2. What? Defining and describing family volunteering

  • Family volunteering is diverse and extensive.
  • We identified five ways in which families engage in volunteering: do together, do alongside, do for, bring along and do separately.
  • Family volunteering can mean parents and children getting involved; more often it means couples.
  • Families may engage in these types of volunteering at any one time, or at different stages of their lives.
  • The ways in which organisations approach family volunteering also differ.
  • We identified a spectrum of approaches ranging from specifically designed family volunteering schemes to the involvement of families in volunteering going unnoticed.
  • For many organisations, family volunteering is something which has evolved over time, largely by default, as an organic part of the organisation’s wider volunteer involvement.

Although relatively rare, specifically designed family volunteering schemes appear to be on the rise.

Like all volunteering, family volunteering is diverse. Here we outline our findings on the ways that families got involved in volunteering and how we have grouped these together to come up with categories of involvement. Our categories go beyond what others have traditionally defined as family volunteering. We then look at the ways in which organisations engage with families as volunteers and suggest that there is a spectrum of approaches – from family volunteering by design through to family volunteering going unnoticed.

2.1. What volunteering looks like within families

We identified five ways in which families engage in volunteering, as summarised in figure 2 and detailed below. While these take us beyond traditional definitions, we suggest that all of these are part of family volunteering: they all reflect how families engage in volunteering and all are important to consider. These are not mutually exclusive: many of our families were engaged in a number of these types. Indeed, we found that some families do them all. More likely, however, is that they move between types over their life course, depending on personal, family and organisational circumstances, opportunities and constraints.

Figure 2: Types of family volunteering

Types of family volunteering

Figure 3: Examples of types of family volunteering

Examples of types of family volunteering

Do together: two or more family members volunteering together for the same organisation, doing the same activity at the same time and place

Our first category – ‘do together’ – is perhaps what people typically think of as family volunteering. It is when two or more members of the same family volunteer together for the same organisation, doing the same activity at the same time. It can be any combination of family members volunteering together: couples, parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, siblings, aunts and nieces, etc. Indeed, while we often think of family volunteering as being parents and children volunteering together, our analysis of the Time Use Survey data suggests that it is more often couples volunteering together.

Sometimes family volunteering together can be through specific initiatives set up to engage whole families as volunteers: our mapping work suggested that opportunities for families to volunteer together are most likely to be offered within organisations in the fields of heritage and culture (for example, museums and art galleries) and the environment (for example, conservation). More often, however, it is likely to be part of the general volunteering going on within the organisation, whether or not this is explicitly recognised.

Do alongside: different members of the same family volunteering for the same organisation, but doing different activities, often at different times

As well as families volunteering together, we also found that family members volunteer alongside each other – multiple members of the same family volunteering for the same organisation, but doing different roles and activities, potentially at different times. While our mapping work only revealed a few instances of opportunities for families to volunteer alongside each other being actively promoted, our case studies suggested that it is happening far more extensively than this would suggest.

Some families we spoke to talked about the value of being involved in the same organisation but doing different roles and activities, which reflects their different interests, skills and experiences, and enables them to have a common connection but not step on each other’s toes: ‘it worked better that way’. As we would expect from existing evidence of volunteering, there was often a gender dimension to the roles being undertaken;[1] there was also an age dimension. We discuss in section 4.2 how having a variety of flexible roles and activities available for family members of different ages and genders enables families to volunteer alongside each other.

Bring along: one family member actively volunteering and bringing other family members with them in more passive roles

Rather than all volunteering together, some family volunteering involves one, or more, family members actively volunteering while bringing others with them – they are present together, but not everyone is actively involved in volunteering. Often this is parents bringing along young children. We found examples of babies being strapped to parents’ chests while out on a march, prams being parked up in the back of a room during meetings and children playing while their parents got on with the task in hand. It also works the other way round: children bringing a parent/responsible adult with them for safeguarding or transport reasons.

For some, bringing family members along with them is what makes it possible for them to volunteer. A single mother of young children, for example, may not have childcare so could not take part in volunteering if she did not bring her child with her. For some, it is a more active choice: bringing children along, for example, can be part of a desire to instil values and build norms of behaviour. We heard that for some, being ‘brought along’ as a child had developed into a lifelong engagement with an organisation. We also heard suggestions that it was getting harder to bring children along due to growing safeguarding commitments. We explore these issues further in subsequent sections.

Do for: one (or more) family members volunteering for a group or organisation that provides a service or activity to another family member

We came across many examples of one (or more) family member volunteering for a group or organisation that provided a service or activity for another family member; often this was parents volunteering to support activities their children were involved in, such as coaching a sports teams or helping out at Brownie packs, youth clubs or schools. There were also instances of volunteering at a care home where elderly parents were residents; it could also include, for example, chairing a local dementia support group that a partner attends, or volunteering at a hospice where a cousin, grandparent, aunt or other resident is cared for.

Our mapping suggests that this kind of family volunteering is quite prominent in sport and recreation (especially in local sports clubs), education (schools) and campaigns (education, climate change or bereavement justice).

Do separately: multiple members of the same family volunteering for separate groups and organisations

This category recognises that family is an important context for volunteering and that multiple family members might volunteer for different organisations. They volunteer but not together or alongside each other. Sometimes the decisions to volunteer in separate organisations are made collectively, based on an assessment of the family and community needs, resources and interests. For example, we found families with young children where one parent volunteered to support the school that their children attend, while the other parent volunteered to support a sporting activity.

A perceived need to support the different organisations that families engaged in led to volunteering being shared out across the family, with family members volunteering separately in the different groups and organisations. Such decisions were actively negotiated in some families. Sometimes, however, volunteering separately was a purely individual decision that reflected the different interests and skills of family members.

Talking about family volunteering

Throughout this report, when we talk about ‘family volunteering’ we are talking inclusively about all five categories within the typology, although sometimes we differentiate between them by specifying certain types when they are pertinent to the point being made. We recognise that this is different to the much narrower understanding of family volunteering as family members (typically parents and children) volunteering together within the same organisation, which is more commonly used and much closer to our ‘do together’ category.[2] As noted above, these categories are not mutually exclusive, and families may engage in multiple forms of family volunteering at any one time or over time. Often, they move between them as their circumstances change. For some families, volunteering is a small part of what they do – one of a number of activities, roles and responsibilities that they engage in as a family. For others, it is a key part of who they are as a family, representing a significant investment of time and energy, often across multiple roles and organisations. We explore these experiences of family volunteering in section 4.1.

2.2. Organisational approaches to family volunteering

There were also different approaches to involving family members as volunteers from an organisational perspective. The key dimension here was the extent to which organisations had intentionally sought to encourage family volunteering within their organisation. We suggest that there was a spectrum of approaches taken by organisations ranging from discrete, designed family volunteering programmes, to family volunteering by extension and family volunteering by default, to family volunteering going unnoticed within organisations (see figure 4).

Figure 4: The spectrum of ways that family volunteering can develop in organisations

By design: organisations specifically seek to engage family groups as volunteers, within discrete family volunteering programmes, projects and activities

Some organisations reported developing discrete activities and programmes designed specifically to encourage family volunteering. Our mapping work suggests that family volunteering by design remains relatively uncommon, but it does appear to be on the increase, with a number of organisations having dedicated sections on their websites, for example, to promote and recruit family volunteers. The examples we found were concentrated, but not exclusively, within organisations working in the fields of the environment, and heritage and culture. Where organisations had specific family volunteering programmes, projects or activities, these generally fell within our ‘do together’ or sometimes our ‘do alongside’ categories. Most of the examples that we found focused on engaging parents and children, rather than couples or other family groupings. Some ran continuously throughout the year; others provided opportunities for more discrete, episodic engagement, for example in events during summer, school term breaks and occasional weekend events. We explore the reasons why organisations have developed such schemes in section 3.2.

By extension: family members are encouraged to volunteer as an extension of the activities and services that organisations provide for families, children or young people

Rather than having a discrete, specifically designed family volunteering scheme, some organisations actively sought to engage family members as volunteers as an extension of the activities and services that the organisation provided for families, children or young people. Typically, this was parents being encouraged to volunteer to support activities that their children were involved in, not within a discrete family volunteering initiative but as part of the organisation’s wider volunteer involvement. While family-friendly practices might be put in place to facilitate this and organisations might mention the possibility of family members volunteering together on a volunteering page or frequently asked questions section of their website, it is part of a general volunteering offer rather than being contained within a specially designed family volunteering programme/activity or exclusively for family members. We found examples of this approach within uniformed youth groups and sports groups. We also came across examples in care homes, where the family members of residents were encouraged to volunteer to support various activities.

By default: multiple members of the same family volunteer within an organisation not through any targeted approach but incrementally over time

Our research suggests that many organisations engage multiple members of the same family more by default than by design. Here, family volunteering had often evolved over time within the organisation; it was not something that the organisation had actively set out to achieve, although it may have implicitly encouraged it through its general ways of working, but multiple family members had been attracted to volunteering within the organisation. We frequently heard stories of couples volunteering together and of generations of the same family volunteering for an organisation, without ever having been specifically encouraged to do so. Some organisations had, however, implicitly acknowledged and therefore potentially encouraged family volunteering through, for example, recognising volunteering families within organisational materials or generally working in ways which were ‘family friendly’. We found examples of this approach within uniform organisations, local community-based groups, including churches and sports clubs, and particular volunteering roles such as fundraising and environmental clean-ups. As we shall discuss below, there was concern amongst some organisations that had historically involved families more by default than by design that there was less family volunteering now than in the past,[3] leading some to consider whether they needed a more active approach to sustain it.

Going unnoticed: family volunteering is not explicitly acknowledged or encouraged by organisations

Our research suggests that some organisations may engage with multiple members of the same family as volunteers without giving it active thought or explicit acknowledgement: family volunteering goes unnoticed. It is hard to judge the scale of this or its significance, although with our analysis of the 2014/15 Time Use survey identifying that one-third of formal volunteering households volunteer together, the indication is that family volunteering may happen more than is acknowledged by organisations. Our mapping work, for example, highlighted that many volunteer-involving organisations made no mention of family on their volunteering webpages or social media feed.

A spectrum of approaches to family volunteering

As noted above, although we have presented discrete approaches, they fall along a spectrum, with organisations often focusing more or less on families and on family volunteering at different points in time, depending on a range of wider organisational and contextual factors. It was possible to follow the journey that some organisations had been on – from family volunteering largely having occurred by default, through to a more proactive approach whereby they had designed a specific programme to target families. For other organisations, the journey was less linear and more fluid. There was also considerable variation within these approaches according to whether the family volunteering tended, for example, to be planned or spontaneous, regular or episodic, formally organised and managed or organically led. In the sections below, we explore some of the factors which seemed to influence the approaches adopted by different organisations and the motivations behind them.


  1. See for example Low, N. et al (2007) Helping Out: A national survey of volunteering and charitable giving. London: Cabinet Office.

  2. In our literature review, for example, we found that Porritt (1995: 2) defined family volunteering as being: ‘when family members volunteer together in community service activities. They may come from different generations, in combinations such as parent/child or grandparent/parent/child, or from the same generation, such as adult partners, or brothers/sisters’. While we think this is a useful starting point, particularly its emphasis on different family groupings, we would encourage a broader definition reflective of the broader types of engagement we found through this research. Porritt, K. (1995) Family Volunteering: The Ties That Bind: An Introduction to Preparing Your Agency for Family Volunteers. Ottawa: Department of Canadian Heritage volunteeringculture.or.kr/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/Family-Volunteering.pdf (accessed September 2020)

  3. Reflective of what Hustinx and Lammertyn refer to as a wider move from ‘collective’ to ‘reflexive’ volunteering. Hustinx, L. and Lammertyn, F. (2003) ‘Collective and reflexive styles of volunteering: A sociological modernization perspective’, Voluntas, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 167–187.

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 28 September 2020