Volunteer motivations

This section delves into the reasons and factors that led people to start or continue volunteering during the pandemic.

Sense of duty and making a difference

The original Time Well Spent survey mentions a combination of altruistic and personal motives for volunteering; research from the pandemic indicates that public good was a more important motivator.

  • The Young Foundation acknowledges a greater recognition of the importance of community solidarity.
  • 88% of respondents to an RVS survey of NHS Volunteer Responder participants said that they volunteered in response to a national crisis, 64% wanted to support the NHS and 72% wanted to support their local community.
  • Public survey research from Belong reported that people who volunteered during the pandemic had more compassion for people living in their area, and stronger bonds with family, friends, colleagues and neighbours.
  • The APPG for social integration research claimed greater community spirit that inspired volunteering including those less likely to have volunteered in the past.

When it comes to pandemic volunteering, the primary driver was a sense of duty, and long-term volunteers were likely to be driven by empathy and sense of duty. When asked about what led them to volunteer in the first place, a great number of focus group participants said that the start of the pandemic was an unprecedented crisis. They thought that it was their duty to help respond to the crisis, and volunteering was a good opportunity.

The main thing for me was pivoting into the national crisis and calls in the newspaper and all the press [saying]: "we need volunteers"...As a retired person I had all the time in the world, so I threw myself into that.

Male, 65+, continued volunteering

Volunteers in the health and medical professions tended to perceive the pandemic as their calling. Others were motivated to make a difference and see the impact. The government message was characterised as the call to action, and the prevalence of this sentiment reflects how powerful the government message – “Stay home, save lives, protect the NHS” – was at the start of the pandemic. One recalled the period as “wartime,” and others described the sense of alarm and fear they felt watching the news unravel every day.

The pandemic at the time was the biggest peacetime threat this country had seen since 1945. People [were] stepping up and doing their bit for what was an uncertain future

Male, 45-54, continued volunteering

The focus groups showed a direct link between the volunteers’ perception of the gravity of the crisis and their decision to volunteer during the pandemic. The government’s repeated message to vaccinate the population in the second half of the pandemic resonated with some volunteers. One new volunteer explained that he decided to volunteer at a vaccination centre to “end this pandemic as soon as possible.”

The sooner all of us could get vaccinated, the sooner things could go back to normal...that was one of the driving factors

Male, 16-24, started volunteer

There were other factors that called for action. Faith motivated some participants to volunteer at their local mosque or church, at which they continued to volunteer. One participant recalled that Black Lives Matter in summer 2020 inspired her to “do something important” in her local community. Yet when they decided to volunteer during the pandemic, volunteers were more likely to choose a very local cause, venue, and group close to their heart.


Guilt was a prominent feeling for volunteers. This featured strongly in the groups of people who volunteered before and continued volunteering during the pandemic.

All my colleagues worked at the covid frontline, and I had to stay home and shield. I felt guilty for that.

Female, 55+, continued volunteering

The sense of guilt was strongly linked to the sense of duty, and for some volunteers these were inseparable.

Many shared their feeling of guilt for not helping more, having a lot of time to fill, having a stable job or not being in a paid job.

I was not badly affected by the pandemic, so I thought I should do something.

Female, 45-54, continued volunteering

One volunteer felt guilty for not being able to help while he himself had covid.

I was fortunate enough to get covid right at the start of the pandemic. I started to do front-line shifts, which I hadn't done for a while...I was in bed for six weeks with covid, then I had the guilt of running my day job...and trying to ramp up volunteering.

Male, 45-54, continued volunteering

Everyone felt guilty for something. Volunteers strongly empathised with others, even if they themselves were afflicted by the pandemic. When observing the job losses and insecurities, shielding and isolation, health concerns, and increased workload that their friends and families experienced due to the pandemic, they, in turn, felt guilty for having a secure job, being healthy, or not overworking.

I think everyone had to pay [for the pandemic]

Male, 16-24, continued volunteering

The level of mutual guilt demonstrates the extent of to which people have been affected by the pandemic. That many of the participants still held these feelings two years after the pandemic started indicates the lasting impact of these emotions.

Source of social interaction

Under lockdown and severe social restrictions, some people found solace and joy in socialising through volunteering. One participant shared her experience of volunteering for the first time during the pandemic, working at a vaccination centre.

I really enjoyed that. It was nice to get out and meet people again, because it's quite isolating during the pandemic.

Female, 65+, started volunteering

At the end of volunteering, she and her fellow volunteers became “like a big family” and created a Facebook group to keep in touch.

A volunteer manager recalled one Zoom meeting:

[There were] tears at the meetings...people [felt] terrible in lockdown...kids at home, pressures of home-schooling. Volunteering became something important for their faith, their kids...to make a positive difference and feel part of a community...The pandemic has brought new ways of thinking about connectedness.

Regional manager at a religious charity

Volunteers remember that it became progressively more difficult to lead their normal lives and they felt increasingly isolated.

I went from volunteering every weekend to nothing [at the start of the pandemic]. I live by myself...I didn't see anyone for 12 weeks...[so] I spoke to some people who were in the same situation.

Female, 45-54, continued volunteering

One volunteer with two young children continued volunteering online for her local group throughout lockdowns to connect with others. Another volunteer used volunteering as a way of keeping normalcy and providing entertainment to his young daughter, particularly when childcare settings and schools were closed.

Young volunteers particularly felt the need for social interaction as schooling went online.

There was nothing social going on...the volunteering was a great opportunity.

Female, 16-24, started volunteering

The need for social interaction was nonetheless not the main or primary reason for most volunteers; rather, it was secondary and often accompanied other drivers.

Volunteering, whether it's pandemic or not, for me is being part of society...because it feels like I'm giving back to society.

Female, 45-54, continued volunteering

Lifestyle changes, time to fill and using and gaining skills

Volunteers’ life stages affected their decision to volunteer. Retired participants wanted to fill their time, while younger participants were eager to gain extracurricular experience through volunteering.

I'm early retired, so is the wife. In a way, lockdown wasn't such a big change for us. We were lounging around the house, doing stuff.

Male, 65+, continued volunteering

Now I'm retired, I've got lots of free time...I wanted to find things that make me feel like I'm not getting old...I just don't [want to] sit at home doing nothing.

Female, 65+, continued volunteering

Other volunteers wanted to use their existing skills and specialty for good. Two participants in the health and medical professions - a consultant and a psychotherapist in the NHS - offered their time outside work at a vaccination centre or running counselling sessions. Similarly, a chef volunteered for the first time during the pandemic working in a kitchen for vulnerable people and at a youth club while his restaurant was closed. He had previously “never really [given] volunteering a thought.”

I never considered doing [volunteering], never really had time [before the pandemic]...but the pandemic hit me really hard...I had volunteered just to keep myself busy really, more than anything else

Male, 45-54, started volunteering

Another participant who started volunteering as a vaccination steward was approached by a friend volunteering at the vaccination centre.

Covid literally left us jobless and nothing to do as much...I said yes [to volunteering] because I had nothing to do.

Male, 16-24, started volunteering

Filling in time was the main motivation for these two volunteers, whose work commitments suddenly disappeared at the start of the pandemic, and many of the new volunteers we interviewed agreed that they got less busy. Some even enjoyed being able to slow down and relax.

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 22 July 2022