1.1 Research background

People get involved in volunteering in a variety of ways and are motivated to do so for a multitude of reasons. Organisations, associations and institutions can act as a catalyst for people’s involvement, providing opportunities that resonate with what matters to them, their interests and their aspirations, as well as their concerns and needs.

How an organisation engages with people is paramount to whether they start and continue their involvement. In a context where there is much interest in getting more people to volunteer, including in public services, it seems more important than ever for practice and policy to consider the experience of volunteering from the volunteers’ perspectives and understand what makes a quality experience in their eyes.

This research builds on existing knowledge on volunteering from other data sources, principally the Community Life Survey funded by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Whilst the Community Life Survey provides a very useful statistical resource on volunteering trends, it does not include questions on the volunteer experience, volunteer management and the impact of volunteering.

These topics were last included in a national survey over 10 years ago when the Office of the Third Sector commissioned the Institute for Volunteering Research and NatCen to produce Helping Out (PDF, 957 KB) . We wanted our research to focus on these gaps.

This research also builds on a range of other volunteering research, which we quote throughout the report. The Pathways through Participation research, a qualitative project conducted by NCVO, the Institute for Volunteering Research and Involve that looked at how people’s involvement changes over their lifetime, has been particularly influential in shaping our thinking.

1.2 Overall aims and objectives

The overall objectives of this research are to understand volunteers’ experience of volunteering, provide rich and practical insights to inform practice and policy, address knowledge gaps and generate new evidence. Specifically, it aims to:

  • gain a rounder view of participation and capture the different ways people volunteer and recent trends
  • understand how volunteering fits into people’s lives, including whether opportunities are meeting needs and expectations and what drives or prevents a meaningful experience.
  • understand people’s experiences across the volunteer journey and explore what a quality experience and quality management look like from the volunteer’s perspective
  • explore the impact of volunteering, primarily on volunteers themselves
  • understand how to better engage potential volunteers, including barriers and enablers to volunteering.

1.3 Our approach

This survey was completed by adults aged 18+ in Great Britain through YouGov’s panel, via an online self-completion questionnaire between 4 and 15 May 2018. The total sample achieved was 10,103 respondents. The data was weighted to reflect the national population by key demographics: age, gender, education level and social grade.

Questionnaire development was informed by a scoping phase, which included a review of existing literature and stakeholder interviews.

As well as engaging with stakeholders during the questionnaire development stage, we engaged with them at the analysis stage to review emerging findings and refine lines of enquiry. We also organised a number of stakeholder workshops to further discuss our findings and explore what they meant for practice and policy.

More details of our methodology and approach can be found in Appendix 1.

1.4 Reading this report

To do justice to the richness of the survey data, we have produced a very detailed report, which is not intended to be read from beginning to end. We see it more as a reference tool that people should consult when looking for data on a particular topic, dipping in and out as the need arises.

The report describes the main findings from the research and is divided into seven key sections. For ease of use, the beginning of each section includes a summary of key findings. At the end of the report, we bring together what we have learned from the research and look at the implications of the findings for practice and policy.

All tables and charts in this report show weighted percentages. Base sizes (the number of cases on which percentages are based), where shown, are unweighted. Generally, differences between groups in the research findings are statistically significant at the 95% level.

A few words on definitions

We know that not everyone will call their involvement ‘volunteering’; in this survey we have tried to capture the range of activities that people undertake when giving unpaid help through groups, clubs and organisations.

Throughout the report, we use the term ‘volunteering’ to refer to formal volunteering through groups, clubs or organisations, which is the focus of this survey. It does not examine the more informal ways of giving time and helping others outside groups, clubs or organisations.

Whilst ‘volunteering’ is used throughout the report, in the survey respondents were not asked if they had volunteered. Instead, they were asked whether they had been involved with any groups, clubs or organisation and then whether they had provided unpaid help to any groups, clubs or organisations, prompted by a list of activities as in the Community Life Survey.

This method was used to encompass the full range of volunteering activities, some of which may not otherwise be recognised by respondents as volunteering.

Throughout the report, we look at the extent to which people have formally volunteered over their lifetime and recently. We refer to people using the following categories:

  • recent volunteers, who have volunteered at least once in the last 12 months
  • lapsed volunteers, who volunteered between one and three years ago
  • those who have volunteered in the past but more than three years ago
  • those who have never volunteered through a group, club or organisation.

We generally refer to the frequency of volunteering using the following categories:

  • frequent volunteers, who volunteered at least once a month
  • occasional volunteers, who volunteered less frequently than once a month.

A fuller list of definitions is included in Appendix 1.

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 01 January 2019