1. At a glance

This section provides an overview of each of the main sections of this report, including a summary of key findings.


  • This report on volunteering and diversity is the third in a series of focused reports building on our Time Well Spent research, which looks at this topic from an organisational perspective.
  • The report draws on further analysis of the Time Well Spent data, workshops carried out with organisations, phone interviews, follow up feedback and existing literature.
  • The research was carried out predominantly before March 2020, with some follow up data collection taking place in the second half of the year in order to understand the potential impact of covid-19 and global anti-racism mobilisations on this topic.
  • The research, which focuses on formal volunteering, aims to understand what diversity means to organisations, to explore their journey towards greater diversity in practice, to reflect on and share any lessons learned, and to identify areas for subsequent research

What does volunteer participation look like?

  • A brief review of literature shows that organisational approaches to diversity are shifting. Research about diversity and volunteering has consistently found that organisations need to do more to address this issue. Research has also shown that issues around diversity and volunteering are linked to wider inequalities, power structures, service users and delivery, perceptions of volunteering, leadership and volunteer management frameworks.
  • There continues to be disparities in who volunteers through groups, clubs and organisations. The most significant differences in who participates relate to socio-economic status and education levels.
  • Participation by ethnicity shows a mixed picture whereas there is little variation in participation based on disability overall. Young people, Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) volunteers and disabled people are more likely to have a less positive experience of volunteering and BAME volunteers have lower levels of satisfaction as volunteers. Disabled volunteers are more likely to say volunteering had negatively impacted their health and wellbeing than non-disabled people.
  • Research on volunteering, and on participation more broadly, consistently indicates that inequalities of resources and unequal power structures mean that some people are more likely to be excluded from certain activities.
  • There are some notable differences by demographics in the types of activities undertaken and inequalities are evident, particularly in leadership or representative roles such as trustees.
  • Among those who hadn’t recently volunteered and who felt they could be encouraged to volunteer, being flexible with the time committed was the key factor cited by all groups, whether they had volunteered or not.

How diversity is viewed by organisations

  • Organisations view diversity in relation to their values (or culture), the actions and approach that their organisation takes in addressing diversity issues or in terms of what getting diversity right enables them to achieve as an organisation (outcomes).
  • Talking about diversity is a ‘starting point’ – but there are differing levels of confidence when it comes to knowing how to talk about issues relating to diversity for organisations.
  • Some organisations have dedicated ‘EDI’ teams or roles, but for many, diversity is one small part among many areas within their role or remit.
  • Organisations have a variety of practical measures in place to address diversity within their organisation – but creating an inclusive culture is equally important.
  • Since this year’s anti-racism mobilisation, organisations are more likely to talk about the importance of embedding diversity within their organisation.

Organisational experiences with diversity and volunteering

  • Most organisations feel that diversity is a ‘work in progress’ and see themselves as taking small steps on a long journey.
  • Organisations tend to have two approaches to strategic volunteer recruitment: that volunteers should reflect their service users (for some this means lived experience) or volunteers should broadly reflect the community or locality they are based in. However, some organisations do not take a strategic approach to recruitment but rather rely on whoever ‘shows up’ and they often note that they are ‘open to everyone’.
  • There is sometimes a clear gap between interest and action when it comes to addressing diversity issues, and organisations varied in how much they prioritised diversity. But there was a general sense that it is now higher on the agenda in the current context. While interest in diversity may have increased, organisations talked about having fewer resources to make significant changes as a result of covid-19.

What are the key issues and learnings?

  • Embedding inclusion and diversity in the organisation in multiple ways builds common understanding and shared values across the organisation. To address imbalances of power, diversity and inclusion need to be valued, prioritised or strategically embedded throughout the organisation. Being honest and authentic is a good first step. It is also important for organisations to engage volunteers in their diversity journey.
  • If governing bodies and senior staff embrace diversity, it is more likely to be prioritised, resourced, and embedded in volunteering and across the organisation. It is important to take a ‘whole organisation’ approach to this, rather than a siloed approach.
  • Low levels of staff capacity and shrinking financial resources can be a barrier for implementing diversity but creating an inclusive volunteer environment does not have to be costly.
  • Developing flexible roles that fit around the diverse lives of volunteers, their needs and motivations can help to remove barriers to participation and make volunteering more accessible to a wider group of people. The ‘home-grown’ model of volunteering (which builds volunteer roles around the individual) may be more inclusive than the ‘modern’ volunteer model (which recruits volunteers around pre-defined roles).
  • Staff and volunteers who are resistant to change or who hold prejudiced attitudes create a closed culture that is not inclusive. Educating and training staff and volunteers on the value and importance of inclusion is vital, as is creating clear processes and expectations to challenge bias and discriminatory behaviour.
  • Many organisations struggle to collect and analyse data about volunteers but those who do are in a better position to create a diverse volunteer base.
  • Building trusted relationships in communities helps to create positive opinions and encourage volunteer engagement.

Concluding reflections and implications

  • Discussions about volunteering and diversity are not new and this is a complex area with wide variation between organisational realities. We have seen that organisations are at different stages on their individual journeys towards inclusion and diversity.
  • Most organisations do not view diversity through a singular lens and understand the importance of intersectionality in relation to identity and volunteering.
  • The events of 2020 have increased the appetite for embedding diversity within organisations and volunteering. The impact of covid-19 on volunteering is not fully known and it is likely that the pandemic has had both a positive and negative effect on volunteering.
  • Vision and strategies are not enough. Culture matters just as much if not more than organisational processes. Building a culture of respect and celebration of difference are key elements of inclusive volunteering.
  • While recognising that volunteers have differing needs and aspirations, the research suggests a number of key features that help to create more inclusive volunteering and have identified key questions for organisations to reflect on and consider:
    • Where in the journey toward inclusive volunteering is your organisation?
    • Are your organisational structures supporting diversity and inclusive volunteering?
    • Which volunteering framework makes sense for your organisation?
    • Does the volunteer management of your organisation support diversity?
    • Have you considered how you are perceived by those external to the organisation and how this impacts on your volunteering diversity?

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 17 December 2020