1. Introduction

1.1. About the Time Well Spent research programme

Time Well Spent is NCVO’s biggest research programme on people’s experiences of volunteering. With a better understanding, we aim to provide rich and practical insights that will inform practice and policy, address knowledge gaps, and generate new evidence.

Our first report, Time Well Spent: A national survey on the volunteer experience, was published in 2019 and based on 2018 survey data of 10,103 adults across Great Britain. It explored volunteer participation, motivations and barriers to volunteering, the quality of people’s experiences, and the impact of volunteering.

We published a further four reports between 2019 and 2022, which focused on different areas of interest, based on the original data and additional qualitative research:

Time Well Spent 2023 is the first of a new series of reports, based on another large-scale, nationally representative survey we conducted during November and December 2022. This time we heard from 7,006 members of the public in Great Britain (more detail in the Appendix). We also surveyed a boost sample from respondents who are part of ethnic minority communities, but their responses are yet to be analysed and reported on, and are therefore not covered in this report.

Time Well Spent 2023 has been designed to compare with the original 2019 survey. It also aims to complement existing research such as the government’s 2021/22 Community Life Survey and many recent projects by academic and voluntary sector partners, some of which are cited in this report.

The original Time Well Spent series came out of an identified need to fill a gap in research and evidence, namely an in-depth understanding of the experience of volunteers. This new series continues the same focus, building particularly on the initial findings from our Time Well Spent: Impact of covid-19 on the volunteer experience report, released in 2022.

1.2. Context of this research

Since the last Time Well Spent survey was carried out, among other events, we have seen an economic and political crisis, a global pandemic, and increased support for social justice movements. These have inevitably impacted the way people volunteer.


The outbreak of covid-19 in 2020 forced organisations to drastically rethink the way people volunteer and the activities they get involved in. For some, this included moving towards more virtual volunteering, or changing the nature of volunteering so people could deliver essential services.

Volunteers had an unprecedented sense of purpose in local communities, and the boundaries between formal volunteering (unpaid help to groups, clubs and organisations) and informal volunteering (unpaid help to individuals who are not a relative) became more blurred, especially with the rise of mutual aid groups[1]. In its blog on the future of mutual aid groups, LSE (The London School of Economics and Political Science) estimates there are around 4,300 mutual aid groups in the UK.

A significant part of this report focuses on the experience of recent volunteers, defined as those who have given unpaid help in the last 12 months, covering the period from November/December 2021 to November/December 2022. This was a period of transition, spanning a time with some restrictions (for example, face masks and limits on large scale events) still in place in December 2021 in response to the Omicron variant, to the lifting of all official restrictions (in February 2022 in England and March 2022 in Scotland and Wales), including the need to self-isolate. Free mass testing stopped in spring 2022. In the summer, mass events that had been cancelled in previous years started again, and the rest of the year largely saw society return to ‘normal’.

An abundance of research has been dedicated to the impact of the pandemic on volunteering, including projects such as:

Many of these projects give a mixed picture and the full effects are yet to be seen.

While the pandemic may have the most lasting impact on volunteering in recent history, other events and changes have also affected the voluntary sector and volunteering.


There is an estimated shortfall of 330,000 workers resulting from Brexit, according to recent research cited in this Financial Times article. This poses a capacity and recruitment challenge for the voluntary sector.

Global movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo

These have put a spotlight on issues relating to equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI). In the Respond, Recover, Reset research report published in July 2021, almost three-quarters (74%) of voluntary organisations surveyed said they had plans to address EDI in their organisation, and 59% of these had revised their EDI approach since March 2020.

The outbreak of the Ukraine war

This saw the public mobilise in a time of crisis, with Guinness World Records citing record-breaking donations to the Disasters Emergency Committee, and tens of thousands of people volunteering to host over 100,000 Ukrainian refugees.

The cost of living crisis

This has had a major effect on society, and in turn a huge ongoing impact on volunteers and charities across the country. High inflation has created a surge of people needing support from voluntary organisations. At the same time, voluntary organisations have been grappling with their own increased costs, especially in light of rising energy prices and fewer donations. The Charities Aid Foundation explores the latter in its UK Giving Report 2023.

Evidence of the impact and scale of the cost of living crisis is still being gathered, but we have seen a negative impact on the wellbeing of service users, staff and volunteers. This impact is explored in more detail in Volunteer Scotland's bulletin: The Cost of Living and Wellbeing Crisis: Impact on volunteering and volunteers, and in our Road Ahead 2023 series.

A fundamental change in how we work

ONS data shows that throughout 2022, two in five adults (35–40%) worked from home at some point in the past seven days. And our Time to Flex: Embracing flexible working report highlights a growing interest in how to implement more flexible working in voluntary organisations, for both paid staff and volunteers.

How we socialise has changed

As explored in this article by the Guardian, since the covid-19 pandemic outbreak we have seen a decrease in the number of people going out and a rise in the number of people staying at home. It is still unclear if these trends will fully bounce back to pre-pandemic levels.

1.3. Overall aims

We want everyone involved in volunteering to have a positive experience. But we can only improve experiences if we can measure and understand them. The government’s Community Life Survey helps us understand what volunteering looks like at a national level. Our Time Well Spent research goes beyond this, and was funded specifically to provide an in-depth exploration of the experience of volunteers.

This latest Time Well Spent report recognises the significant change in the external context since the original survey, and the need to understand its impact on volunteering and the volunteer experience. This research therefore focuses on the following key question:

What does volunteering and, in particular, the volunteer experience look like now?

We explore aspects such as:

  • motivations to volunteer
  • enablers and barriers to volunteering (including among people who do not volunteer)
  • satisfaction of volunteers
  • perceptions of volunteer management and organisations that involve volunteers
  • the impact of volunteering on volunteers.

As part of this, we explore what has and has not changed since the last Time Well Spent survey (2019). In section 1.5 (below) we explain how we will refer to the previous and most recent survey throughout the rest of this report.

From our findings, we aim to identify learnings and questions that can shape how we make volunteering a quality experience for everyone.

1.4. Our approach

The findings in this report are based on a survey of 7,006 adults aged 18 and over in Great Britain, through YouGov’s online panel. The sample was recruited to be nationally representative according to key demographics including age, gender, education level and social grade. The survey ran from 23 November to 6 December 2022. Read the Appendix for more detail on the methodology, sample and limitations.

In order to make comparisons between the 2019 and 2023 surveys, we kept most of our questions consistent across both surveys. However, some questions were amended to reflect the current volunteering context. This included questions about participation, which were changed to include informal volunteering, as well as some specific questions linked to the covid-19 pandemic. We explain these changes further in the Appendix.

Where there are limitations as a result of these changes, we highlight them in this report. We have also brought in wider research to support these findings where necessary. To mitigate the impact of questionnaire changes, we kept our survey population and recruitment methods consistent across both time periods.

Throughout the report, we only report differences that are statistically significant.

1.5. Definitions of terms used throughout this report

Our understanding of volunteering is constantly evolving, and its definition is different for different people. For consistency and comparability, this report follows the definition of formal and informal volunteering given in the Community Life Survey:

  • Formal volunteering: unpaid help someone gives to groups, clubs or organisations.
  • Informal volunteering: unpaid help someone gives another person who is not a relative, and which is not given through a group, club or organisation.

We wanted to make the survey as accessible as possible so that respondents could present their experience accurately. While we use the term ‘volunteering’ throughout the report, in the survey we used the phrase ‘unpaid help’. This helped ensure that people did not limit their responses to one type of volunteering.

We also refer to different types of volunteers:

  • Recent formal volunteers: people who have given unpaid help through a group, club or organisation in the last 12 months. At the time of fieldwork, this referred to the period between December 2021 and November 2022. Note that if someone gives their time to multiple organisations, in this report the findings relate to their main experience of volunteering, unless stated otherwise.
  • Lapsed volunteers: people who have not given unpaid help in the last 12 months, but have in the last three years.
  • Non-volunteers: people who have never volunteered, or have not volunteered in the last three years.

The fieldwork for the two Time Well Spent surveys was carried out in 2018 and 2022. But for consistency we will refer to them under the year each respective report was published: 2019 and 2023.

1.6. Scope of this report

As with the 2019 survey, we gathered so much data that it would not be possible to share all our findings in a single report. This report will therefore be the first in a series of different outputs based on this dataset.

This report focuses primarily on formal volunteering (volunteering through groups, clubs and organisations), so we can draw comparisons between our findings in 2019 and 2023. We know that informal volunteering played an important role during the pandemic, so we also included it in this year’s survey. However, we will explore it in a subsequent report.

This report also mainly explores the collective experience of volunteers, but includes specific analysis of different demographics and types of volunteering where findings are noteworthy. To address our particular interest in the experience of ethnic minority communities, we have included a boost sample in this year’s survey. However, we will analyse and report on this separately.

1.7. Acknowledgements

The Time Well Spent 2023 report series has been funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. In addition to the financial support, NCVO is grateful for the department’s support and contributions.

Additional thanks go to Kim Donahue and Véronique Jochum for their research and writing contributions, Bradley Fern from NCVO for data analysis support, and to Catherine Goodall, Chris Walker and Helen Tourle from NCVO for reviewing the final report.


  1. A mutual aid group is ‘a volunteer-led initiative where groups of people in a particular area join together to support one another, meeting vital community needs without relying on official bodies’.

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 27 June 2023