled volunteers.

Volunteers overall mostly volunteer in their neighbourhood, but even more so than global majority volunteers (76% vs. 67%). Older volunteers, regardless of ethnicity, prefer to volunteer in their neighbourhood.

Volunteers from the global majority are also more likely to volunteer outside the UK than volunteers overall (15% vs. 3%).

Type of location/venue

Compared with volunteers overall, global majority volunteers are more likely to volunteer in a place of worship (15% vs. 10%) but slightly less likely to volunteer in a community place (33% vs. 37%).

Demographic differences

  • Remote volunteering online or by phone is more common for older global majority volunteers, with slightly less than half (47%) of volunteers aged 55 and over volunteering this way.
  • Slightly less than a quarter (24%) of global majority volunteers aged 18‒24 volunteer at school. This shows the popularity of school-led volunteering.
  • Global majority volunteers from higher socio-economic groups[6] (ABC1) are more likely to volunteer in a community space (37%) and remotely (39%) than those from lower socio-economic groups (C2DE) (22% and 27% respectively).
  • Disabled global majority volunteers are far more likely to volunteer from home, without technology (i.e. not online or over the phone). About a quarter (27%) of disabled global majority volunteers choose to volunteer in this way compared to 12% of those who are not disabled. About one in five (22%) of disabled global majority volunteers also volunteer in someone else’s home. These findings indicate that domestic environments, whether their home or someone else’s, may meet the accessible needs of disabled volunteers.


  1. The lifting of restrictions happened in various stages over the course of 2021 and 2022.

    All official restrictions were finally lifted in February 2022 in England, and in March 2022 in Scotland and Wales. This included the need to self-isolate.

    Free mass testing stopped in spring 2022. In summer 2022, mass events that had been cancelled in previous years started again, and the rest of the year largely saw society return to ‘normal’.

  2. For the definition of rural/urban areas, please see the Rural Urban Classification.

  3. Note that this research uses data from the Community Life Survey 2010-15.

  4. Differences relating to these groups have been highlighted as sufficient sample size allows us to draw out these insights.

  5. For details of social groups classification, see the appendix.

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 28 November 2023