We summarise here some of our key learnings from the research: first, about who volunteers and how they give their time; second, about the experience of volunteering; third, about engaging volunteers for the future. Finally, we take all the findings together to consider what makes a good quality volunteer experience
What have we learned about who volunteers and how they give their time?
Most people have volunteered during their lifetime.
This survey tells us a great deal about how the people of Britain volunteer through groups, clubs or organisations, not just recently but also over their lifetime. The findings highlight a spectrum of engagement. Of the people surveyed, around seven in ten (69%) had formally volunteered at some point in their lives. Most get involved in a light-touch way, dipping in and out of opportunities with participation shaped by what is happening in their lives.
Those who sustain their involvement consistently and intensely over their lifetime are a minority, but these are the volunteers that organisations and groups are likely to depend on the most.
Diversity continues to be an issue.
Many, including politicians, policy makers and volunteer-involving organisations, have high aspirations for getting more people to volunteer. However, it is also important to look at who volunteers. Our research confirms that recent volunteers who participate in formal volunteering frequently (ie at least once a month) are more likely to be older, well-educated and from higher socio-economic groups.
On the other hand, those from lower socio-economic groups are more likely to say they have never been involved, and those who have are less likely to be in certain leadership or representative roles, like being a trustee.
Research on volunteering, and on participation more broadly, consistently indicates that inequalities of resources and power means that some people are more likely to be excluded from certain activities.
There are different levels of formality.
Whilst this survey focuses on ‘formal’ volunteering, this picture of volunteering only tells part of the story. We know that people make contributions to their communities in varied ways. Some people that are under-represented in formal volunteering participate more in informal ways, for example though acts of neighbourliness.
The findings also highlight that there is a wide spectrum of formality within volunteering through groups, clubs or organisations, from large organisations with paid staff and more formal policies and procedures to more informal grassroots community groups.
Formal volunteering processes, such as having an interview before starting to volunteer or role-specific training, are more common in certain settings and activities, for example where there are safeguarding risks. For many, the journey into and through volunteering is characterised by informal processes or ad-hoc organising.
There is no one volunteer journey.
This research looked more in detail into the context of volunteering – what activities volunteers do, where they volunteer, when they volunteer, who they give time to and how they do it.
The findings highlight some common features: volunteers are likely to give time in their own neighbourhood, for local organisations and groups, and alongside others. They are much more likely to give time to civil society organisations, but some volunteer for public sector organisations, such as the police or the NHS.
Those who volunteered recently (in the last year) most commonly took part in volunteering activities on a regular basis. A significant proportion also reported volunteering as part of a one-off activity or event or dipping in and out of activities.
Whilst these common features provide an overview of how people volunteer, the reality is more complex – a volunteer will combine different types of activity, cause, organisation, frequency and intensity of involvement, which reflect their own lifestyle and life stage, values and interests. People’s lives and priorities change and, consequently, the ways they get involved may also change.
The role of digital in volunteering provides a mixed picture.
How much people are online as part of their volunteering varies widely – though more say that their activities involve some kind of online interaction than none at all. This is likely to reflect different types of involvement, with some people carrying out their volunteering activities online (eg webchat online) and others mainly using digital tools and devices to facilitate their volunteering (eg emailing other volunteers to set up a meeting).
Nevertheless, over a third of people who volunteer say they are never online. This is currently much more common than people saying they volunteer exclusively online. However, the latter group are more likely to have started volunteering recently, which suggests that volunteering exclusively online may be attracting new volunteers to organisations and could become a bigger trend.
Disabled volunteers were more likely to be online (exclusively or often) than non-disabled volunteers, suggesting that digital platforms may provide opportunities for people who might otherwise find it difficult to participate.
Volunteering through employers remains low on people’s radar.
Of the volunteers who were working for an employer, the majority said the volunteering they do for their main organisation take place outside of their work hours and is not organised by their employer.
The low levels of participation in employer-supported volunteering reflect a wider lack of awareness of this kind of volunteering. As well as scope to increase awareness, the fact that around a third of volunteers who participated in employer-supported volunteering in the last year felt their employers did not actively encourage it suggests there is more that could be done to promote it.
What have we learned about the experience of volunteering?
Volunteering is a positive experience, for almost all volunteers.
Satisfaction levels are very high – this is in spite of frustrations that some people report experiencing. Volunteers also cite a range of benefits they get from taking part.
This is a huge testament to the work of volunteer-involving organisations, which the majority of volunteers perceive to be supporting them well and recognising them for their contribution. It also sets a high benchmark for these organisations to continue to meet.
Overall perceptions are positive, but the findings highlight there is no room for complacency. Some groups of volunteers tend to be less positive in their views about certain aspects of their experience, including younger compared with older volunteers, occasional compared with frequent volunteers, public sector compared with civil society volunteers and disabled compared with non-disabled volunteers.
There are also indications that those from BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) backgrounds are less likely to be satisfied than white volunteers, however further research would be needed to support this.
It is not clear whether these variations are due to differing expectations, experiences or both. However, they provide some food for thought, particularly as organisations look to attract and retain young people, more people want to dip in and out of activities and the public sector seeks to involve more volunteers.
Meeting expectations is a balancing act.
With such variation in volunteer journeys, a challenge for volunteer-involving organisations is meeting the range of expectations that come with them. These are shaped by both personal and societal factors, as well as previous experiences of volunteering and other forms of participation.
Meeting the expectations volunteers have about the level and nature of organisation and management is a particular challenge for volunteer-involving organisations. Over a third of people who volunteer agree that ‘things could be better organised’, indicating that there is still scope for organisations to improve the volunteer experience. However, organisations need to balance this with the risk of becoming overly bureaucratic (something that over a quarter of volunteers already currently feel) or formalised.
As noted previously, there is a spectrum of formality. This highlights the challenge for volunteer-involving organisations to understand and respond to the needs of their current and future volunteers, whilst delivering services and activities effectively and safely.
There are some aspects of the volunteer experience that seem to matter most to those who volunteer.
- People want to give time on their own terms.
Most people are happy with the way their time is managed when volunteering. However, there is a risk that too much pressure to do more or to continue, is placed on some volunteers, especially those who are giving their time on a frequent basis.
These frequent volunteers are more likely to feel the positive benefits of volunteering but also more likely to report negative experiences, including feeling like too much of their time is taken up. Generally, volunteers who feel this way are less likely to continue with their volunteering.
2. Volunteering isn’t paid work.
Part of the risk in overburdening volunteers is that their volunteering starts to feel ‘work like’. The findings show that the more frequently people volunteered, the more they felt this to be true. Public sector volunteers and those volunteering in more formal settings were also more likely to feel this way.
Volunteering often overlaps with the world of paid work, where, for example, paid staff manage and work alongside volunteers. However, it isn’t paid work and the distinction is reinforced by the ways people get involved and say that they want to be involved.
As seen from the low levels of participation via employers, most people actively separate it from their own employment. Those who volunteer to improve their career prospects are also a minority (except among 18–24 year-olds). Additionally, those working full-time are more likely to say they prefer using skills and experience that are different from their day-to-day work.
This suggests that volunteer-involving organisations should consider not just how much time people can give, but also how that time feels to volunteers. Whilst volunteering will coincide with the world of paid work, it should be distinct.
3.Making a difference matters.
Helping people or improving things was the key reason people said they started volunteering and those who felt they had a positive impact on others were much more likely both to be satisfied with their volunteering and to continue with it. Those who volunteer also report a wide range of personal benefits from volunteering, including enjoyment and improved well-being.
Organisations are sharing the impact of volunteers’ contributions by communicating with them about the difference being made, though our findings highlight that even more of this could be done.
The fact that most people (whether they have volunteered or not) say they have not used or accessed services provided by volunteers might indicate that the contribution of volunteers is not recognised in wider society. There may be more scope to showcase and celebrate the contribution of volunteers more widely.
4.Feeling connected lies at the core of the volunteer experience.
Among the different benefits people feel they gain from volunteering is a sense of connection. Volunteering, for most, involves being with others – very few say they do it alone. The majority of those who volunteer say they meet new people and have contact with people from different backgrounds. Many also say their volunteering has helped them feel less isolated, especially younger volunteers.
People’s sense of a connection to the organisation people volunteer with and the cause it supports is also a key aspect of the volunteer experience. Most report that they feel a sense of belonging to the organisation and a culture of respect and trust – factors that are strongly associated with their likelihood to continue. Ensuring volunteers feel part of something – an organisation, a common endeavour – is key to the volunteer experience.
5. Enjoyment shouldn’t be undervalued.
When volunteers were asked what they got out of their involvement, ‘I enjoy it’ was the most chosen statement. Enjoyment can mean different things to different people; it could be about having fun, but this won’t be the case for all who volunteer, especially those whose volunteering activities are, by nature, challenging and difficult. It is likely to be the result of many things – the activities undertaken, the conviviality of interacting with others, a personal sense of achievement or fulfilment, people’s emotions, etc.
Our findings indicate enjoyment is associated with both satisfied volunteers and those who continue with volunteering. In addition, opportunities that look fun and enjoyable to be part of appeal to those interested in future volunteering opportunities, especially among those who haven’t volunteered before.
The importance of enjoyment to volunteers suggests that it is not only about helping others or achieving something; enjoying the experience itself whilst taking part also really matters.
What have we learned about engaging volunteers for the future?
Positive experiences are likely to lead to continued participation.
People are most likely to leave volunteering because of changes in circumstances, such as moving away or changing job. However, it is how people experience the different elements of the volunteering journey that is important for both their overall satisfaction and the likelihood that they will continue. This is true for all who have volunteered, regardless of who they are. Experience matters for future involvement.
Given that people tend to dip in and out of volunteering, the findings suggest a good quality volunteering experience will impact their likelihood to keep coming back over their lifetime.
There is potential for future engagement across all groups, with some transitions more challenging than others.
The more recently people have volunteered, the more likely they are to say they will volunteer again. Given that there is a risk of overburdening the most involved volunteers, the research indicates that the most potential for shifting engagement levels are among those who have recently volunteered but not very frequently, and those who have volunteered in the past.
However, if we are to tackle the issue of diversity in volunteering, we will need to explore how best to reach those who have never volunteered and invest in these efforts too.
A significant proportion of those who have never volunteered through a group, club or organisation say that they are not interested in future opportunities to do so. However, some are – this highlights that there is potential to widen engagement regardless of their past involvement, even if this may be a more challenging task.
Some people have never thought about volunteering – taking a ‘first step’ is key.
Wherever people are at now, tackling existing barriers is likely to be a step-by-step process. For those who are not currently volunteering, a key part of this is encouraging them to take a first step – either back into volunteering or for the first time. It is the latter that is the most challenging.
As one of the main barriers for those who have never volunteered is that they have never thought about it, raising awareness of volunteering may encourage them to start volunteering for the first time. But it is not only about raising awareness, it’s also about providing opportunities that resonate with their own lives and aspirations, and ensuring they can shape the way they get involved.
People are protective of their time, but opportunities that are meaningful to volunteers are likely to help overcome this initial barrier.
The issue of time is hard to ignore. The survey confirms well-known challenges around the perceived barrier of time and commitment. However, it is not simply a matter of ‘not enough’ time – a key barrier for those not volunteering is ‘I do other things with my spare time.’ Concerns about time and commitment seems to be most relevant before starting; once involved, most people who volunteer say they are happy with the flexibility they have and the expectations placed on them.
Future opportunities of interest highlight that potential volunteers want their volunteering to fit in with their lives and for their time to be worthwhile and purposeful.
From a range of opportunities, those that attracted most interest include: ones where people can dip in and out of activities, make use of their existing skills and experience, combine with hobbies and interests, and which look fun and enjoyable to be part of. Opportunities to meet new people were also appealing. These are the types of opportunities that might help people reconsider how they prioritise their time.
What have we learned about what a quality volunteer experience might look like?
The research suggests a number of key features that make up a quality experience for volunteers. Different journeys and context mean that some of these elements will be more relevant than others. Across these different features, our overall conclusion is that, at its best, volunteering is time well spent. It is positive that most volunteers seem to agree, and more can be done to reassure potential volunteers that their time will be well spent.
Key features that make up the volunteers experience
9.2 What does this mean for practice?
We focus first on practice, because the way organisations engage with current and potential volunteers can make a real difference to people’s experience and whether they sustain their involved or not.
However, there is a role for policy makers in ensuring that the wider environment is conducive to people wanting to get involved and in thinking about how structural barriers to participation might be addressed.
We suggest volunteer-involving organisations should consider what we think are the eight key features of a quality experience and what these might mean for the way they engage with current and potential volunteers.
These areas of consideration have been developed through workshops with different stakeholders about the implications of the research findings. This was important in grounding the research in practice and the daily experience of organisations.
We explore each of these focus areas in more detail in the following pages, looking at what we have learned from the research and what it might look like from the organisational perspective if these are put into practice and the impact it might have on the volunteer experience
9.3 What does this mean for policy?
Our findings suggest that access to volunteering opportunities is unequal. People from lower socio-economic backgrounds and people with a lower level of educational attainment are less likely to get involved as volunteers, which we conclude is to their disadvantage. Moreover, disabled people and those from a BAME community seem to be having a less positive experience for some aspects of their volunteering than non-disabled and white volunteers.
- Diversity is a much-discussed topic in society, including in charities, but discussions frequently focus on paid staff. Is there more that we can do to raise the debate about volunteering and diversity, particularly if we think that unequal access to opportunities is entrenching disadvantage or harming social mobility.
- It is widely recognised that creating good-quality volunteering opportunities requires investment. However, organisations that might be best placed to support greater involvement in communities where volunteering rates are relatively low rarely have the capacity to invest. How can we provide support to build capacity in areas where fewer people are getting involved, such as BAME organisations?
- Where disabled people are less positive about their experience, is this related to the attitudes of others or a lack of reasonable adjustments? Are there variations by different impairments or conditions? And would an ‘Access to Volunteering’ fund – as NCVO has previously called for – provide a mechanism for improving the volunteering experience for disabled people?
Youth social action
Different age groups have different expectations over what good volunteering looks like. Much attention has been given to encouraging young people to volunteer. Yet, it is those in the 18–24 age bracket who are more likely to stop volunteering.
- Are schemes aimed at young people too focused on employment prospects and opportunity, when other motivations might be more enduring over time?
- When considering new initiatives and funding, how can we ensure that young people are able to shape opportunities?
While loneliness and isolation are two separate concepts, the link between them helps us to see how volunteering can create connectedness and potentially reduce loneliness. Feeling connected is a key part of the volunteer experience; making new connections is both a motivator and an impact of volunteering.
- Certain groups are more likely to feel lonely than others, including younger people, older people and disabled people. How can we ensure that volunteering opportunities that connect them to others are accessible and inclusive?
- Is enough weight placed on this aspect of volunteering when organisations are considered for funding? Are these outcomes given less importance than other easier-to-measure or 'higher-order' outcomes.
Volunteering is often embedded in local communities. Whilst there are many instances of collective action around communities of interest, people say they get involved primarily at a local level and in their own neighbourhoods.
- The shift to digital platforms for volunteer brokerage and support has occurred at a time when investment in local brokerage and support, particularly via volunteer centres, appears to be in decline. Does the evidence in this report suggest it is time to rethink the role of volunteer centres?
- Local initiatives such as Cities of Service and Tempo Time Credits have been successful in encouraging local participation. What can we learn from their development, particularly if we want to strengthen participation in places where engagement is relatively low?
Investment in programmes such as Q-Volunteering and Helpforce illustrate significant interest amongst funders and policy makers in widening the role of volunteers in public services. Although the majority of volunteers in the public sector have a positive experience, they are less likely to be satisfied and to continue volunteering than those volunteering for civil society. They are also more inclined to say their volunteering feels like paid work and that there is too much bureaucracy.
- As public services are subject to greater scrutiny over outcomes, processes and standards than other services, how can they balance this need in a proportionate way?
- What roles and tasks in public services are suitable for volunteers, considering that many value the flexibility to dip in and out of volunteering and want to volunteer on their own terms?
- Is there potential to encourage and support volunteering that is beneficial for public services and their users but sits outside or between traditional and formal services?
Much emphasis has been placed on skills-based volunteering through employer-supported volunteering. Whilst a proportion of volunteers (particularly younger volunteers) want to gain skills through volunteering, the majority of people want to use the skills they have to give back to the community.
- With large employers committed to supporting employees’ health and wellbeing as a part of the Civil Society Strategy, is there more scope to encourage time off for volunteering?
- How can employers support volunteering in a light-touch way that fits with what motivates volunteers?