Volunteers want to give back and make a difference. Often, and for some causes in particular, the organisations that they support will be in the public sector. In this thematic report, which draws on NCVO’s study Time Well Spent – perhaps the most significant survey of its kind for over a decade – we look at those giving their time in public services, rather than in charities or elsewhere.

Findings from Time Well Spent are already influencing practice among organisations that involve volunteers. This series of focused reports that follow look at areas which have raised questions for further exploration – the first was on employer-supported volunteering.

It’s abundantly clear that volunteers have a lot to offer public service organisations. The benefits are to organisations, to volunteers and, most crucially, to all of society.

The scale and range of this volunteering is substantial, with volunteers active everywhere from hospitals to the police, from boardrooms to the day-to-day delivery of our public services. Almost all of the volunteering is local and, in many instances, volunteers are managed by paid staff. But it is important to be clear that volunteering is not about delivering services cheaply. This is about improving the experience of people using services, improving the culture and quality of services, and strengthening the links between services and communities. It is not about replacing or substituting staff.

There are some key messages from the research. These include opportunities to make better use of volunteers’ skills, encourage greater understanding among paid staff of the value volunteers can bring, facilitate the engagement of a more diverse group of volunteers, and seek to avoid the feeling that regular commitment equates to obligation.

Public sector leaders, charity leaders and organisations, and unions all have a role to play in supporting, encouraging and empowering staff to involve volunteers in a positive way – with a focus on opportunities as well as risks. Being clear why volunteers are being involved is a crucial first step. Public sector staff should see it as part of their role to empower communities and volunteers to take action.

We need to recognise the many challenges that public services, and those working and volunteering in them, face in terms of finances, demand, and changing expectations. But we can see that volunteering programmes do need investment to make them work as well as they can, and to ensure that the volunteers get the best possible experience too.

I hope that this study will help to open a discussion about what more public sector volunteers can do and what more can be done for public sector volunteers, because one clear message from this research is that if organisations want to maximise the benefit of volunteer engagement, it is vital to think about the quality of the experience.

Anne Heal

Chair, NCVO


Our thanks go to the all those who participated in the research and made it possible, including those who participated in our focus groups and stakeholders involved in informing the research. Special thanks go to our colleagues in the volunteering development and policy teams, for their expertise in practice and policy, and contributions especially in these areas. Finally, we thank the NCVO board of trustees for their continued support and enthusiasm for the project.

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 14 September 2022