2. Introduction

This section provides background to the report. It outlines the key aims and approach to the research and includes a note on definitions.

2.1 About this report

This research on volunteering and diversity (also covering inclusion and equality) is the third in a series of reports focused on key themes from Time Well Spent, based on a national survey of over 10,000 people across Britain on the volunteer experience. The first of these reports was released in June 2019 on employer-supported volunteering and the second in January 2020 on volunteering in the public sector. The aim of these thematic reports is to look at specific areas in more detail, building on the findings from Time Well Spent and drawing on both new and existing research.

We recognise that diversity is a subject that encompasses a broad range of areas and is a complex and sensitive issue. It includes multiple identities and intersectionality including age, gender, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, socio-economic status and education (often used as proxies for social class). In the context of volunteering all these can be explored from a number of perspectives including that of current and lapsed volunteers, non-volunteers, and volunteer-involving organisations.

Given the breadth and complexity of the subject area, we will likely explore this topic in stages: this first stage looks at diversity and volunteering primarily from the organisational perspective and any future stages will likely take a more focused approach on the experience of volunteers. This report outlines the findings from the first stage of our research.

2.2 Scope, approach and limitations of this research

This report focuses on the organisational journey related to diversity and volunteering in a UK context. By this we mean the process and steps organisations take towards more inclusive volunteering while understanding that there is not necessarily one destination and recognising that there are likely to be many paths.

The focus in this report is on the specific volunteering context in relation to diversity and by design does not include wider but related issues (such as pay gaps, staff recruitment, etc.). However many of the issues and actions are broader than our focus on volunteering and will have a wider impact on organisations in general.

Many organisations, including NCVO, are currently reviewing their internal practices and prioritising equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) work.

Throughout the report we attempt to take an asset-based approach to the topic; to both celebrate examples of diversity and inclusive volunteering and to generate discussion and reflection about inclusion within volunteer-involving organisations. We know that organisations will be at different stages on their journey towards inclusive volunteering and there will not be a one size fits all answer to making volunteering truly open and inviting to all.

It is important to keep in mind when reading this report that much of the fieldwork and data gathered for the research took place before the key events of this year (pre-March 2020) and so reflects organisational and staff perspectives from that time; although we have included additional analysis and data from after this time where possible.

One of the limitations of this research is the small amount of data we have post covid-19 and after the global anti-racism movement took off. It was not possible within the time frame to add significant amounts of data to the research, but this would be an important area for further study.

This report is based on findings from the Time Well Spent research as well as qualitative data from fieldwork with over 50 volunteer-involving organisations. The organisations and staff who participated in this research are not necessarily a representative sample of the voluntary sector in the UK. Some participants self-selected (see section 2.4), but researchers also carried out a number of interviews with experts and representatives of organisations who support minority communities such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI+) groups, disability support groups and organisations that support groups within the Black community.

While the data from Time Well Spent adds to the body of knowledge about who volunteers in terms of ethnicity, age, disability and socio-economic status, it is important to recognise that it has limited information on LGBTQI+ volunteers or volunteering within specific minority ethnic or religious groups.

Within the report we attempt to provide balanced analysis of the data. However, we acknowledge that different demographic groups have varying amounts of related data and that organisations we spoke to focus on some groups more than others. Some of this is context driven and based on current topics in the sector. For example, within the report there is slightly more discussion about ethnicity, which reflects the discussions we had with organisations and reminds us that context matters in our research.

We acknowledge that structural racism and discrimination exist within both the voluntary sector and volunteering, as it does in wider society. The #CharitySoWhite campaign has effectively highlighted this issue recently, as have others. Given that large parts of the voluntary sector were built on foundations of social justice and fairness, debates and actions in the sector about diversity and volunteering are particularly relevant. We hope that this research will contribute to the discussion and inspire further action within volunteer-involving organisations in the voluntary sector and in all other contexts.

2.3 Overall aims

The overall aim of this research is to look in greater depth at diversity and volunteering in order to inform practice on the ground as well as strategic decision-making and help organisations address this important issue.

This stage of the research aims to improve understanding of organisations’ experiences of diversity and volunteering.

The specific research aims are to:

  • understand what diversity means to volunteer-involving organisations
  • explore their journey of addressing diversity issues in practice, from engaging and recruiting volunteers to managing and supporting them, right through to when they leave
  • highlight lessons learned from organisations’ experience that can be shared and applied more widely, including how choices are made within organisations; and what has worked well as well as the challenges and barriers to progress
  • identify areas of focus for any subsequent stages of research.

2.4 Our methods

This research draws on numerous data sources, as summarised below. More detail can be found in the appendix (section 8).

Much of the research for this report took place before the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic as the report was originally due to be published in the spring of 2020. Due to these circumstances, the project was paused for several months. When it resumed, a small amount of data gathering took place in the summer and autumn of 2020, because the environment had changed so significantly, and we wanted to explore how events had impacted organisations’ views and approach towards diversity and volunteering.

This has resulted in a report with two halves: a before and after. We have tried to make this as clear as possible in the report, but it is worth bearing in mind that much of the findings are based on data gathered before March 2020.

This research draws on the following key sources of data:

  • Scoping and reviewing existing evidence: including collating relevant findings from Time Well Spent on the volunteer perspective, and other key research and evidence on diversity and volunteering. This was to understand how organisations are talking about diversity and inclusion in relation to volunteering (via organisational websites and social media) and to identify key networks and individuals to speak to for stakeholder interviews.
  • Engagement with organisations via workshops and digital forms: this included three workshops (two in London, one in Bristol) and 69 digital forms (some of these were completed by those attending workshops) from organisations to better understand their perspectives and experiences of diversity. It is worth noting that participants from organisations ranged from CEOs to volunteer managers and included organisations of all sizes and types in both the voluntary and public sectors. In some cases, participants were able to speak on behalf of the organisation but in others, staff were solely expressing their individual point of view.
  • Phone interviews with key stakeholders: networks, organisations and individuals were identified who have specialised knowledge and experience within the topic area of diversity. The aim of these interviews was to get a wider understanding of these issues from an overall perspective rather than from a specific organisation. A total of 12 interviews were conducted. The first round of interviews with seven participants were conducted in early 2020, before covid-19, and another round of interviews with five participants in the autumn of 2020 to understand how organisational approaches to diversity in volunteering may have changed in light of global events.
  • Follow-up questions via email: in the context of these events, organisations that took part in workshops and first round of interviews were asked follow-up questions about any changes to organisational approaches since March as well as any further reflections about diversity and volunteering. There was a total of 13 responses via email between July and October 2020.
  • Major events from this year led us to collect evidence outside of the literature; we gathered data from news sources, podcasts, blogs and more recent discussions with organisations to inform the two spotlight sections which look at the impact of covid-19 and global anti-racism activism on volunteering.

The data from all sources were collated and analysed together to inform the findings of this report.

2.5 A note on definitions

The title of this report refers to diversity and volunteering, but we recognise this terminology is imperfect. In the context of this report, it is meant to encompass and reflect how organisations themselves think about and act on the topic and issues relating to diversity and volunteering. Part of this research includes looking at the terms used by organisations, which is discussed in section 4.1.

Throughout the report, we use the term volunteering to refer to formal volunteering, which is the focus of this report. There is, of course, a great deal of volunteering that happens informally, through mutual aid and via neighbours, but the remit of Time Well Spent research focuses on formal ways of giving time and helping others through groups, clubs or organisations. In addition, the following terms related to volunteering are used:

  • Regular or frequent volunteers: people who have given unpaid help at least once a month.
  • Recent volunteers: those who have given unpaid help in the last 12 months.
  • Lived experience: the experience(s) of volunteers on whom a social issue, or combination of issues, has had a direct impact’.

We use the term organisation to refer mainly to volunteer-involving organisations, as the focus of this report is on organisations and other bodies that involve volunteers. On the whole these organisations are from the voluntary sector or the public sector.

We define diversity to be the visible and invisible differences between people and groups of people, and within groups. It also takes into account, valuing and respecting those differences. For more information on this term, please see the Equally Ours glossary.

We use the term inclusion specifically to refer to the practices and processes undertaken by organisations and volunteer programmes to welcome and include all sections of society.

We use the term equity to refer to a concept of fairness or parity, for example equality of outcome or supporting volunteers based on their individual needs. This contrasts with equality, which we use to mean treating people the same, for example treating all volunteers the same and this does not necessarily take into account individual needs.

In this report, we use the above terms as appropriate, based on their definitions, but we also use diversity as a shorthand term to include equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) work generally and in the widest sense, specifically to refer to the range of identities and communities that organisations are engaging with or hope to engage with.

We also recognise the need to discuss these issues through the lens of intersectionality, as people have multiple identities and do not view themselves as belonging solely to solely one identity. Analysis of data, however, often lends itself to the examination of single layers, but we have taken an intersectional approach where possible.

Many have criticised the use of terms like 'Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME)' and 'diversity' as no longer fit for purpose. The term BAME in particular is problematic for several reasons: it creates a false dichotomy between white and non-white people and insinuates ‘white’ as normative. It also groups a wide array of ethnic minority groups together who are very different. The term refers to communities whose ethnic or national origins are not wholly white British. Where feasible in this report, we disaggregate the term although in some cases we do not have enough data to report on individual ethnic groups.

The global anti-racist movement that was triggered by the death of George Floyd in police custody in the USA has invigorated the Black Lives Matter movement in the UK and has inspired many organisations to publicly stand against racism. We refer to this movement in this report as anti-racism for brevity.

In this report disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person's ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. It covers physical disability, some medical conditions and mental illness. When referring to people with disabilities, we acknowledge that there is tremendous variation between types of disabilities and differences in the needs and barriers of volunteers with disabilities.

The approach in this report is to accept the social model of disability which locates the disability within the physical barriers and negative attitudes in society rather than a person's impairment and was developed by disabled people in contrast to the medical model of disability.

Social class is also an important dimension when it comes to diversity. It is notoriously difficult to define. In Time Well Spent we have used socio-economic status (using a classification based on the occupation of the chief income earner of the household)[1] and level of education attainment as indicators of social class, but we recognise that this has many limitations.

We use the term mainstream organisations in the report to refer to organisations that are larger than average, better resourced and broader in scope (often national or international) than the majority of voluntary sector groups and who tend to have paid employees and a paid volunteer coordinator or manager.

We acknowledge that these terms are far from perfect and we will strive to find and use alternatives as our work in this area evolves. The use of language, particularly in relation to diversity, is contested and ever-changing. This is partly because communities and people are not static and this mobility often leads to changes in terminology, use and understanding of language to reflect current societal values.


This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 17 December 2020