Volunteer impacts

6.1 Key findings

Benefits of volunteering

  • Volunteers feel they benefit from their volunteering in a number of ways, with enjoyment being the highest rated (93%). Those who volunteer frequently particularly feel these benefits.
  • The majority of volunteers feel like they make a difference through their volunteering (90%), and they most commonly feel they make a difference to an individual’s life (47%) or a particular group of people or issue in society (44%).
  • Many report social benefits from their volunteering. Almost nine in ten volunteers say they have met new people. Young people aged 18–24 (77%) and 25–34 (76%) are the age groups most likely to say their volunteering helped them feel less isolated.
  • Over three-quarters of volunteers (77%) reported that volunteering improved their mental health and wellbeing. This benefit was more widespread than physical health benefits (53%).
  • Improved employment prospects are the lowest ranked of the listed benefits (34%) but are more commonly reported among 18–24-year-olds (69%) than older groups (14% of 55+), and public sector volunteers (41%) than those giving time to civil society organisations (32%).
  • Those who volunteer through employer-supported volunteering report the same benefits as those doing other forms of volunteering (primarily around enjoyment and fulfilment). Career-related benefits rank lower.
  • Most volunteers cite benefits that match their initial motivations for volunteering (to meet people, gain skills, etc) but they also report additional benefits.

Negative experiences and impacts

  • Those who report having negative experiences are few. The most commonly experienced include too much time being taken up (33%), being out of pocket (31%) or being pressured to do more (28%).
  • Frequent volunteers are more likely to report negative (as well as positive) experiences than occasional volunteers, probably because they have greater levels of interaction with the organisation and with others.

Impacts and overall satisfaction

  • Further analysis (using a multivariate logistic regression analysis) highlights that making a difference, enjoying volunteering, feeling appreciated and safe are key aspects of the volunteering experience associated with overall satisfaction

6.2 Perceived benefits of volunteering

Enjoyment ranks as the highest of the perceived benefits.

‘I enjoy it’ was the most common benefit identified by recent volunteers (93%) as seen in Figure 41. As well as being the highest-ranked benefit overall, volunteers also felt most positively about the enjoyment they got from volunteering, with almost half (49%) of volunteers ‘definitely’ agreeing with this statement. This was much higher than for all other statements (for which the proportion of those who ‘definitely’ agreed ranged from 10% to 37%).

‘I feel like I’m making a difference’ and ‘It gives me a sense of personal achievement’ also ranked very highly among volunteers (90% for both). Across different age groups, older volunteers aged 55+ were most likely to agree with these highest-ranked statements, with 97% of those aged 55+ saying they enjoy it, 93% saying they feel they make a difference and 93% saying it gives them a sense of personal achievement.

Overall, whilst there were variations by demographics, there were few differences in relation to perceived benefits across different ways of volunteering and types of organisation they volunteer for.

Data on perceived benefits of being involved in volunteering with an organisation

Those who give time frequently say they benefit more.

Although the ranking order was similar for frequent volunteers (giving time at least once a month) and occasional volunteers (giving time less frequently than once a month) across the majority of the statements, a higher proportion of frequent volunteers agreed that they benefited in these different ways than occasional volunteers.

For example, 96% of frequent volunteers said they ‘enjoy it’ compared with 90% of occasional volunteers, and a similar pattern was seen for feeling like they made a difference (93% vs 85%) and feeling a sense of personal achievement (93% vs 88%).

Volunteers most commonly feel they make a difference to an individual’s life or a particular group of people or issue in society.

As shown in Figure 42, among those who felt they had made a difference, the largest proportion of volunteers (47%) felt they made a difference to an individual or individuals’ lives, followed by a particular group of people or issue in society (43%). The least common area for volunteers to feel they made a difference to was global or international causes (10%).

There was some variation depending on what volunteers were giving time to. For example, those volunteering for a public sector organisation were more likely to feel they made a difference to a physical place than volunteers giving time to civil society organisations (33% vs 11%), whereas those volunteering for civil society organisations were more likely to feel they were making a difference to a particular group of people or issue in society (48% vs 35%).

Volunteers benefit from new social connections.

Overall, almost nine in ten volunteers (89%) agreed that they had met new people through their volunteering; across different age groups. This was particularly high among 55–64 year-olds (92%). Additionally, almost eight in ten volunteers (78%) agreed that their volunteering had brought them into contact with people from different backgrounds. This echoes the findings of other research that indicate volunteers have higher levels of social connectedness than others54 and that volunteering both builds on existing social connections and generates new ones55.

Those volunteering always or often alongside others were more likely to agree that they met people than those who were rarely or never with others (92% vs 74%) and more likely to say it had brought them into contact with people from different backgrounds and cultures (81% vs 70%).

Data on what volunteers feel they make a difference to

Young people are most likely to feel that volunteering helps them feel less isolated.

Around two-thirds of volunteers (68%) agreed their volunteering had helped them feel less isolated (Figure 43). This was highest among 18–24 year-olds (77% agree) and 25–34 year-olds (76%). Previous research in this area has focused on the impact volunteering can have on reducing loneliness and isolation among older people.56 Our findings show that these effects can also be felt among younger age groups (and are more likely to be felt by them). This may reflect the fact that these groups are more likely to feel lonely than other age groups.57

Data on those who agreed volunteering helped them feel less isolated

Perceived mental health benefits of volunteering are more widespread than improved physical health.

Over three-quarters (77%) of volunteers agreed that volunteering had improved their mental health and wellbeing; this compares with just over half (53%) who agreed their physical health had improved (note, these were separate statements, so respondents could agree with both). A significant minority of 10% also responded ‘don’t know/not applicable’ to the statement about physical health benefits.

There was little demographic variation in relation to the perceived benefit of volunteering on mental health. Most research in this area has concentred on impacts on older people, with some suggesting that positive effects are only felt among those over 40.58 Our findings suggest that all age groups can perceive benefits to mental health through volunteering.

There were more demographic differences for perceived physical health benefits. This included volunteers from lower social grades being more likely to agree that their physical health had improved from their volunteering than those from higher social grades (57% C2DE vs 52% ABC1). Those volunteering in the areas of sport and exercise, safety and first aid and environment and animals were also more likely to report impacts on physical health than other sectors or areas.

Existing research has found that volunteers report better physical health, although the majority of the research related to volunteering in general, rather than any particular type of setting or role59. Our research builds on this knowledge by suggesting some of the contexts where this is more likely to be felt.

These findings indicate that physical health benefits are more likely to be experienced with specific types of volunteering, whereas mental health benefits are felt by a wider range of volunteers.

18–24 year-olds are most likely to feel they gain more confidence, as well as new skills and experience.

Almost three-quarters (74%) of volunteers agreed that volunteering had given them more confidence. Across different age groups, 18–24 year-olds were most likely to think that volunteering had given them confidence (84%). Women were more likely to agree their confidence had improved than men (76% vs 71%).

The youngest group of volunteers was also more likely to say they had gained new skills and experience (85%) than other age groups, and this was much higher than the overall proportion (71%) of volunteers citing this benefit.

Improved employment prospects are the lowest ranked of the benefits but are higher amongst younger volunteers and public sector volunteers.

The benefits of volunteering to employability was the lowest ranked overall (34%), however this was more likely to be reported as a benefit (as with skills and experience benefits) among volunteers aged 18–24 (69% of 18–24 year-olds, contrasted with 14% of 55+ respectively).

There were some variations by sector and type of organisation, with public sector volunteers being more likely to perceive career benefits than volunteers giving time to civil society organisations (41% vs 32%) and those volunteering for organisations with a paid volunteer coordinator (42%) more likely to perceive career benefits than volunteers with an unpaid coordinator (32%) or no coordinator at all (24%).

Previous research has focused on the impact on unemployed people taking part in volunteering programmes designed to improve employability, rather than the impact on employability among all types of volunteer. It found that volunteering could improve people’s skills (including soft skills such as teamwork) didn’t necessarily lead to employment.60

Perceived benefits of employer-supported volunteering are similar to other forms of volunteering.

Those who volunteered through or were supported by employers were also more likely to report the employability benefits of their volunteering (58%) than those who were not working for an employer at that time (23%) or doing volunteering separate to their work (30%).

It should be noted, however, that among those volunteering through or supported by employers, a higher proportion agreed with other statements relating to enjoyment and making a difference than those agreeing with statements about benefits to their careers.

This reflects findings from a larger group of respondents who had participated in employer-supported volunteering at some point in their lives who were asked to rank the key benefits they gained from volunteering in this way. These respondents rated the benefits around enjoyment (52%), making a difference (47%) and a sense of personal achievement (44%) highest. Career-related benefits (able to put on CV 12%, making new contacts 6%) ranked lower.

The benefits of volunteering match what volunteers set out to gain from their experience.

The findings from this survey indicate that most people get out of their volunteering what they hope or intend to when they first start. For example:

  • 95% of those who cited ‘improving things/helping people’ as being among their biggest motivations for getting involved in volunteering agreed they were making a difference through their volunteering.
  • 93% of those who stated that gaining skills was among their key reasons for getting involved and 82% of those looking to improve their career prospects agreed that they had benefited in these ways.
  • almost all (96%) of those who said they wanted to meet people as a key motivation agreed they had.

As well as getting the benefits they intended, the data suggests that volunteers gain additional benefits and perhaps more unintended benefits from their volunteering.

For example, many volunteers (84%) who were not primarily motivated by wanting to make a difference at the start of their volunteering experience later felt that this was a benefit. Similarly, many volunteers who did not start volunteering to make new friends selected ‘I met new people’ as a benefit (84%).

Other research has found that young people experienced additional effects when taking part in volunteering aimed at improving their employment prospects, such as greater feelings of altruism.61

6.3 Negative experiences and impacts


Negative experiences most commonly relate to time, expenses, pressure and recognition.

Around two-thirds (65%) of volunteers said they had not experienced any of the negative experiences and impacts listed (Figure 44). This reflects the largely positive perceptions among volunteers about their experiences, as outlined in the previous sections.

The volunteers who had experienced at least one of these negative experiences or impacts most commonly reported issues related to too much time being taken up (33%), being out of pocket (31%) and feeling pressured (28%), unappreciated (27%) and in conflict with others (22%). Note that they could choose more than one option.

Certain negative experiences affect some more than others.

Some groups were more or less likely to experience some of these negative experiences.

  • Younger volunteers were more likely to feel volunteering had negatively affected their work or studies (20% of 18–24 year-olds vs 2% of 55+).
  • Younger people were more likely to feel excluded than older volunteers (25% of 18–24 year-olds vs 8% of 55+).
  • Disabled volunteers were more likely say volunteering had negatively impacted their health and wellbeing than those with no health issues (16% vs 9%).

These findings should be taken with some caution due to small base sizes.

Frequent volunteers were more likely to have negative (as well as positive) experiences.

As seen in section 6.2, frequent volunteers were more likely to report a range of positive impacts than occasional volunteers. However, they were also more likely to report negative experiences in some areas. For example, frequent volunteers were more likely than occasional volunteers to report too much time being taken up (37% vs 23%); being in conflict with others (24% vs 17%); and negative effects on family life (12% vs 5%).

This suggests frequent volunteers may be more likely to feel some of the highs and lows of volunteering because of the greater amount of interaction they have with their volunteering organisation and those they volunteer with.

Researchers have debated a ‘tipping point’ in relation to the number of hours of volunteering required to feel benefits such as those relating to mental wellbeing.62 The findings from our survey add to this research by indicating that there can also be negative impacts felt among those who volunteer most frequently.

These more negative aspects of participation are important to explore and understand if we are to have a fuller picture of the volunteer experience. Research63 highlights how volunteers can feel over-burdened and how volunteer burnout can result from high levels of commitment.

The negative effects on personal relationships have also been reported, with concerns that the time spent volunteering can cause resentment amongst volunteers’ partners.64 Our research further highlights these tensions and the concerns volunteers have about the negative impacts of volunteering on family life, particularly for those who volunteer frequently.

Data on negative experiences and impacts of volunteering

6.4 Food for thought: How do the perceived impacts of volunteering affect satisfaction?

In addition to these aspects, the impacts (both positive and negative) explored in this section (section 6) were included in the regression analysis, and a number of these were found to be strongly associated with satisfaction. These are summarised in Table 10.66

This highlights how important it is for volunteers to feel they are making a difference, which, as seen in section 4.3.1, is the most common reason why people volunteer. It again emphasises the value of enjoyment in volunteering, which almost all volunteers agreed they benefited from. We know that enjoyment can mean different things to different people; it could be about having fun, but this won’t be the case for all volunteers, especially those whose volunteering activities are, by nature, challenging and difficult.

Enjoyment is likely to be the result of many things – the activities undertaken, the interactions with others, a personal sense of achievement or fulfilment, people’s emotions etc.

The finding in relation to feeling unappreciated reflects the importance of recognition, despite volunteers saying that it is not important for them when asked directly, as highlighted in section 5.5.

Feeling unsafe was found to be independently associated with overall satisfaction, although only a small proportion of volunteers reported experiencing it.

One framework that may help us to understand volunteer satisfaction is the psychological contract67. This can be thought of as the social exchange or relationship between a volunteer and an organisation. The psychological contract is based on a set of shared mutual expectations or promises. When these expectations are met, satisfaction increases. However, if these expectations are not met or are changed, volunteers may feel less positive about the relationship and withdraw altogether.

Data on key aspects of the volunteer experience associated with being satisfied

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 01 January 2019