6. What are the key challenges facing ESV?

This section explores some key challenges facing ESV, centred around a number of themes. It starts by acknowledging the many positive experiences of ESV, but also raises the question of why these challenges still remain (many are not new).

In light of some of the findings from recent research, including new insights about the volunteer experience, we focus on the barriers to ESV moving forward.

6.1 Setting the context

Many volunteer-organisations, brokers and employers benefit from participating in ESV

As detailed in section 5, while less positive compared with non-ESV volunteers, the majority of ESV volunteers report having a positive experience. Our research suggests that the experience of volunteer-involving organisations, brokers and employers largely reflect that of volunteers.

Recent research with volunteer-involving organisations reported that for most, the experience is positive; around one in five respondents cited negative experiences[1]. Positive examples cited by volunteer-involving organisations who took part in our qualitative research supported this, for example where ESV had enabled them to do things which they otherwise would not have achieved themselves.

We have been able to carry out and complete a huge range of projects that we would otherwise have taken our small garden team many days/weeks to complete. It is a very positive part of the work we do and allows us to develop higher standards in the garden.

Volunteer-involving organisation

Employers also shared examples of successful ESV, including benefits that matched what they sought from ESV in the first place. This included feeling more connected to their local community, and better employee engagement. One university reported that 87% of their employee volunteers had agreed that their pride in the university had increased as a result of their volunteering.

We also heard about the impacts of specific programmes or schemes. An example of this was the impact of the Employer-Supported Policing scheme (see more in Section 8.5). Research had been recently undertaken, showing that the benefits of the scheme to businesses ranged from increased confidence of employees to skills being brought back into the business.[2]

Brokers provided examples of how they had successfully supported volunteer-involving organisations and employers in achieving these benefits. CVN research supports these findings, showing that brokers helped to increase the number of ESV volunteers and better identify volunteers that align to the needs of a volunteer-involving organisation[3].

Challenges remain – and many of these are not new

While there are many examples of where ESV works well, our engagement with volunteer-involving organisations, employers and brokers engaged in ESV highlights that there are also many challenges. Whether in the form of relationships which have not worked well, day-to-day frustrations or past experiences which have led to less positive perceptions towards ESV as a whole, these negative experiences of ESV had, in some cases, a significant impact on those involved.

What is notable about the issues raised is that for the most part, they are not ‘new’ issues. This suggests that there may be significant or entrenched barriers holding ESV back. In the rest of this section, we explore some of the key challenges relating to a number of themes central to ESV, in turn:

For each, we focus primarily on barriers to ESV moving forward. Sections 7 and 8 then looks ahead to the future, and how these challenges might be overcome in practice.

6.2 Volunteer engagement and uptake

Key challenge: current uptake and future interest in ESV are low

As outlined in section 3.1, ESV currently makes up a small proportion of volunteer participation overall, despite some small increases in participation levels over time.

Our Time Well Spent research indicates this may continue to be the case: only 10% of all survey respondents (including both volunteers and non-volunteers), when presented with a number of ways of getting involved in volunteering in the next 12 months, were interested in future opportunities to volunteer that were ‘supported or encouraged by their employer’. This was slightly higher (16%), for those who were working (either full time or part time, at the time of the survey), which is more likely to reflect a relevant audience. Nonetheless, it is an area of interest only among a minority.

What are the barriers to progress?

Our research suggests there may be a number of factors contributing to low levels of uptake and interest:

Awareness and availability of opportunities may be a barrier in the first instance

Engagement in ESV relies first and foremost on employers providing opportunities for employees to get involved, and employees being aware of these opportunities.

In our Time Well Spent research, among those working for an employer at the time of the survey (across all respondents, not just volunteers), half (51%) said their employer did not provide ESV opportunities[4]. As seen earlier, those who do provide opportunities are more likely to be working in larger organisations.

More strikingly, however, in addition to those who said their employer did not provide opportunities, a further quarter said they ‘don’t know’ whether they did or not. Furthermore, awareness among respondents whose employers did not provide ESV and those who were not employed at the time of the survey was fairly low, with 60% saying they were not aware that these opportunities existed. This indicates that more could be done to raise awareness of ESV both within organisations and more widely.

Of those who have participated in ESV recently, one in three do not feel encouraged by their employer

The findings also highlight that more could be done not just to raise awareness but also actively encourage employees to participate. Around a third (34%) of those who had volunteered during work hours or participated in volunteering activities organised by their employer in the last 12 months, said their employer encouraged them in their volunteering ‘not very much’ or ‘not at all’.

Employers who took part in our qualitative research reported a number of ways in which they encouraged employees to get involved in ESV, including through communication and by providing a diverse range of opportunities. However, they also raise some practical barriers to communicating with employees, eg reaching those in non-office-based roles, which may explain in part the perceived lack of encouragement among some employees.

Competing work pressures pose a key barrier to engagement

From the employer perspective, the most frequently mentioned barrier to engaging employees was competing work pressures. This determined when in the year it was easier or more challenging to engage employees as well as who was more and less likely to get involved.

The challenge is: as the business gets busier, it gets more challenging to release employees from the front line, in our contact centres. Everybody knows about it… but they’re too busy.


Furthermore, barriers went beyond the practical issue of being too busy to participate. In some organisations, especially those where ESV was not embedded in the organisation’s culture, employees may feel the need to justify or legitimise the time they take out of the working day. For some, this meant only participating if they were volunteering along with others eg as a team.

Some don’t see ESV as being ‘for them’

Employers recognised that for some employees, volunteering was something that simply was not of interest to them. However, there were also those who they felt ‘opted themselves out’ of participation, feeling that it was something that others could participate in but that they could not.

This was especially the case for skills-based volunteering opportunities. For example, a law firm reported a contrast in engagement between those in their legal roles, many of whom participated in pro-bono volunteering, and those in their support functions who were less likely to see volunteering as relevant for them. This ‘divide’ was intensified further by these employees being based in different offices.

The imbalance in skills-based volunteering participation is also highlighted in Time Well Spent research: those using professional and occupational skills (not just in ESV) were more likely to be from higher socio-economic groups.

The thing that's difficult… is it’s hard to get lawyers away from their desk with clients demanding that they should be doing something. And people do self-select. Some business service staff think 'this opportunity isn’t for me, it’s for lawyers, I don’t have the right skills'.


6.3 Providing a quality ESV experience

Key challenge: ESV volunteers are less positive about their experience than non-ESV volunteers

We have explored the volunteer experience in detail in section 5, which highlights that while most have a good experience, ESV volunteers are typically less positive compared with non-ESV volunteers. This presents a ‘new’ challenge for those involved in ESV, as previous research has not typically focused on the experience of volunteers within the ESV context.

In section 5, we include volunteer-involving organisations, employers and brokers’ reflections which may partly help to explain these lower levels of satisfaction –primarily centred on volunteer expectations. Here, we look to go further and understand what other contributing factors might be at play.

What are the barriers to progress?

Our research suggests there may be a number of factors driving lower levels of satisfaction:

Organisations may not be prioritising volunteers and their experience

Our Time Well Spent report highlights the importance and benefit to volunteer-involving organisations gained from providing a positive volunteer experience. In the context of ESV, however, our research indicates that the volunteer experience is not always a priority for those managing ESV.

This is likely to relate to the different motivations at play, highlighted in section 4. For example, we have seen that a key motivation for volunteer-involving organisations for getting involved in ESV was to build relationships with employers and secure financial contributions. The findings suggest that the focus on investing in these relationships may be taking volunteer-involving organisations away from building longer term, meaningful connections with volunteers themselves. Just one in five (22%) volunteer-involving organisations doing ESV reported taking the opportunity to cross-sell other volunteering roles, which may reflect ESV volunteers being seen as a shorter rather than longer term asset[5].

Employers, too, appreciated there was a balance to strike between their own organisational priorities and engaging with employee motivations. Where opportunities were driven above all by organisational needs, there was inevitably less focus on the volunteer and their experience (and also on meeting volunteer-involving organisations’ needs.) Some volunteer-involving organisations and brokers reported examples of opportunities, which met an employer need , eg to help teams get together through a teambuilding day, but the activity was not needed by the volunteer-involving organisation. Consequently, the volunteers had a less positive experience as they did not feel they were making an impact.

On both sides, a lack of focus on the volunteer experience is reflected in the few organisations systematically capturing feedback from volunteers. It was recognised across all groups involved that more could be done to listen to and learn about volunteers’ experiences, both to improve opportunities and showcase successful ESV.

We would like to do a much better job of engaging volunteers as long-term supporters beyond the framework of corporate volunteering… We do file feedback provided via email from volunteers after the day but not via a survey or another reliable measurable method.

Volunteer-involving organisation

The restrictive nature of some ESV arrangements may also limit the benefits volunteers gain

As mentioned in section 3, the nature of ESV participation is often driven by the extent to which employers are involved and prescribe the type of volunteering. Among recent ESV volunteers in our Time Well Spent research, over a quarter (27%) disagreed that they had flexibility around the time they gave, indicating there is room for improvement in this area. This is likely to reflect some of the less flexible ESV arrangements described earlier.

Furthermore, as ESV volunteers are more likely to be involved on a more infrequent, time-limited basis than non-ESV volunteers (see section 3.3) it may be more difficult for them to reap the full benefits of volunteering. Our Time Well Spent research showed that frequent volunteers are more likely to perceive benefits from volunteering than those who give time less often.

It is more difficult to find really meaningful volunteering when ESV can sometimes be very limited in terms of free time and sometimes just a one-off availability. One or two days a year doesn't allow for a meaningful role to be created for these volunteers.

Volunteer-involving organisation

The boundaries between work and volunteering are more complicated in ESV

Lower levels of satisfaction among ESV volunteers have been linked in part to ‘work’ expectations being applied to their volunteering (see section 5.3). This highlights a tension for ESV, in overlapping boundaries between ‘work’ and ‘not work’.

While those who manage or organise ESV recognise that volunteers often want it to feel different to work, it takes place during work hours and often involves volunteers using their professional skills. Overall, the more formalised setting in which ESV takes place is likely to contribute to the high proportion of those feeling like it’s ‘becoming too much like paid work’ compared with non-ESV volunteers.

This tension plays out also in relation to the reward and recognition of ESV volunteers. While many do not feel recognised enough, there is the question of what is an appropriate, balanced way to achieve this. Some believe that formal mechanisms would encourage employees to engage with volunteering (eg including them in appraisals), but others felt that this would compromise the essence of ESV being a voluntary activity.

6.4 Relationships between those involved in managing ESV

Key challenge: a mismatch of needs and expectations can create barriers to effective ESV relationships

Previous research has highlighted there is often a mismatch between the needs and expectations of volunteer-involving organisations and employers managing and delivering ESV. The CIPD report[6] which focused on this relationship drew out a number of key challenges, as shown in Table 2. It highlights the costs involved as a particular area of tension, describing it as ‘one of the single most significant inhibitors to ESV’.

Our research, drawing on qualitative research conducted for this report and more recent evidence, shows that this area remains a challenge. The CVN survey looking from the perspective of volunteer-involving organisations highlights that while most volunteer-involving organisations generate opportunities based on organisational need, around half (52%) of those surveyed agreed they create opportunities based on what their partners would like to do[7]. Sometimes this led to activities being delivered, even when not particularly needed.

Similar issues were raised by volunteer-involving organisations and employers in our qualitative research, although some reported being part of or supporting successful ESV partnerships. These tended to be longer term relationships, where mutually beneficial aims had been developed over some time, sometimes supported by brokers.

What are the barriers to progress?

Our research suggests there may be a number of factors driving mismatched neds and expectations between employers and volunteer-involving organisations:

Relationships are impacted by individual needs and priorities, which can pull organisations in different directions

In section 5, we have outlined the fact that those involved in ESV, while sharing a common aim, also have different individual motivations driving them which can influence their priorities. The findings from this research highlight that differences in the ways volunteer-involving organisations and employers manage these ‘other’ priorities are what often drive relational issues between them.

For example, volunteer-involving organisations were most likely to look for long-term partnerships with employers, as a more secure route to financial contributions. For employers, however, wanting to meet the range of employees’ needs and preferences often meant that a variety of partnerships was preferred, over a small number of long-term relationships.

Additionally, when it came to opportunities, volunteer-involving organisations looked to minimise the resource required to manage and organise ESV activities, given their limited capacity. Therefore, skills-based opportunities were preferred over practical large group-based activities, as they took less time to organise (they were also perceived to be more impactful). On the other hand, employers also had limited resource, but for them it was skills-based initiatives which took more time to organise, as they required more input (eg in identifying suitable opportunities). These skills-based opportunities also typically had fewer individuals involved, which was also less likely to help them meet targets, where they was based on numbers of volunteers.

These challenges highlight that issues relating to external relationships are closely related to what goes internally within organisations and that both need to be considered together.

A number of different factors may be contributing to employers not paying for ESV

A common issue perceived by volunteer-involving organisations and brokers was that employers were not prepared to pay for ESV. While some sensed an improvement in employers’ understanding around the issues of costs over time, many continued to see this as a challenge and one which would only become more so in the future (see section 7).

It is clear that in some cases, employer perceptions that ‘volunteering should be free’ may be the reason that they are not willing to pay for ESV. However, our findings – which draws on both new research, especially from the employer perspective, and other evidence – highlights that there may be a number of contributing factors to the cost ‘issue’ (see box below).

It suggests volunteer-involving organisations and brokers also have a part to play in helping to address this.

Some ‘translation’ is needed to bridge the gap between volunteer-involving organisations and employers

While the issue of cost is clearly an area of particular tension between volunteer-involving organisations and employers, brokers in particular were keen to highlight that it reflected wider issues of a lack of mutual understanding between those involved.

This impacted on the development of quality opportunities, as it was not always clear to employers what volunteer-involving organisations’ needs were, and in turn employers themselves found it difficult to translate their offer into something that was appropriate in the context of the volunteer-involving organisations they were working with.

All groups acknowledged, however, that this ‘translation’ process did not just happen on its own. It required time and resources on the part of both organisations to look at individually but also to work on together. However, with limited resources (especially for smaller volunteer-involving organisations and SMEs) this was not always possible. Some drew on broker support for this.

It’s a lack of understanding on both sides and a lack of language... There needs to be more education on both sides about what each other are for and how they can enrich each other but there’s not enough knowledge out there yet.


6.5 ESV volunteering opportunities

Key challenge: volunteering opportunities of most benefit to volunteer-involving organisations are not those most popular among employers

Previous research has highlighted that ESV opportunities often take the form of one-off, practical group-based activities which may have limited value to volunteer-involving organisations and takes more resource to manage. Longer-term and skills-based volunteering are perceived to be of more benefit, but seem to be harder to deliver in practice.

Volunteer-involving organisations and brokers taking part in the qualitative research conducted for this report, perceived some employers moving away from the traditional ‘paint and fix’ opportunities towards more skills-based opportunities. However, there was still a sense that much of ESV still centred on requests for resource-heavy, low-impact volunteering, especially among employers new to ESV.

What are the barriers to progress?

Our research suggests there may be a number of factors driving the existence of less impactful volunteering opportunities:

Volunteering is often equated with team-building

A key issue raised by all groups was the conflation of team-building activities and volunteering, which typically led to requests for large group-based activities, with little flexibility (eg for a specific day) and often not of great value volunteer-involving organisations.

These were not just reported by brokers and volunteer-involving organisations, but an issue contended with by those managing ESV within employer organisations, who reported the pressures of managing and delivering these types of internal requests. This raises the question of both motivation (is team-building or volunteering the primary motivation?), as well as how volunteering is understood within organisations.

Lots of organisations conflate ESV with team building… It's often not very useful for organisations and can sometimes even cost more than the help brought in. Often this is seen as a free 'away day'.


Not all employees want to or feel they have work-based skills to offer

In our Time Well Spent survey, recent ESV volunteers were asked whether they preferred to use skills that were the same or different to those used in their day-to-day activities (eg work, study). The responses were almost equally balanced (42% same vs 40% different). This finding resonated with volunteer-involving organisations, brokers and employers who reported that while often volunteers were happy to offer their professional or occupational skills eg via pro-bono initiatives, a key barrier to skills-based volunteering was that many wanted to do something completely different from their work.

There's also a tension between what charities say – we want the volunteers to use the skills that they use at work (eg law, finance, sitting on committees etc) and what the volunteers often want (a break from having to do law, finance, sitting on committees etc)!


Furthermore, we have seen some employees are perceived to be ‘opting themselves out’ of certain types of volunteering, thinking they might not have any skills to offer. This suggests that barriers to skills-based volunteering are not just related to employers themselves but also to employees, whether these relate to their motivations or perceptions of volunteering.

Measures of success focus primarily on numbers of volunteers, not impact

While both employers and volunteer-involving organisations sought opportunities that made a positive impact, for some, a key barrier was that their measures of success did not necessarily reflect this aim.

The CVN survey[8], which asked a range of volunteer-involving organisations whether they measure and report on the impacts of ESV, found that only around 4 in 10 (38%) did. The remaining majority either said that they did not (40%) or only did sometimes (22%). There were no differences cited by size of organisation.

Our qualitative research also found that where ESV sat within corporate fundraising teams especially, financial measures were the key focus, making it more difficult for other types of impact to be recognised. In both cases, these issues reflect the tensions between differing motivations driving ESV internally within their organisations, as highlighted earlier (section 4.2).

Employers cited similar challenges internally in relation to the key ‘measures of success’ for ESV within their organisations. Again, this related to motivation: a common theme was that measures were driven by senior leaders. Where the motivation was a ‘big success statistic’, the focus inevitably remained on numbers of volunteers. There was also a recognition, however, that a focus on numbers could impact on the quality of ESV, and even risked driving the wrong behaviours or activities.

It all comes back to how you measure and your goals. It results in some pretty bad behaviours… We have a goal of 66% people volunteering (which we’re getting rid of)… but taking a selfie with a sticker on Facebook counts as volunteering. We had 40% of people volunteering but only 19% I would be happy to say it was good volunteering.


Across all groups involved in managing and organising ESV, there was a desire to look at how there could be more effective measures in place for ESV, with an increased focus on quality, not just quantity. However, this was not seen as an easy task. The questions raised such as ‘how do you prove impact with data’ and ‘what are effective measures’ reflected a lack of confidence in this area, and many felt that further guidance and support would be needed if they were to make progress.

6.6 Getting smaller organisations involved

Key challenge: levels of participation are lower in smaller organisations

Previous research has highlighted that while SMEs and smaller volunteer-involving organisations could benefit from being involved in ESV, it is an area dominated by larger organisations on both sides. As outlined earlier in this report (see section 3.2) this imbalance in who is involved in ESV remains.

While the data can not say whether there has been any changes over time in the participation by size of organisation, the consensus among brokers in particular was that engaging smaller organisations remains a challenge.

The need to address this issue may be relevant now more than ever. Recent research shows that it is the small volunteer-involving organisations that have the most need for ESV volunteers[9]. Furthermore, if more employers look to get involved in ESV, as some evidence suggests may be the case, the need to accommodate SMEs, as well as larger employers may become more pressing.

What are the barriers to progress?

Practical barriers continue to stall smaller organisations getting involved

Our research echoes previous evidence showing that while there is a willingness to include smaller organisations in ESV (both smaller volunteer-involving organisations and SMEs), limited resources - both staff and financial - makes it hard for them to participate. Those within smaller volunteer-involving organisations and SMEs leading on ESV were typically doing it as an add-on to a full-time role, and there was more reliance on personal connections to find and manage ESV relationships and opportunities. It suggests that without support, it may be challenging for smaller organisations (whether it be employers or volunteer-involving organisations) to get involved in ESV.

We primarily work with big companies though some SMEs participate in corporate volunteering at our regional centres. We could do a much better job of attracting these SMEs, but the price is, no doubt, putting off higher levels of engagement.

Volunteer-involving organisation)

The focus on larger organisations means that the ESV offer is not always a suitable fit

Some of the feedback from those involved in ESV suggests that the current model of ESV does not fit with what SMEs and smaller volunteer-involving organisations can take on or offer. For example, as highlighted in this report, employer requests often involve large groups of employees volunteering. While volunteer-involving organisations of all sizes reported challenges with accommodating large numbers of volunteers, small volunteer-involving organisations are least likely to be able to take them on.

We have also seen that a key motivation for volunteer-involving organisations is to develop partnerships with employers, as a means to financial contributions. As a result, SMEs may be perceived as being of less ‘value’ to volunteer-involving organisations and miss out on opportunities. Furthermore, ESV ‘packages’ created by volunteer-involving organisations may not be suitable for SMEs.

When contacting charities, they tend to see it as a chance to try and sell us a package. As a scale-up we don’t have the funds to pay for this.



  1. CVN, 2018

  2. Institute for Public Safety, Crime and Justice, (2019), Employer Supported Policing: Impact Report

  3. CVN, 2018

  4. Respondents were asked if their employer actively encouraged or had schemes for employees to take part in community projects, or to help voluntary or charity organisations, giving them time during their working hours to participate in these types of activities

  5. CVN, 2018

  6. CIPD, 2015

  7. CVN, 2018

  8. CVN, 2018

  9. CVN, 2018

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 03 June 2019