3. Why? Why and how family volunteering comes about

In this section, we consider why and how family volunteering comes about. First, we look at this from the family perspective: the motivations for, routes into and triggers for families to get involved in volunteering, and the resources that they draw upon to enable them to do so. Within this, we also consider how family can act as a barrier to volunteering. We then consider why organisations get involved in family volunteering, particularly the more actively designed approaches, while also considering what stops others from getting involved or doing more.

3.1. Beyond the individual: Why and how families get involved in volunteering

There is already a considerable body of evidence on why people volunteer. Most focuses on individual motivations, but there is also evidence on predispositions and triggers for and routes into volunteering.[1] Common reasons given for volunteering include wanting to help people or improve things, having spare time and wanting to support a group, organisation or cause that they think is important.[2] We heard many of these types of responses amongst our respondents. Rather than repeating all those findings here, we focus on the motivations, routes in and resources which were particularly related, in one way or another, to family. Each section incorporates findings on how family can also act as a barrier to volunteering.

Figure 5: Family as a driver for volunteering

Family as a driver for volunteering

Family as motivation

For some, family was a motivation, or reason, for volunteering. The reasons that people gave for volunteering, for example, included those that specifically related to their children or their sense of family and their role within the family.

Instilling and expressing family values

For some, family volunteering was motivated by family values: for example, the importance of family, supporting each other, hard work, helping others, community, active citizenship and faith. These were not just individually held values, but also collective family values, or at least values that parents wanted to instil in their children, and volunteering was seen as a way to both actively express and transmit them. As one parent put it: ‘they can see how things fit in the community and how people work together and that importance of being part of something’. Where parents and children volunteered together or alongside each other, this was seen as a particularly valuable way of expressing and instilling those values: ‘You’re experiencing it with them and you’re showing them that you care for it’. The hope in many cases was that volunteering would become the norm for family life:

I think it’s important for these guys [children] to see. They probably think it’s quite normal for someone to run a massive business [charity shop] like we’ve been doing, for free and [with] no time, while they’re doing a job and running a family, they just think that’s normal.

Role modelling

For some parents, the motivation for getting involved was a desire to be a good role model for their children. This was also highlighted in our evidence review.[3] As one volunteer who brought her child along with her to one of our case study organisations reflected:

I have no husband here but my kids always copy what their parents do so my son came on Thursday last week because he had an inset day, and it was normal for him to come with me for a couple of years, he made the puzzles, it’s good … it’s very important for kids to show [them] how you volunteer, they will copy.

While being a good role model was particularly associated with volunteering that involved parents and children doing something together or alongside each other, it was not limited to that: other forms of volunteering were also felt to offer the potential for positive role modelling. For example, in some families when it was just one of the parents who volunteered, this was enough to stimulate conversations about volunteering and/or to be seen volunteering by children – the role modelling still happened.

Spending meaningful time together

For some, the reasons given for wanting to get involved in family volunteering related to a desire to do something meaningful together as a family within the time they had available or to spend ‘quality time’ together, as a couple, a family unit of parents and children, or siblings. This was seen to be gaining importance as lives became increasingly busy, meaning that time spent together was more precious.[4] As one person said:

Because we’re spending time as a whole family, so I think that’s really important, everyone’s lives are so busy now, we all have our own little things, whereas this we’re all spending that morning together.

Here, there was an added belief that spending meaningful time together would help to strengthen relationships amongst family members. One family talked about being motivated by a desire to ‘reframe’ their relationships, which had become challenging within the home – it was hoped that volunteering would provide a neutral space to spend meaningful time together and rebuild those relationships.

Time outside of the family

Sometimes, volunteering was motivated by a desire to do something as an individual outside of the wider family or with time that had become available because of changes in family circumstances – volunteering became ‘me time’. For example, for those on maternity leave, volunteering can be motivated by a desire to do something meaningful when paid work has paused, while also providing a reason to get out of the house, meet people, stay connected and do something ‘for me’ rather than with or for the family (we explore this further in the section on triggers/routes into volunteering below). As one person said:

…I got very involved because…I very much felt like I needed to do stuff because I’d been working 14/15 hours a day and commuting and then suddenly not…I felt like I needed to get involved. They were little tiny things – doing the cash for a toddler group [for example, but] that was a job. So I did ‘a job’ to feel like I had a thing to do and it was part of my structure and my week because it had all turned upside down…

Family payback

Involvement in family volunteering was also motivated by wanting to give something back to an organisation or a community that the family were a part of or had benefited from. One volunteer talked about being motivated by a ‘huge debt of gratitude’ that they felt for the organisation – in this case the Scouts – for support they had provided to their son at a particularly difficult point in his life. For some parents, this meant volunteering for all the activities their children were involved in, particularly those that were run by volunteers: ‘So I think generally if our children do anything run by volunteers, we always try and do something’. Within this there was a sense of building reciprocity and mutuality across parents:

After having kids you realise how much it entails – the cost – so giving back to some mothers who are in different situations is quite a nice kind of motivation.

Similarly, wanting to be part of, or contribute to a community was a commonly cited reason for volunteering, particularly for families within the more rurally located cases. This has a particular family dimension to it: it wasn’t about getting involved in the community individually, but about wanting the family to feel part of the community.

Family life providing multiple routes into volunteering

In common with existing research evidence,[5] and as indicated in some of the above, we found that family life could often provide triggers for and routes into volunteering.

Children’s activities as routes into volunteering

Having children was itself an important trigger for volunteering, and children’s involvement in education and leisure activities often provided a route into volunteering for parents. We found many instances of this within our family case studies. This was sometimes actively encouraged by organisations. For some organisations which provide activities/services for young people, becoming a parent helper is almost a requirement; for most, it is more gently encouraged – some do little to encourage or facilitate it, although it may happen by default. In some instances, volunteering had been triggered by an organisation that a child was involved in being threatened with closure if volunteers did not come forward. This left parents feeling as if they had little choice but to step in, and occasionally led them to volunteer in organisations in which they had little: ‘Sometimes you do things because you feel you should, not necessarily because you have got a passion for it’.

Sometimes, however, children didn’t want their parents, or other family members, involved in their activities: they valued their time apart, and indeed time apart was recognised as an important way for children to develop independence. One couple talked about waiting until their child had left an organisation before volunteering, as he hadn’t wanted them to get involved: ‘We fancied [volunteering] a little bit before, but with [our son] it was sort of, “Oh, I don’t want to be going along there with my dad, let us have my own thing.” So we waited a little bit longer until he went off to university before joining it properly.’ This was acknowledged by at least one of our case study organisations, which had questioned the extent to which they should encourage parents to volunteer for activities in which their children were involved because they recognised that some young people’s involvement represented the first thing that they had done independently of school or family: ‘We’re the first active decision they take for themselves’. To involve parents could take away from this.

Additionally, while children’s activities can provide a route into volunteering for their parents, when those activities come to an end for the children, this can also mean the end of volunteering for parents. This was not always the case – we found examples of parents who had kept volunteering for groups that their children had left many years ago.

Participation as a route into volunteering

Being a participant in or beneficiary of an organisation also provided a route into volunteering for young people themselves, sometimes on their own and sometimes alongside their parents. Sometimes there was a blurry line between being a participant and a volunteer, with no clear distinction between the two. In some cases, this move from participation to volunteering had been facilitated by organisations having a clear pathway, or route of progression, from participation into volunteering that was actively encouraged and supported. In others, young people found their own way. We shall return to this in the section below.

Other family members as a route into volunteering

The route into volunteering for some came from being encouraged to help out at an organisation by another family member. Sometimes this was in the form of a husband ‘mucking in’ to support his wife’s volunteering by, for example, helping out at occasional events that his wife was organising, and at other times it was a more committed, sustained involvement. In such cases, while various family members got involved in volunteering, it was primarily driven by one person who got involved and then roped the others in. As one person put it:

Once you step foot through that door, you don’t get out again! And, if your family want to spend time with you, they have to come through the door with you! And, I say that in the nicest possible way, it’s one of those things, it’s like they see you doing something and, ‘Oh I fancy having a bit of that’ and they come and they try it, they enjoy it and they join in.

Some volunteers and family members themselves highlighted that they were not choosing to get involved; they felt obliged to help out a partner, for example, or had been told to help out by a parent. As one person said: ‘It’s more important for me than it is for them, they feel obliged to help me out, they certainly don’t need to, but because I’m there every, one Saturday a month, I think my wife particularly has always felt obliged to turn up with me.’ Generally, despite some resistance, being ‘roped in’ was reflected upon positively overall and had sometimes led to a lifelong commitment to an organisation. Indeed, in some cases we heard that while a child’s volunteering may initially have been ‘driven’ by a parent’s, as they were roped in to help, over time this had changed. This was acknowledged by both parents and children:

They would rather be doing their own thing, if I’m honest. My daughter was like ‘Mum must I?’, but then once she got there she used to enjoy it…so she was okay once she was there, it was just getting her there that was the challenge.

…me mam and dad have been in [this organisation]…since before I was born and that tends to be how I got involved because they were very, very active with [this organisation]…it was a case of we got, I wouldn’t say ‘dragged along’ because a lot of the time we quite enjoyed it, but yeah…it’s been part of my life all my life.

Family as a resource for volunteering

Families also provided a range of resources to enable volunteering to begin. Time and money were particularly highlighted here. Having more of these resources was generally thought to increase the chance of volunteering; having less of them created barriers to getting involved. We touch on how they relate to getting into volunteering here, and we shall return to them in section 4 when we discuss how they affect the ongoing experience of family volunteering.

As evidenced within the literature,[6] time was thought to be an increasingly scarce resource, and a lack of it was identified as being a key barrier to volunteering by our case study families and organisations. Two developments were particularly highlighted as reducing the time that families had available to volunteer: increased working hours, particularly through rising female employment; the rise of children’s leisure pursuits. Volunteering together as a family or volunteering alongside a child involved in an activity, however, were recognised as good ways to help to overcome time barriers and reduce time conflicts. Some people, for example, said that they were more likely to participate in volunteering at weekends if their children could be involved in the activity as well:

On the weekends I’m more open for volunteering if it’s something that would involve the kids and it’s an experience that they would like…if it’s a family activity and it’s fun and it gets the kids out, then yeah, I think it’s something that we would do more of.

It was also recognised that families often needed a certain level of financial security before they felt that they could volunteer. One member of a couple who undertakes full-time work, for example, may ensure that the family has enough financial resource to enable the other person to work part time and so have capacity (both time and financial security) to volunteer. Similarly, one parent (or grandparent) who looks after children may reduce childcare costs and so enable the other to go out and volunteer. One family, where three generations were volunteering alongside each other in the same organisation, reflected on how the grandmother had stepped back from her own volunteering roles to pick up some of the childcare activities in order to enable her daughter and grandchildren to do their ‘activities’, including volunteering.

Importantly then, these resources were not just individually held and drawn upon, but also pooled and shared across those families, enabling some or all of the members to engage in volunteering in ways which might not have been possible if they were reliant on their own individual resources. Single-parent families faced particular barriers through a lack of pooled resources. Further, when ‘deciding’ whether or not to take on a volunteering role, for some it was a conscious, collective, family (rather than individual) decision, made by weighing up all the resources alongside the other roles and responsibilities that they shared as a family:

…for us it is very much the two of us [making decisions about volunteering] together, because [my husband] works full time, and he works away from home a lot, so I am on my own a lot here. He’s really struggling to be chair of governors because he keeps not being here. I feel that I can do stuff on behalf of both of us, so as a family we have this lot of volunteering, maybe three-quarters of that is me doing it, but I can do it because of our situation, [my husband] can’t, he’s chocka, and when he’s home he really wants to spend a bit of time with our daughter, so it’s almost like, it’s not us doing it individually, it’s us as a family, what we can do in the circumstances we have.

For others it was more of an individual decision, although often made in relation to others within the family:

I make my own decisions, but that's because my husband is still working full time so I’m a free agent to get on and do what I want, eventually it probably won’t be like that, but it is at the moment.

3.2. Mission and reach: Why organisations get involved in family volunteering

When family volunteering had developed ‘by default’ within organisations, it was hard to identify why this had happened, other than a general sense that it had developed organically as a reflection of the organisation’s general mission, values and activities, and how embedded they are within the local community, for example. When family volunteering had been developed ‘by design’ or ‘extension’ however, two key sets of motivating factors were identified.

Family volunteering as a way to meet mission and values

For some organisations, developing family volunteering was seen as a way to meet its mission, to deliver on shorter term strategies and/or to reflect its values. This included organisations which aimed to educate and empower children, engage with families, be family friendly or embed themselves within the community.

It was suggested that it was those organisations which were particularly orientated to either families or communities through their mission and values that were most likely (and able) to actively encourage and facilitate family volunteering: it was something which naturally aligned to what they did more generally. For family-orientated organisations, for example, making volunteering accessible to families through being flexible, relatively informal, responsive to family needs and balanced in their response to safeguarding measures is easier than for other organisations, as it more closely aligns to what they do and how they work in general. As a respondent from one organisation put it: ‘Making sure it is accessible [for families] is one of the things that’s hard baked into any space we take on, it’s got to allow families to come in.’

For other organisations, family volunteering was seen as a way to help them become more family orientated. Here, involving family groups as volunteers was seen as a form of co-production: family members were encouraged not just to give their time but also to contribute ideas as to how activities could be delivered by the organisation to make them more appealing and accessible for families.

Family volunteering as a way to widen participation

Some organisations had designed family volunteering schemes 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, which would enable a wider range of people to get involved. Similarly, explicitly encouraging parents to bring children was seen as a way to overcome childcare as a barrier to volunteering and so widen participation. Encouraging parents and children to volunteer together was recognised as a way to overcome some of the concerns that organisations had about safeguarding when children were unaccompanied.

In some cases, it was hoped that there would be a wider knock-on effect, in terms of engaging more diverse volunteers through family volunteering and subsequently using this to demonstrate that they were an open and relevant organisation. One organisation, for example, talked about encouraging parents and children to volunteer together as a way to engage people from minority ethnic communities (particularly refugee groups) where the child is the main English speaker and so can act as an interpreter for a parent who would otherwise be/feel unable to participate due to the language barrier.

Organisational barriers and limits to developing family volunteering

We heard from a number of organisations that wanted to develop family volunteering initiatives, but had experienced or perceived barriers to doing so. Reflective of the perception that family volunteering is about parents and children volunteering together, often these barriers were created through concerns about involving children or young people as volunteers: for example, would they be able to get insurance? How would they ensure they met safeguarding regulations? What roles or activities would or could children volunteer within? Would they be able to cope with the extra administration associated with the regulations around involving young people? Would they have the physical space to accommodate parents and children volunteering together? Sometimes these concerns reflected wider organisational cultures which themselves created barriers to the involvement of children. Concerns were also raised by some organisations about their capacity to manage family volunteers, perceiving family volunteering to be more resource intensive than other forms of volunteering.


  1. Musick and Wilson provide a thorough review in Musick, M. and Wilson, J. (2008) Volunteers: A social profile. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

  2. See for example McGarvey, A., Jochum, V., Davies, J., Dobbs, J. and Hornung, L. (2019) Time Well Spent: A national survey on the volunteer experience. London: NCVO. https://ncvo-app-wagtail-mediaa721a567-uwkfinin077j.s3.amazonaws.com/documents/time-well-spent-a-national-survey-on-the-volunteer-experience.pdf (accessed September 2020)

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

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

  5. See for example 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)

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

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 28 September 2020