1. Introduction

  • Existing evidence suggests that family context might be an important influence on volunteering.
  • Family life is changing, with unknown consequences for volunteering.
  • While we know something about how family influences volunteering, we know relatively little about how families experience volunteering or how organisations engage them.
  • This research study set out to explore the relationship between families and volunteering, from the family and organisational perspective.
  • The research involved: reviewing existing evidence; mapping family volunteering opportunities; analysing the UK Time Use Survey; organisational and family case studies.
  • This report brings together the findings from across these research elements.

1.1. Background

Volunteering is often viewed purely as an individual activity that is driven by a mix of altruistic and instrumental motivations, is influenced by demographics and leads to a range of personal benefits. When we research it, we often seem to freeze it in time and space, exploring individual instances of volunteering, in one place and at one moment in time. Over the last decade, however, research findings have emerged which have encouraged us to recognise the complex and wide-ranging social context in which volunteering is situated.

The Pathways through Participation research,[1] for example, highlighted the range of factors that shape participation beyond the individual – including relationships and social networks, groups and organisations, local environment and wider societal and global influences. These interdependent contextual layers act together to shape the motivations for, routes into and experiences and outcomes of volunteering.

Evidence suggests that family context might be particularly significant. We know from existing literature, for example, that married people are more likely to volunteer than those who are single, especially if their spouse volunteers;[2] but newly married women (not men) are less likely to volunteer immediately after marriage,[3] and volunteering rates can drop off when parents have a baby[4] and increase when children reach school age.[5] For women, in particular, volunteering rates can drop when they become carers for elderly or sick relatives[6] and when someone is widowed.[7]

We know that if parents volunteer, their children are more likely to do so,[8] partly through the parents acting as influential and enduring role models[9] and through socialisation processes by which pro-social behaviour becomes the norm,[10] although this can be disrupted by marital distress and family transition.[11] Children’s activities can also provide a route into volunteering for parents and vice versa.[12] In short, existing evidence suggests that family matters when it comes to volunteering.

We also know, however, that families are changing. Evidence shows that family structures have become more diverse: fewer people are married; more couples cohabitate outside of marriage, including those with children; there are more single-parent households (almost entirely mothers); there are more LGBTI couples, including those with children.[13] Some of these structures have come hand in hand with changing attitudes and legislation. The division of roles and responsibilities within families has also changed. Changing attitudes to women working, combined with economic needs, have come with the rise of two-income households, for example.

According to one recent report, 60% of households had two working parents, with more women in full and part-time work than in the past.[14] Despite more women entering the workforce, however, the same research suggests that women are still doing the majority of domestic tasks, including childcare and chores, on their own. Evidence suggests that men are doing more childcare in general than in the past but are disproportionately undertaking interaction tasks, while women do more practical work alone and are more likely to reduce their leisure time or workload as a result.[15] Women have also been found to disproportionately carry the ‘mental load’: the responsibility for organising, planning and managing the household.[16]

These changes have knock-on effects for wider family life, including the ability of families to spend time together. One study highlighted that many people are likely to be working hours outside of the traditional working week (flexible evenings and weekends), which can impact on the time that family members will be able to spend time together.[17]

Another study highlights that other factors in addition to work, including technology, housework and homework, are impacting on family time together: the study estimated that families spend on average less than seven hours of time together each week.[18] Half wanted to spend more time together, and nearly all recognised that time together was crucial. Families are often combining activities, such as domestic chores or childcare, with leisure.[19]

All these developments raise considerable questions for volunteering, including how they will affect the likelihood of families engaging in volunteering, the volunteering experience and its outcomes. To date, however, evidence is limited on exactly how they are shaping volunteering from an individual or family perspective, and an organisational one.

When it comes to how volunteer-involving organisations are engaging with families as volunteers (and beyond), we know relatively little. Family volunteering schemes and opportunities which specifically target families have been operating in the US and Canada for a while but, to date at least, appear to have been less common in the UK. In a short survey on family volunteering conducted by NCVO in 2015, the majority of organisations that responded did not offer family-focused volunteering opportunities, but there was interest in developing these kinds of opportunities in the future.

We suspect, however, that many have been involving multiple members of the same families as volunteers for years. The implications of family volunteering for volunteer recruitment, retention and support are as yet unclear. Furthermore, it seems that volunteer-involving organisations are thinking about family volunteering opportunities primarily as those in which family members participate together. There is, however, scope to look at this area more widely, including opportunities for siblings, grandparents and grandchildren, and couples to volunteer together, as well as considering how organisations might take into account family dynamics more generally when developing and supporting volunteering activities.

1.2. Research aims and objectives

Recognising the potential significance of the (changing) family context for volunteering, and the existing gaps in evidence, raises new questions about the relationship between families and volunteering. There is more to be understood from the family perspective – how and why families engage with volunteering individually and collectively, how they think that changes in family circumstances are shaping their experiences and what effect volunteering has on the family.

There is also more to be understood from an organisational perspective – why and how organisations engage with families as volunteers, whether this is through formal schemes or more generally through their everyday volunteering activities, what enables and constrains family engagement in volunteering and what difference it makes to those organisations.

We aimed to address these evidence gaps by exploring how organisations engage with families as volunteers and how families engage with volunteering. We did this through undertaking research to address three key questions.

  • How and to what extent do families engage in volunteering?
  • How do families understand and experience volunteering?
  • How do organisations and community groups engage family members as volunteers?

Within this report, we have reframed these questions as follows.

  • 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 support volunteer-involving organisations to:

  • develop or enhance volunteering opportunities for family members (individually or collectively)
  • successfully manage such opportunities and enhance the experiences of all those involved
  • help organisations, through newly created practical resources, to think through and consider family dynamics when developing and supporting volunteering activities.

A practical framework to help organisations reflect on how they currently involve families in volunteering and how they could develop this in the future has been produced alongside this report and is available here.

1.3. Research approach

This research has involved five stages, which are summarised in figure 1 and expanded upon below.

Evidence review

Our search for existing literature on family and volunteering found 232 relevant documents that spanned a number of fields and disciplines. We reviewed these articles to help guide our research, in particular by highlighting key themes and gaps in current understanding on families and volunteering.

While we identified quite strong evidence on how family status affects volunteering, we found very little on how organisations engage with families as volunteers. The findings of the review are available in a full report and blog, as well as being interwoven within this report.

Secondary analysis of the Time Use Survey

We undertook quantitative analysis of the data from the UK Time Use Survey (UKTUS) 2014/2015 (the most recent version).[20] 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. Our analysis focused on: understanding how common family volunteering is amongst households in the UK; whether different members of the same family engage in volunteering activities together or separately; who volunteers as a family; the relationship between family composition and volunteering rates. A blog and detailed report of the findings have been published.

Mapping of organisational engagement with family volunteering

We mapped existing family volunteering opportunities using internet searches (Google, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) to understand the types of activities available, how they are communicated and the types and fields of organisations offering them. This included reviewing the websites of 106 organisations and 67 expressions of interest forms from organisations, which were submitted to NCVO in response to a blog about the research. We held follow-up conversations with a small number of organisations that had contacted the research team with particularly interesting examples of family volunteering schemes.

Organisational case studies

We undertook five organisational case studies. The organisations were selected from the mapping stage of the study to reflect different approaches to family volunteering, as well as a mix of other features such as: whether the engagement was within a specific scheme or part of general volunteering within the organisation; whether it was formal or informal; frequency of volunteering; activity subsector; focus; family type; scale of family volunteering; type of organisation. A brief summary of each of our case study organisations is provided in table 1.

Data collection for the organisational case studies included:

  • interviews with staff/leaders at different levels
  • focus groups and/or interviews with volunteers – both those who volunteered with family members and those who did not
  • family case studies (see below)
  • a review of organisational documents and administrative data
  • observations of volunteering activities, where possible.

The methods we used were flexible, allowing us to adapt to organisational and family circumstances: the inclusion of young children in interviews, for example, required a different approach to those which only involved adults.

In the main text of this report, we avoid referring to individual organisations to protect their anonymity, but organisations are named in the boxed examples.

Family case studies

We undertook 12 case studies with families from within the case study organisations. We sought, as far as possible, to maximise diversity of families in terms of: patterns of volunteering; family structure; ethnicity; age. For example, our case studies included: two siblings volunteering together without their parents; a single parent with three children, plus two grandparents; families with young children and families with grown up children; blended families. Although most of our family case studies were from white, middle-class backgrounds, we did include families from minority ethnic backgrounds and from lower socio-economic groups.

The limited demographic diversity of our family case studies does create a limitation to the study. Family case studies typically involved a joint interview with as many of the family members as possible, during which an interactive exercise was carried out to map out family members, their roles and responsibilities, and volunteering activities. In most cases, the joint interview was followed by a series of one-to-one interviews with individual family members. We have given all families pseudonyms to protect their identities in this report.


For the case studies, we conducted both within-case (description of the case and themes within the case) and cross-case (identifying key overarching themes, points of similarity and disconnect) analysis. An analysis framework was used to support this. Short case study descriptions were written up for each organisational case study.

Emerging findings, from all stages of the research, were shared at a workshop with volunteer-involving organisations to check for resonance and validity and to think through implications. The discussion within the workshop helped to shape the final stage of analysis and the development of our set of considerations for practitioners.

1.4. Reading this report

The report brings together the main findings from the different stages of the research and is divided into six key sections: Introduction; 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).

A note on definitions

The Office for National Statistics defines a family as: ‘a married, civil partnered or cohabiting couple with or without children, or a lone parent, with at least one child, who live in the same address. Children may be dependent or non-dependent.’[21] We have taken a slightly broader definition, including members of extended families who may not live at the same address. Families, then, can include single-parent families, gay and lesbian families, blended and non-custodial families (including step-parents and stepchildren) and families without children.

We know that not everyone will call their involvement ‘volunteering’. We have tried to capture the range of activities that people undertake when giving unpaid help. This includes informal volunteering (carried out on an individual basis), as well as formal volunteering (through a group, club or organisation), although our focus is predominantly on the latter not least because we reached volunteers through organisations, groups and clubs. While we asked them about volunteering elsewhere, our findings are inevitably skewed to more formal forms of volunteering.

As for ‘family volunteering’, while it is commonly understood to refer to family members volunteering together in the same organisation, often within a specific initiative, in this report we take a broader view to include the range of ways in which families get involved in and shape volunteering. We detail our understanding of ‘family volunteering’ in section 2.


  1. Brodie, E., Hughes, T. Jochum, V., Miller, S., Ockenden, N. and Warburton, D. (2011) Pathways Through Participation: What creates and sustains active citizenship? London: NCVO/ IVR/Involve. www.involve.org.uk/resources/publications/project-reports/pathways-through-participation (accessed September 2020)

  2. Nesbit, R. (2012) ‘The influence of major life cycle events on volunteering’, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, vol. 41, no. 6, pp. 1153–1174.

  3. Einolf, C. J. and Philbrick, D. (2014) ‘Generous or greedy marriage? A longitudinal study of volunteering and charitable giving’, Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 76, no. 3, pp. 573–586.

  4. Nesbit, R. (2012) ‘The influence of major life cycle events on volunteering’, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, vol. 41, no. 6, pp. 1153–1174.

  5. Einolf, C. J. (2018) ‘Parents’ charitable giving and volunteering: Are they influenced by their children’s ages and life transitions? Evidence from a longitudinal study in the United States’, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quaterly, vol. 47, no. 2, pp. 395–416.

  6. Taniguichi, H. (2006) ‘Men’s and women’s volunteering: Gender differences in the effects of employment and family characteristics’, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 83–101.

  7. Ravanera, Z. R., Beaujot, R. and Fernando, R. (2002) ‘The family and political dimension of social cohesion: Analysing the link using the 2000 National Survey on Volunteering, Giving and Participating’, PSC Discussion Paper Series, vol. 16, no. 7, article 1.

  8. Grimm, J. R., Dietz, N., Spring, K., Arey, K. and Foster-Bey, J. (2005) Building Active Citizens: The Role of social institutions in teen volunteering, Washington, DC: Corporation for National and Community Service.

  9. Bekkers, R. (2007) ‘Intergenerational transmission of volunteering’, Acta Sociologica, vol. 50, no. 2. pp. 99–114.

  10. Taylor-Collins, E., Harrison, T., Thoma, S.J. and Moller, F. (2019) ‘A habit of social action: Understanding the factors associated with adolescents who have made a habit of helping others’, Voluntas, vol. 30, no. 1, pp. 98–114.

  11. Ottoni-Wilhelm, M. and Bandy, R. (2013) ‘Stage-specific family structure models: Implicit parameter restrictions and Bayesian model comparison with an application to prosocial behavior’, Review of Economics of the Household, vol. 11, no. 3, pp. 313–340.

  12. Einolf, C. J. (2018) ‘Parents’ charitable giving and volunteering: Are they influenced by their children’s ages and life transitions? Evidence from a longitudinal study in the United States’, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quaterly, vol. 47, no. 2, pp. 395–416.

  13. OECD (2011) Doing Better for Families. www.oecd.org/els/family/47701118.pdf (accessed September 2020); ONS (2019) Families and Households in the UK: 2019. www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/families/bulletins/familiesandhouseholds/2019 (accessed September 2020); Saner, E. (2019) ‘The family in 2050: artificial wombs, robot carers and the rise of single fathers by choice’, The Guardian www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/dec/31/family-2050-artificial-wombs-robot-carers-single-fathers (accessed September 2020)

  14. UCL (2019) ‘Less than 7% of couples share housework equally’. www.ucl.ac.uk/news/2019/jul/less-7-couples-share-housework-equally (accessed September 2020)

  15. Wajcman, J. (2014) Pressed for Time: The acceleration of life in digital capitalism. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

  16. Emma (2017) ‘The gender wars of household chores: a feminist comic’, The Guardian, www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/26/gender-wars-household-chores-comic (accessed September 2020).

  17. Wajcman, J. (2014) Pressed for Time: The acceleration of life in digital capitalism. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

  18. Woolfson, R. (2017) The Bassets Vitamins Purple Paper. www.bassettsvitamins.co.uk/~/media/Bassettsvitamins/en/Pdf/BassettsVitamins%20PurplePaper%20Website.pdf (accessed September 2020)

  19. Wajcman, J. (2014) Pressed for Time: The acceleration of life in digital capitalism. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

  20. Gershuny, J. and Sullivan, O. (2017). ‘United Kingdom Time Use Survey, 2014–2015’. In UK Data Service.SN:8128: Oxford: Centre for Time Use Research, University of Oxford.

  21. ONS (2019) Families and Households in the UK: 2019. www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/families/bulletins/familiesandhouseholds/2019 (accessed September 2020)

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 28 September 2020