2. At a glance

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Volunteer participation

Section 3 highlights key ways in which people give unpaid help and explores how this has changed over recent years.

Summary of key findings

  • Wider data shows a trend of decline in formal volunteer participation. In our Time Well Spent 2023 research, the impact of the pandemic is evident in the decline in certain volunteering activities. These include raising money or taking part in sponsored events (11% in 2019 to 6% in 2023).
  • Volunteers continue to contribute to a range of causes, but most commonly to local community and neighbourhood groups (21% of recent volunteers), reflecting the surge of local activity in the pandemic.
  • Public sector volunteering has increased from 17% in 2019 to 23% in 2023, likely due to initiatives such as NHS Responders.
  • Volunteering remotely is now commonplace. Almost a third of volunteers (31%) say they volunteer online or over the phone. This is one of the most common ways in which people volunteer. 18% of recent volunteers do their volunteering exclusively remotely. Volunteering remotely is more common among disabled, compared with non-disabled people[1].

Volunteer motivations and values

Section 4 considers what motivates volunteers, and explores aspects of volunteering that volunteers and prospective volunteers believe are important.

Summary of key findings

  • While significant external events have affected many aspects of volunteering, the core motivation of ‘wanting to improve things / help people’ has not changed between 2019 and 2023.
  • For both volunteers and non-volunteers, ‘making a difference’ is reported as the most important aspect of volunteering. ‘Not feeling pressured to give time’ comes second.
  • Motivations and values vary by demographic. For example, a quarter (25%) of 18 to 24 year olds are motivated to volunteer because they think it will help them with their career or to gain a qualification.

Volunteer experience and impact

Section 5 looks at volunteers’ experiences and the impact volunteering has on them. It considers overall satisfaction rates but also includes more detailed findings on the experiences of different demographics.

Summary of key findings

  • 92% of recent formal volunteers say they are very or fairly satisfied with their volunteering experience. This is down slightly from 96% in 2019. They report positive impacts on their lives. This includes 89% saying they enjoy it and 75% saying it has improved their mental health and wellbeing.
  • While high overall, satisfaction continues to be lower among certain groups. Younger volunteers are less likely to be satisfied than older volunteers, with the most striking gap among those who are ‘very satisfied’ (30% of 18 to 24 year olds vs 66% of those aged 55 years or older). Additionally, public sector volunteers are less satisfied than those volunteering for civil society organisations (87% satisfied vs 94%). Disabled volunteers are also less satisfied than non-disabled volunteers (88% vs 94%).
  • The proportion of volunteers who agree that those giving unpaid help come from a wide range of backgrounds dropped from 73% in 2019 to 67% in 2023.
  • Encouragingly, satisfaction rates are equal among recent volunteers who volunteer by phone or online and those who do not (92% of people from both groups are satisfied).
  • Practices around reimbursing expenses remain variable. Just over half (55%) of recent formal volunteers say that their group, club or organisation would reimburse expenses, and an additional 16% say that they do not know. The proportion of volunteers who feel like their volunteering is too much like paid work, and that they have unreasonable expectations placed on them, has increased over time (19% to 26%, and 17% to 24% respectively).
  • More volunteers are using their skills in their volunteering than before, professional and otherwise. However, disabled volunteers are more likely to feel they have more skills to offer than the ones they currently use.

Volunteer retention

Section 6 explores why people continue or stop volunteering. Our research includes lapsed volunteers.

Summary of key findings

  • The likelihood of people continuing to volunteer over the next 12 months has dropped slightly, from 80% in 2019 to 77% in 2023.
  • The top three reasons for people continuing to volunteer reflect the motivations people cite for starting to volunteer. The group, club or organisation they help (46%), the difference they are making (46%), and commitment to the cause (41%) are the top reasons.
  • The main reason for people saying they are unlikely to continue volunteering is having less time due to changing circumstances (37% of those unlikely to continue).
  • While most people cite practical reasons for stopping volunteering, only a quarter (25%) of dissatisfied volunteers say they are likely to continue. Conversely, three-quarters (76%) of satisfied volunteers say they are likely to continue. Therefore, volunteer experience still matters for retention.

Barriers and enablers to volunteering

Section 7 considers things that are stopping people from volunteering, and might encourage them to get involved.

Summary of key findings

  • The primary barrier to volunteering among non-volunteers is not wanting to make an ongoing commitment. 34% of non-volunteers cite this.
  • Flexibility is valued highly. Flexibility on the time committed (30%) and flexibility about the way people give their unpaid time (26%) are the top things that would encourage non-volunteers to give unpaid help.
  • The negative financial impact of volunteering is an increasing concern. The percentage of participants who gave ‘I’d be worried I might end up out of pocket’ as a reason for not getting involved rose from 5% in 2019 to 14% in 2023. This was higher among 18 to 24 year olds (18%).
  • Almost three in 10 (28%) non-volunteers state that ‘nothing in particular’ would encourage them to get involved. Other ways non-volunteers say they would be encouraged to participate include if someone asks them directly to get involved (15%), and if they know what volunteering opportunities are available to them (12%).

Final reflections

In section 8, we share our overall thoughts on our research findings, including some of the questions they raise for discussion and debate.

Summary of key findings

We have a lot to celebrate

The high overall satisfaction rate of volunteers (92% feel ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ satisfied) is testament to the hard work of volunteer managers and others who have supported them through the last few challenging years. Encouragingly, those who volunteer online or by phone are as satisfied as those who do not. They also feel as much of a sense of belonging.

Some things haven’t changed

Despite the impact of significant external events on the day-to-day operations of volunteers, the ‘core’ of what gets people involved is the same as it was in 2019. Ultimately, people volunteer to make a difference, and because they are connected to the cause, group and organisation they choose to volunteer for. However, involvement also has to work practically for volunteers.

We have more work to do

Along with reasons to celebrate, the research findings raise challenges. They highlight signs of declining participation, satisfaction and likelihood to continue volunteering.

The continued lower satisfaction among young people is worrying, especially when looking to the future and in the context of some older volunteers not coming back post-pandemic. It is also disappointing that despite efforts in equity, diversity and inclusion, satisfaction remains lower among disabled volunteers, and a lower proportion of volunteers consider those volunteering around them to be from a wide range of backgrounds.

It is unsurprising that an increasing concern about being out of pocket has become a barrier to volunteering, but this needs to be addressed. The findings also indicate that a lack of flexibility is another key barrier. But most volunteers are happy, in practice, with the flexibility they are offered, so there is an opportunity to showcase this, along with positive experiences of remote volunteering.

There are opportunities to bring people into volunteering

The pressure that volunteers have been under in recent years, and its impact, is evident in this report. We need to acknowledge this.

Actively asking and showing people how they can volunteer may seem obvious, but it can provide a key route in for those not already involved. While these findings have not changed since 2019, they are arguably more important now than ever, especially in the context of a declining trend in volunteer participation.

We need to renew our focus on providing quality volunteer experiences

As we bring people into volunteering, we need to focus on offering and providing them with a quality experience, ensuring volunteering is still ‘time well spent’. We also need to reflect on what we can learn from recent years, so we can address challenges while seizing opportunities.

The last few years have shown us how quickly the volunteering landscape can change, and we should continue to expect changes ahead as we settle into the post-covid ‘new normal’. The Vision for Volunteering is a 10-year collaborative project designed to create a better future for volunteering. In helping us prepare for the future of volunteering, the Vision is taking exciting steps to propel the voluntary sector and volunteers in a new direction.

There’s more to consider

Based on our findings, there are some key questions for volunteer-involving and voluntary infrastructure organisations to consider:

  1. How can we remain versatile and continue to adapt to inevitable changes ahead, using lessons learned from the last few years?
  2. How can we celebrate and keep showing appreciation for the difference our volunteers make?
  3. How do we renew efforts to improve equity, diversity and inclusion?
  4. How can we address practical barriers to volunteering and, in particular, review and communicate our expenses policies?
  5. How can we create more opportunities to ask people to get involved, and showcase our flexible volunteering opportunities?

Reflections and questions for policy makers include:

  1. Volunteering is essential to our society, and we see here real challenges and opportunities. What role do national and local governments play in supporting and enabling volunteering? How can governments work in partnership with the voluntary, public and private sectors to improve engagement and reduce barriers? We explore some of these questions in a report published in 2021: Volunteering in England During Covid-19: The policy response and its impact.
  2. What short-term and long-term policy initiatives would best support the sector to act on our findings? How can legislation, regulation and funding be targeted over the coming years to reduce and remove barriers to volunteering? This is particularly important for younger people, disabled people and people who experience racism and discrimination.
  3. Volunteer expenses pose a significant barrier for many volunteers, particularly young people. Are there opportunities to explore how changes to mechanisms like the Approved Mileage Allowance Payment rate could encourage more people to volunteer?


  1. Please see the Appendix for definitions for disabled and non-disabled people.

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 27 June 2023