5. Volunteer experience
This section looks at the experiences of public sector volunteers based on Time Well Spent and experiences cited by focus group participants. This includes overall measures, such as satisfaction and likelihood to recommend their volunteering, and more specifically, perceptions of volunteer management and support, role, and relationships with others.
5.1. What’s the overall experience of public sector volunteers like?
Overall, public sector volunteers are positive about their experience
Satisfaction among public sector volunteers is high, with 94% of those who gave time in the last 12 months (as their main organisation, if multiple) reporting they were very or fairly satisfied with their experience. Around 7 in 10 (71%) said they either had already or would recommend it to a family or friend, and three-quarters (76%) said they were likely to continue volunteering with the organisation in the next 12 months.
The feeling of making a difference and enjoyment are central to these positive perceptions
These positive overall perceptions were also shared by focus group participants. When asked about their experiences of volunteering generally, spontaneous associations were mostly positive. They were most positive about: making a difference and enjoyment of the role, along with other factors relating to recognition, acquiring knowledge, skills and experiences and their relationship with others (see table 1).
However, public sector volunteers tend to be less positive than those giving time to civil society
Despite a generally positive perception of their volunteering experience, a comparison of public sector volunteers with civil society volunteers highlights that public sector volunteers are less positive than civil society volunteers overall. This is seen in satisfaction levels, most notably in the difference for those who report being ‘very satisfied’ (47% reporting this compared vs 58% of civil society volunteers). They are also less likely to continue volunteering in the next 12 months (76% vs 83%).
Our main Time Well Spent data (of volunteers generally, not just public sector volunteers), found that those aged 18–34 and 35–44 were more likely to be less satisfied than those aged 55 and over. Given the age profile of public sector volunteers is generally younger than civil society volunteers and all volunteers as a whole (see section 3.4), satisfaction levels may relate in part to age (other research suggests, for example, that older volunteers perceive more positive changes from their volunteering than younger) but it is likely that there are other factors at play, as discussed in the rest of this section.
Key challenges and aspects experienced less positively vary
When focus group participants were prompted to think about key challenges or areas of their volunteering they were less positive about, again, a number of common themes emerged.
As shown in table 1, some of these areas overlapped with those that came up for positive associations – for example, recognition, role and relationships with others. However, others were unique to these less positive perceptions. These included aspects of management or organisation of volunteering, resourcing and, most notably issues relating to time – specifically around balancing commitments, time pressure and frustrations about how time was taken up or used.
Some of these negative aspects were mirrored in Time Well Spent data which looked at negative impacts of volunteering. Among those who said they felt negative impacts, from a prompted list, the most common impacts were being left out of pocket, too much time being taken and feeling pressured to do more or to continue.
The biggest change over time was the impacts of funding cuts
When reflecting on changes in their experiences over time, focus group participants spontaneously raised the increased pressures on organisations as a result of reduced funding, and the impact of this on staff and volunteers.
Some focus group participants considered that organisations were trying to ‘fill the gaps’ with volunteers, and felt increased expectations and pressure on their time and commitments. At times, this led to some volunteers being made to feel guilty for not doing more, or taken advantage of.
Over the years we're seeing the public sector cut back as much as they can to save money, volunteers are a wonderfully attractive prospect for them, people who will come and do the job, even if not quite to the extent as a full time member of staff was, for free... they definitely take advantage of that. If before you were part of a group, you are effectively doing the job of someone who did that job, you feel more put upon and it takes away the enjoyment
The impacts were wide-ranging and included both direct impacts as well as indirect (ie impacts on staff that then impacted on volunteers). These are explored in more detail within the following sections.
5.2. Perceptions of volunteer management
Perceptions of volunteer management mirror overall satisfaction levels. Namely, most were positive about their volunteer experiences but public sector volunteers were less likely to be positive compared with civil society volunteers, and volunteers as a whole (see table 2).
Experiences at the start of the volunteer journey could be improved
As seen in table 2, while most were happy with the time taken to start their volunteering, one in five (20%) public sector volunteers expected the process to be quicker. Other research reflects this issue. For example, research on special constables and police support volunteers highlighted over a third of volunteers (36% special constables and 34% police support volunteers) disagreed that the pace of recruitment was good and that the force had kept them updated. This was raised as an issue which may be leading to potential volunteers dropping out.
Volunteers are more likely to perceive their volunteering as being too structured and less flexible than civil society volunteers
Table 2 also shows that public sector volunteers were twice as likely to agree that there volunteering ‘was too structured or formalised’ than civil society volunteers (20% vs 10%). They were also more likely to disagree that the organisation was flexible around the time they give (16% vs 9%).
Overall, focus group participants had mixed perceptions towards the organising and management of their volunteering, depending on type of volunteering role and setting, but generally, participants perceived public sector volunteering to be quite structured. For those who had also volunteered in civil society organisations, they tended to feel it was more structured than in those organisations.
Some found the level of structure and formalisation of their volunteering helpful because it allowed them to understand what was expected of them, which in turn enabled them to better plan their volunteering around work or home life. For others it was more negative. Among those who had experiences of volunteering in civil society, some reflected that the structured nature of volunteering meant that they felt less embedded in the (public sector) organisation, compared to their experiences in civil society organisations. Our Time Well Spent data highlights that 81% of public sector volunteers feel that they ‘belong to the organisation’ compared with 87% of civil society volunteers.
Volunteers in larger organisations can feel lost in ‘layers’ of bureaucracy
Public sector volunteers were also less positive about other aspects of the management and organisation of their volunteering. For example, almost a third (32%) of public sector volunteers felt there was too much bureaucracy compared with around one in five (21%) of civil society volunteers.
Focus group participants who volunteered in large public sector organisations were more likely to raise this issue. These participants felt that their organisation’s size contributed to additional bureaucracy and at times to making volunteers like themselves feel like they were at the ‘bottom’ of the organisation. This also contributed to them feeling that volunteers’ perspectives were not always heard and that sometimes others in the organisation did not know much about them.
The issue with public sector – it’s a huge organisation, no one really knows what volunteers do, not told – people above them. One day I got told a section was shutting down. I went into the room full of detectives and they were like who are you again, and wasn’t sure how much responsibility I was allowed, there’s so many people above you
Well-organised volunteering can still leave volunteers feeling unsupported
At the same time as being more likely to feel volunteering was too structured, formalised and bureaucratic, it is interesting to note that a significant minority (38%) of public sector volunteers agreed that things could be much better organised (this was not, however, significantly different to civil society volunteers who agreed with this statement). Where focus group participants felt their volunteering was not organised well, this was generally driven by a sense of a lack of clarity and of ‘time wasted’:
If it's properly organised, you know what to expect, but when it's chaotic, things feel fragmented and you feel it's a bit of a waste
Some focus group participants also highlighted a distinction between organisation and management of volunteering and feeling supported. One participant reflected that their volunteering was:
…organised in the sense of there being a rota but no support for people in the role
Participants mentioned that reduced funding had resulted in reduced support in some cases, with staff having less time to dedicate to looking after volunteers because of increased pressure on their own roles, or because of volunteer manager roles being cut. Perceptions of support are explored further in section 5.5.
Public sector volunteers are less likely to say their expenses would be reimbursed
In terms of support, another issue that the Time Well Spent data highlights is that public sector volunteers were less likely to agree that they would be reimbursed if they wanted than civil society organisations volunteers (47% vs 59%). Just over one in ten (12%) of public sector volunteers reported being left out of pocket from their volunteering. While a minority, it was one of the most common negative experiences cited from a given list. Considering that public sector volunteers are more likely to be managed by a paid coordinator and their volunteering overall involves more formal processes, this difference is unexpected.
Perceptions, in large part, reflect expectations
Discussions from the focus groups in relation to volunteer management showed that expectations play a key role in volunteers’ perceptions of the organisation and management of their volunteering. This reflects what is known as the psychological contract: 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.
Expectations from the volunteer perspective are likely to be driven by a number of factors, including those that were personal or individual, and others that were societal. They were also driven by what volunteers perceived to be reasonable in the context of the role of organisation and its the size. For example, when talking about the recruitment process, those in certain roles (especially relating to vulnerable people and children) expected the organisation to have a rigorous process that may (inevitably) take some time. One participant, for example, commenting on mandatory training as part of the recruitment process described it as:
boring but it's what I expected, it's part and parcel
5.3. Perceptions of role and time
As seen in table 1, when spontaneously considering their role, focus group participants had a mix of different associations.
Being of value is important to volunteers
As highlighted in section 4.1, wanting to make a difference was the most common motivation for getting involved in the first place. This theme was also brought up by focus group participants when talking about their volunteering roles. For some, making a difference in a context that was very different from their day-to-day jobs was part of what they enjoyed about their volunteering. Others reflected that their roles could be challenging and even upsetting at times. However, providing help in this context also contributed to their sense of achievement and fulfilment.
The skills and experience volunteers were able to bring to their volunteering roles also impacted on how they felt about the value of their involvement. Our Time Well Spent data highlights that 49% use their professional skills and 46% use other (non-professional) skills. However, the data indicates that there is potential for more, with around one in five (21%) public sector volunteers saying they have skills they would like to use but are not currently using. This was higher than for civil society volunteers (14%) which may indicate that public sector volunteers’ skills may be more likely to be underused.
A lack of resources or training can lead to frustrations
While the motivation to make a difference remained, some felt that they were not always able to fulfil their role as much as they would have liked, leading to some frustrations. This related mostly to a lack of resources and training linked to reduced funding. Opinions were particularly strong among participants whose roles required specific knowledge, and may be expected to have this knowledge by others. As an example, a magistrate reported not receiving training for four years despite changes in legislation, forcing her to find information elsewhere.
Our Time Well Spent data found a desire for more training, with almost half (49%) of public sector volunteers who were already receiving some kind of training saying they would like or would have liked more training to help them carry out their volunteering. This was much higher when compared with civil society volunteers (38%).
Some had felt increasing pressure to manage and balance their time
A common theme that emerged in the focus groups was the challenge of balancing their time spent volunteering. Many perceived this had become increasingly difficult in the context of reduced funding. In some cases this had led to reduced staff and more expectations being placed on volunteers. Time Well Spent data highlights that over one in five (22%) feel the organisation has unreasonable expectations of their time – higher than civil society volunteers (14%). Among focus group participants, this was more prevalent among roles such as magistrates and special constables. The impact of these pressures for some was that they had to actively manage time and put boundaries around it. This at times took away some of the enjoyment of their volunteering.
Increased pressures do not just relate to time, but also the nature of the role
As well as increased expectation on their time, some volunteers perceived other pressures in relation to their role, which were largely attributed to the context of reduced funding.
- a special constable going out on their own
It's a hell of a lot of pressure for someone who is a volunteer... taken on a huge amount given I'm a volunteer
- an NHS volunteer having to deal with unhappy patients who are experiencing the impacts of a pressured service, such as long waiting times
That confrontation, it doesn’t ruin your day but you think I don’t need that, it’s my time and I’m trying to help. It’s a bit rubbish
- a governor reflecting on the increased pressure on decision-making when working with tighter budgets.
The pressure on the job now is forcing people out of it. I’m making some difficult decisions here, not just turning up and playing at being a school governor. Some people have dropped out because pressure’s on
5.4. The boundaries between paid and voluntary roles
Volunteering can feel like paid work
Among focus group participants, increased expectations and pressures combined with the more structured nature of their volunteering made their involvement feel to differing degrees like paid work. This was more common among those with more formalised and time-intensive roles.
Being like paid work, however, was not always framed negatively. As noted before, some actively sought a more structured volunteering opportunity that was more like a paid job. For one student, the volunteering opportunity being more like a paid job was better for building career experience.
This can become ‘too much’ where volunteering feels like an obligation, without recognition
While being like paid work was not always negatively framed by our focus group participants, our Time Well Spent research shows that volunteering can feel ‘too much like paid work’ – around a quarter (24%) of public sector volunteers surveyed agreed with this statement. This was higher than among civil society volunteers (16%) and volunteers overall (19%).
Reflections among focus group participants on what being ‘too much’ like paid work means indicate that it is where there is a sense of obligation placed on volunteers by organisations or those they volunteer with, to the extent that it may feel like it is not voluntary anymore:
I think it [feeling too much like paid work] is when you feel pressured or responsible to do something rather than this is me willing to do it. When people start expecting xyz and they get upset when you don't do it, that's when it doesn’t feel like volunteering anymore
This feeling was exacerbated among participants who were in roles which were already formalised, when there was a lack of appreciation, especially where organisations or paid staff did not recognise and acknowledge that they were giving their time for free.
Perceptions of the boundaries between paid and voluntary roles varies by sub-sector and role
In addition to the discussion on whether their volunteering felt like paid work (or too much so), focus group participants also commented on the roles of paid staff and that of their own. On the whole, most felt there was a clear distinction between the two, but this varied by sub-sector and specific role. Overall, a spectrum could be seen from these differences, broadly categorised into the following:
a) Where the nature of the volunteer roles are distinct from paid staff roles. For example, magistrates’ roles are distinct from others’ in court, or governors’ roles are distinct from teachers.
b) Where volunteers and paid staff are working alongside each other but have been allocated different tasks. For example, in a library, paid staff focus on more specialist enquiries while volunteers help out with ad hoc queries, eg using the computers
c) Where volunteers and paid staff are working alongside one another and doing similar roles. Among focus group participants this was most common among special constables.
d) Where volunteers were doing a role which would formerly have been done by paid employees but is now only carried out by volunteers (ie job substitution). This was most common in libraries.
While some of the common sub-sectors are listed above, the division of roles was more likely to depend on the particular role itself, more than sub-sector. It should also be noted that boundaries between paid staff and volunteers have been influenced wider policy changes such as the expansion of police powers to community support volunteers and police support volunteers.
Issues seem to arise most where there is an overlap of roles or where volunteers are doing roles formally done by paid staff
Across the spectrum, issues tended to be seen most where there was an overlap of roles, or where volunteers were doing a role formerly carried out by paid staff (ie categories c) and d)). One example cited in the focus groups was where paid staff were not happy when special constables were brought in for events as they were denied overtime pay as a result. Some also reported tensions where a role used to be carried out by paid staff. This could feel awkward for volunteers, though in turn it also made them feel their role was important as it would not be done otherwise. Issues in this context are explored further in the sub-sector spotlight on libraries.
5.5. Relationships with organisations and with paid staff
Public sector volunteers feel less supported than civil society volunteers
Perceptions of how volunteers feel within their volunteering organisations and those they volunteer with, reflects overall satisfaction levels. For example, 87% agreed there was a culture of respect and trust. Across some aspects, however, as with overall satisfaction, perceptions are less positive than among civil society volunteers, such as feeling supported (79% public sector vs 85% civil society) and feeling that they belong to the organisation (81% public sector vs 87% civil society).
Relationships between volunteers and paid staff are shaped in different ways
The way in which volunteer and paid staff roles interact (as shown in section 5.4) is one of the factors shaping volunteer-paid staff relationships. However, a number of other factors were highlighted as impacting on the relationships between the two:
- Firstly, the intensity of the interactions. Some volunteers worked very closely alongside paid staff whereas others had interactions more ‘at arms’ length’. Those who had more interaction tended to have stronger views and relationships had more impact on their experience (positive and negative).
- Secondly, organisational culture and the consequent ‘standing’ of volunteers within the organisation shaped relationships and dynamics between paid staff and volunteers. Those who tended to feel ‘looked down on’ described their organisations as more hierarchical whereas in some settings (examples being governors and magistrates) participants reported a culture where volunteers were respected and even ‘put on a pedestal’.
- Thirdly, the nature of the role. Some volunteers were in positions where their role was to challenge and hold organisations to account. In these cases, the dynamics of roles and relationships are shaped by this.
- Lastly, the wider context of funding cuts. Where organisations are affected by funding cuts, this can put pressure on volunteer and staff relationships and the dynamics between them.
As well as being shaped by the factors outlined above, it should also be noted that, although organisations may at times use similar processes for paid staff and volunteers, the management of volunteers is different to the management of paid staff. This is driven by a variety of reasons, but, for example, recent research has highlighted that without the framework of the conventional employment contract, management of volunteers (generally, not specifically in public sector organisations) can be emotionally complex and demanding, especially when managing volunteers who demonstrate a high degree of affective commitment.
The quality of volunteer-staff relationships goes beyond role distinction
While there were variations in the nature of the relationships between volunteers and paid staff, when looking at the quality of the relationships a number of areas were identified. A summary of these are found in table 3, with detail on each below:
1. Roles are clear and complement each other
Where relationships between volunteers and paid staff worked well, roles were clear to both and complemented one another. For example, focus group participants in hospitals talked about volunteering being able to provide emotional support to patients in a way that was different to staff, complementing the work of the paid staff.
On the other hand, relationships worked less well where volunteers felt they were not able to be useful or even perceived to be creating extra work for staff – leaving them feeling like they were being more of a burden than a support to paid staff.
At one point I felt like I was in the way, I felt like I wasn’t doing anything and actually disturbing them
As highlighted in section 5.4 tensions sometimes arose where there was an overlap of roles, and a sense of threat was felt among paid staff.
2. Appreciation and value
The theme of recognition and value was raised both in our survey and additional research. Our Time Well Spent data indicates that 42% actively say it is important to receive recognition. However our research more widely also showed that recognition was one of the key factors strongly associated with satisfied volunteers which suggests it may be more important than people admit. Among the public sector volunteers surveyed, 83% agree they feel recognised enough, however there is still scope for more to be done.
Among focus group participants, where volunteers felt valued, staff were vocal in their appreciation and recognised that they may, for example, be giving a significant amount of time to the organisation. They also felt valued for the skills and experience that they brought to their volunteering role.
Where tensions arose, it tended to be where there was a lack of recognition not just for the help they were giving, but also specifically that they were doing it as a volunteer, ie for free, in their spare time. Where there was a lack of appreciation and value, volunteers described feeling taken advantage of and taken for granted.
Some of the paid staff don't appreciate you, they think it's your job to do it but I'm a volunteer
Another common theme raised in relation to volunteer-staff relationships was that of treating volunteers with respect. Where they had good relationships, volunteers felt they were seen as equals.
Where tensions arose, on the other hand, volunteers felt paid staff looked down on them as ‘just a volunteer’, and they felt they were not listened to. This often related to wider organisational culture, as highlighted previously. Some volunteers also reported being given tasks or roles which paid staff did not want to do.
Volunteers often actually got the most skills – but culture is that they’re just a volunteer, they’re not given stature that they should be given
4. Staff morale
Another factor which volunteers perceived to have an impact on volunteer-staff relationships was how staff themselves were feeling. Positive staff morale was perceived to have a positive knock-on impact on their relationship with volunteers.
It depends on how happy the employees are…the organisation I volunteer for, they're happy, they openly admit they love their job, that's why I don't experience resentment
On the other hand, tensions arose where they perceived staff to be unhappy or felt resentment towards volunteers. Furthermore, there could be a knock-on impact on volunteers if staff were feeling stressed or pressured by the wider context such as staff shortages and long working days.
Days are long but if a volunteer has done the wrong thing, you can get a look and maybe sentence. That’s the bit where you think screw you a bit, I’m here to help. I’m volunteering to make your life easier
5. Support and understanding
As highlighted in section 5.2, volunteers perceived support to be different to the organising and coordinating of their volunteering and an important part of their relationship with paid staff, especially where they had close interaction. Our Time Well Spent data indicates that most feel supported (79%).
Where focus group participants talked about being supported, this often related to paid staff who were open to being asked for help and providing it where needed. Participants also talked about feedback being helpful.
On the other hand, where volunteers felt unsupported it tended to be where they perceived paid staff as not being able or willing to help. There was an understanding that this was often because they were very busy themselves, but some were left feeling that it was difficult to even ask for support.
6. Inclusion and camaraderie
Where volunteers felt included, this had a positive impact on their relationships. As highlighted previously, most felt a sense of belonging within their organisation but less so than civil society volunteers (81% public sector vs 87% civil society).
Where volunteers felt a sense of belonging, they perceived staff to be welcoming and inclusive. One volunteer, for example, described being invited to leaving parties for members of staff. On the other hand, some felt more at ease around other volunteers, who had more in common with them than paid staff.
Staff are amazing and treat me like one of their own
5.6. Why do volunteers continue or stop?
Around three-quarters of volunteers say they are likely to continue in the next 12 months
When recent public sector volunteers were asked about their likelihood to continue volunteering for the organisation over the next 12 months, the majority (76%) said they were likely to continue. However, this was significantly less than for civil society volunteers (83%).
Reasons for continuing largely reflect motivations for starting
Among those who said they were likely to continue, the most common reasons (as seen in chart 5) were the cause they were helping (46%) and the difference they were making (45%). As seen in chart 4, a higher proportion of public sector volunteers felt the difference they were making was a reason for continuing compared with civil society volunteers and volunteers as a whole (45% public sector vs 36% civil society and 37% all volunteers).
While not strictly comparable to motivations explored in Section 4, similar patterns can be seen such as the importance of the organisation being less prominent among public sector volunteers when compared with civil society volunteers. Volunteering for a cause and to make a difference continue to be the primary motivations. As with initial motivations, while for civil society volunteers the organisation was the primary motivation for continuing (55%), it was ranked third for public sector volunteers and a much lower proportion selected this as a reason (40%).
Also similar to motivations for starting, skills or experience acquired was more common among public sector volunteers as a reason for continuing to volunteer than among civil society volunteers (17% vs 10%).
Focus group participants largely felt that their motivations were similar to why they started but among those who had initially started out for practical reasons, for example to gain skills and experience, some said that over time, other factors such as enjoyment had been more of a driver for continuing.
Some may continue despite the challenges they face in their volunteering
It should also be noted that some continued to volunteer even despite experiencing challenges or even negative experiences. Where this was the case among focus group participants, this was often because such challenges were counteracted with the feeling that they were making a difference.
Another reason raised among focus group participants was a sense of duty, which was also ranked among the common reasons in the Time Well Spent survey (cited by over a quarter of public sector volunteers, 26%). Where this was perceived among focus group participants, it tended to be more common among older participants and linked to a perception that people ‘should’ volunteer. One participant who felt this way described his experience as follows:
If you're fit and healthy and you live in this country, you have to give something back. I enjoy being a JP [Justice of the Peace ie magistrate] but that’s the reason, the guilt. If I don’t help, I feel guilty… it’s one of the bigger drivers… If I'd have known [what it was going to be like] I wouldn't have done it but now feel as if I resign, I let everyone else down
Practical reasons are often cited for discontinuing volunteering but experience also matters
Among Time Well Spent respondents who said they were unlikely to continue volunteering with the public sector organisation in the next 12 months, the most common reasons given were practical – namely, changing circumstances (eg home, work, study) and health reasons (both 26%). The next most common was that they ‘felt they had done their bit’ (18%).
Negative perceptions of the organisation’s management and not feeling appreciated ranked lower (9% and 10% respectively). However, given the findings highlighted earlier about public sector volunteers being more likely to perceive their volunteering to be less flexible than civil society volunteers (see Section 5.2) it raises the question about whether the practical reasons cited most commonly (ie changing circumstances and health reasons) may be in part because volunteering opportunities are not able to easily accommodate these changes.
Our wider Time Well Spent findings highlights that while it may not always be cited as a primary reason, volunteers’ experiences are associated with satisfaction and retention, and they matter too. This is supported by findings among police volunteers – see spotlight on this sub-sector.
Van Willigen, M. (2000), Differential benefits of volunteering across the life course
Callender, M., Cahalin, K., Britton, I. and Knight, L (2018) National Survey of Special Constables and National Survey of Police Support Volunteers
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Policing and Crime Act (2017)
Green, A-M., Ward, J.: De Montfort University, Leicester (2016); Too much of a good thing? The emotional challenges of managing affectively committed volunteers