Volunteering: A family affair? Summary report

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We would like to thank all the people who have been involved in this research project. We are particularly indebted to our five case studies organisations, their staff, volunteers and wider family members: Kids Run Free, Little Village, St John Ambulance, St Mary’s church, Wendover and the Whitworth. It has been an absolute pleasure meeting and working with you, and we are very grateful to you for sharing your stories and experiences so openly and honestly. Thank you.

We are also particularly grateful to our funders: Sport England, the Greater London Authority (Team London), Pears #iwill Fund and the Scouts. Without your support – both financial and intellectual – this project would not have been possible.


Our research set out to explore the relationship between families and volunteering, from family and organisational perspectives. It aimed to address evidence gaps and to support volunteer-involving organisations to develop or improve volunteering opportunities and experiences for families.

We did this by reviewing existing evidence, mapping family volunteering opportunities, undertaking analysis of the UK’s Time Use Survey, and organisational and family case studies.

This summary report brings all this together under five themes.

  • What? (Defining and describing family volunteering)
  • Why? (Why and how family volunteering comes about)
  • How? (How family and organisational contexts shape family volunteering experiences)
  • To what effect? (The outcomes of family volunteering for families and organisations)
  • So what? (Conclusions and considerations)

We hope that the findings will be used to help enhance the experience for all those involved.

Defining and describing family volunteering

Families are involved in volunteering in many different ways

Family volunteering looks and feels very different in different families and organisations. It includes, but is about far more than, parents and children volunteering together within the same organisation. We identified five types of family volunteering: do together, do alongside, do for, bring along and do separately.

Figure 1: Types of family volunteering

Family volunteering can mean parents and children getting involved in volunteering; more often it means couples. It can also mean siblings, or grandparents and grandchildren. Families may engage in these types of volunteering at any one time, or at different stages of their lives. For example, on moving to a new area, couples may use volunteering as a way to integrate themselves into the community; parents may volunteer for activities in which their young children are involved and then volunteer alongside each other as their children grow older, and they may all volunteer separately after their children leave home.

Family volunteering is extensive

According to the Time Use Survey, in 2014/15 one-third of all formal volunteering households in the UK volunteered together as a family, most often as couples without (dependent) children, followed by one parent with at least one child. And we define family volunteering more broadly than is reflected within this Time Use data, which only covers our ‘do together’ and ‘do alongside’ categories, suggesting that family volunteering is likely to represent an even greater proportion of volunteering.

There is a variety of organisational approaches to involving families in volunteering

We identified a spectrum of approaches from ‘by design’ through to ‘going unnoticed’. For many organisations, family volunteering is something that has evolved, largely ‘by default’, over the organisation’s history or as an ‘extension’ of the activities/services that they deliver, which themselves have been focused on families or children. Family volunteering was often not a discrete thing, but integral to the organisation’s engagement with volunteers per se, and often reflective of a general orientation towards families or communities.

While some efforts may be made to promote and encourage family members to get involved, particularly in terms of parents being encouraged to help out with activities in which their children participate, often family volunteering goes unacknowledged. Some organisations, however, had designed specific family volunteering schemes in which families (particularly parents and children) were explicitly encouraged to volunteer together, often within discrete projects or activities. There were indications that these types of approaches are on the increase.

Figure 2: The spectrum of ways that family volunteering can develop in organisations

Why and how family volunteering comes about

Families can provide the motivations for volunteering, routes into volunteering and the resources that volunteers draw on

Existing research shows us that marriage, divorce, strength of relationships, having children, and caring for elderly/ailing relatives can all make a difference to volunteering: some make it more likely that families will volunteer; others have the opposite effect. Our case studies highlighted how family can be a motivation for volunteering through: a desire to instil or express family values; parental desire to be effective role models for their children; wanting to spend meaningful time together (or indeed apart); wanting to give back to an organisation/community as a family.

Families can also provide important routes into volunteering: the activities that children get involved in, for example, can be routes into volunteering for their parents and young people themselves, and volunteers often rope others in too! Volunteering also requires resources, and those resources can be found and shared on a family basis, particularly in terms of time and money. They can also be a drain on those resources, creating barriers to involvement.

Figure 3: Family as a driver for volunteering

Organisations offer volunteering opportunities for families for a range of reasons

Family volunteering opportunities were seen by some organisations as a way to meet mission or strategy. This included organisations which aimed to educate and empower children, engage with families, be family friendly or embed themselves within the community. Other organisations had developed family volunteering opportunities with the intention of widening participation in their organisation, particularly – but not limited to – diversifying their volunteer base.

Family volunteering, for example, was seen to have the potential to overcome time pressures for people by enabling couples or parents and children to volunteer together or as a way to overcome childcare as a barrier to volunteering and so enable a wider range of people to get involved. These were the two main drivers identified by organisations for the establishment of specific family volunteering schemes, but it was harder to identify drivers for the more extensive family volunteering by default, as by its very nature this was less strategically driven.

How family and organisational contexts shape family volunteering experiences

Involvement varies according to family circumstances and distribution of roles and responsibilities

Family circumstances can make a considerable difference not just to the chances of volunteering, but also to how it is experienced. With ever-busy lives, fitting volunteering in can be difficult, particularly when it is (often necessarily) given less priority than other roles and responsibilities. There were important gender dimensions to family volunteering, which were reflective of those within wider society, not least of which included women often shouldering the responsibility for making volunteering fit within the family schedule. Sharing resources, including physical and emotional support, amongst family members can be crucial in sustaining volunteering: it becomes a team effort.

How organisations engage with families can shape people’s experiences of volunteering

What organisations do and how they do it can make a difference to the opportunities for, experiences of, and outcomes from family volunteering. Creating a family-friendly environment is significant.

Key aspects seen to facilitate engagement included: actively encouraging families to get involved in a range of flexible opportunities; opportunities that suit the (changing) needs and interests of different family members (particularly of different ages); having the potential for stepping up and stepping back as circumstances change over people’s life course; supporting volunteers in a way which recognises and accommodates both their individual and family circumstances and how these may affect their volunteering. Some organisations grapple with how to balance a desire to be inclusive, particularly of children and young people, with the need to ensure safeguarding measures are followed.

The outcomes of family volunteering for families and organisations

Volunteering can have both positive and negative outcomes for families

Volunteering can make a considerable difference to those families that get involved. It can be an enjoyable way to spend (meaningful) time together. Perhaps more significantly, it can deepen the bonds between family members, providing a point of commonality and an expression of shared values and identity. It can also be a route to new opportunities and experiences. It can, however, also add to the stresses and strains of family life.

When volunteering becomes too onerous – in time and/or energy – it can take its toll not just on those individuals directly involved, but also on the wider family; other roles and responsibilities can be neglected, opportunities missed and tensions heightened. For some, however, when the stresses were not too great, working through these issues as a family had in itself been developmental.

From the perspective of organisations, family volunteering presents both opportunities and challenges

Whether by design or by default, family volunteering can also have a considerable impact on organisations: it can help them meet their mission and boost volunteer recruitment, retention and resource. It can, however, create challenges for volunteer managers. For example, while recruiting one volunteer can lead to other family members getting involved, the downside is that when that volunteer leaves, the whole family can leave, leading to gaps within the organisation. Family volunteering was generally seen to have led to a widening of participation, but it can also get in the way of inclusivity. For example, there were some instances of ‘family takeover’, with certain families dominating an activity or group, which risked excluding and putting off others.

Conclusions and considerations

Family provides one of the contextual layers that shape volunteering. More than that, however, exploring family volunteering has highlighted how volunteering is not a purely individual activity – it can also be a collective one. In this case, the collective is the family. We found it to be extensive – even more so than we had imagined. We also found evidence to suggest that, like other forms of collective engagement, it is no longer possible to assume that family volunteering will continue to flourish by default.

Changes in the ways that we live and in how organisations involve volunteers are affecting both the chances of family volunteering happening and the experience of it once it does. If it is to be sustained, it needs attention and nurturing. While an increasing number of organisations are looking to design specific family volunteering schemes, this remains a small part of what family volunteering is about.

Ways forward

We suggest a series of questions which organisations may want to consider if they are looking to develop family volunteering.

  1. How do families currently engage with your organisation? Family volunteering is diverse, and it is extensive. It includes, but is about far more than, parents and children volunteering together within the same organisation. It can be about any number of family members volunteering and can involve volunteering alongside each other, for each other or together. It goes beyond what people typically think of as family volunteering. Much of this volunteering currently goes unacknowledged by organisations. We encourage all organisations to reflect upon how they currently involve families as volunteers (and members, supporters, participants), how this has been facilitated to date and how it is changing.
  2. How do you want to involve families and what approach to family volunteering is right for you? Organisations get involved in family volunteering for different reasons and in different ways. The various approaches to family volunteering affect how that volunteering develops, is experienced and contributes to organisational and family life. After identifying how they have involved families to date, we encourage organisations to consider what more they would like to achieve through family volunteering and what different approaches offer in helping them to get there.
  3. Can you enhance the volunteering participation for families within your organisation? Traditional pathways, which had previously facilitated family volunteering largely by default within some organisations, have begun to break down. We encourage organisations to consider the pathways through participation for families within, and indeed beyond, their organisation and how these might be further supported. This could include developing a wider variety of roles; enabling family members to try out volunteering; encouraging movement through different forms of engagement with the organisation – not just volunteering; supporting people along the journey from being beneficiaries of an activity to actively supporting it, or when they need to take a temporary or permanent step back from their volunteering as their circumstances change. This may require a more systems-based approach to volunteer leadership, that looks beyond individual roles, programmes, activities, teams and even organisations.
  4. Can you do more to help families balance volunteering with family life? Families provide important reasons for, routes into and resources for volunteering. But family life is busy – increasingly so – and it can be difficult to fit volunteering in. Volunteering is often carried out alongside or as part of other roles and responsibilities. If organisations want to facilitate family volunteering, it is important that they recognise and support their volunteers with this. We encourage organisations to consider how they can be more flexible in their involvement of volunteers and how they can adapt so that volunteering can be seen as part, or an extension, of a family’s other roles and responsibilities rather than a source of conflict about a family’s resources.
  5. How can you ensure that family volunteering is as inclusive as possible? While family volunteering has the potential to create more inclusive volunteering practices and is particularly effective at engaging parents with young children who would otherwise be less likely to get involved, it also has the potential to become exclusionary. Organisations need to consider how they can develop their volunteering offer to make it more inclusive of families, and within that a more diverse range of families, while also guarding against the potential for family takeover.
  6. How does the balance you are striking between risk management and being inclusive affect the involvement of families in volunteering? A tendency towards formalisation, professionalisation and centralisation can work against flexibility and inclusivity, and as such against family volunteering by default/extension. A growing amount of ‘red tape’ created barriers and was contributing to a suggested decline in multi-generational family volunteering in particular. We encourage organisations to think more about how they can strike the right balance between managing risk and being inclusive.
  7. How can you help to ensure that families, and your organisation, get the most out of volunteering? Volunteering can make a considerable difference to those families that get involved. It can deepen the bonds between family members and provide an enjoyable way to spend time together, a point of commonality and an expression of shared values and identity. It can also be a route to new opportunities and experiences. It can, however, add to the stresses and strains of family life, particularly when it becomes too onerous. Organisations can also get a lot out of family volunteering, and the returns are likely to be even greater when families have a positive experience of volunteering. We encourage organisations to think more about how they can ensure that families get the most out of volunteering: not only will this improve the volunteering experience and outcomes for families, it will also improve the outcomes for organisations and their beneficiaries.

Additional resources

To help organisations reflect on how they currently involve families in volunteering and how they could develop this in the future, we have put together a practical framework based on our research findings.

The full research report for the project, which includes several organisational and family case studies, is also available.

More about the research

Our research included:

An evidence review – a search of existing literature on family and volunteering. We found 232 relevant documents. Read the full review report and blog.

Secondary analysis of the Time Use Survey – analysis of the UK Time Use Survey (UKTUS) 2014/2015 data. This is a nationally representative large-scale household survey, in which people aged eight and over from 4,216 households in the UK complete diaries about how they spend their time. Read the blog and detailed report.

Mapping existing family volunteering opportunities – a review of organisational websites, expressions of interest and discussions with organisations.

Organisational case studies – research activities with five volunteer-involving organisations in England – Kids Run Free, Little Village, St John Ambulance, St Mary’s church in Wendover and the Whitworth. Data collected included: interviews with staff/leaders; focus groups and/or interviews with volunteers; family case studies; a review of organisational documents and administrative data; observations of volunteering activities, where possible.

Case studies with families – the 12 case studies with families typically involved a joint interview and mapping activity with as many of the family members as possible followed by a series of one-to-one interviews with individual family members.

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This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 03 February 2023