4. How? How family and organisational contexts shape family volunteering experiences

Volunteering is a situated practice,[1] shaped by the context in which it takes place. Here, we consider family context, particularly focusing on how people fit volunteering into their family lives or their lives around volunteering, and the importance of family as a source of emotional and practical support for volunteering. We then consider how the organisational context can affect families’ experiences of volunteering, with a focus on elements that were highlighted as either enabling or constraining family volunteering.

4.1. How family life affects the volunteering experience

Fitting volunteering in

Volunteering is one of many roles and responsibilities that families juggle on an ongoing basis. People we spoke to talked about the busyness of their family life, particularly in terms of pressures from paid work, combined with a growing array of children’s sporting activities, clubs and interests. Reflective of national evidence,[2] many felt that families were getting busier and more rushed, and that it was increasingly difficult to juggle everything.

This was affecting the experience of volunteering for families. These wider developments were exacerbated for those who felt that the demands of volunteering itself were intensifying. When volunteering was less intense, less frequent and/or more flexible, this was less of an issue.

Volunteering was often something that families fitted in, as and when they could, around other roles and responsibilities, such as paid work, caring responsibilities and leisure activities. Some made space for volunteering by fitting it into certain slots of time they had available around those other roles and responsibilities, such as during the school day on non-working days.

What other roles and responsibilities people had to fit volunteering around depended in part on family life stage and changed over time. For some, there was a sense that it got easier to fit volunteering in as children got older and became more independent.

While some felt that volunteering was a distinct, separate activity, to be fitted in alongside other activities for others it was either an extension of or combined with those other activities, roles and responsibilities, making ‘juggling’ feel like less of an issue. For some, for example, volunteering was not seen to conflict with leisure time; it was a form of (serious) leisure[3] which extended from an interest such as sport, dance or music, and was talked about as a passion, something that was fun and enjoyable, if at times demanding.

When parents and children were involved in the same activity – through volunteering for an activity that children were attending, bringing along children or volunteering together – this was seen as an effective way of combining both caring responsibilities and volunteering, and of enabling participation. Indeed, in this context, some volunteers said they didn’t feel like they were volunteering at all, they were simply spending time with their children and having fun. Family volunteering became part of the family routine, part of family life, rather than something that needed to be made to fit in, as volunteering separately might. As one person reflected:

I think it’s about finding ways to include families because for a lot of people, it’s how they balance that family time. They balance that family time because their kids are involved so it’s okay for them to come along and do their [volunteering] stuff as well. We get a lot of single parents that join because their children are part of the youth units and the single parents join because actually, other than coming along to the youth unit, the only time they get adult interaction is when they drop their kids off at school. So, they join and they become a youth helper and they get, it gets them out of the house, they get a little bit of social time, they get, it has benefits for them.

In order to make volunteering fit, particularly when multiple family members were involved in multiple roles, people talked about the importance of being very organised, carefully planning their time and managing diaries across the whole family rather than just on an individual basis. Often the responsibility for managing the ‘family schedule’ fell to women, adding to their ‘mental load’.[4] During a group interview with one family, the father reflected:

There are some choices to be made of how things fit together and this lady here [wife] looks after the structure of the week and makes sure that it sort of fits.

Fitting family life around volunteering

For a few families, rather than fitting volunteering around other roles and responsibilities, they fitted family life around volunteering: ‘So, yes, it wasn’t [this organisation] being part of our lives, it was our lives fitting in with [this organisation].’ For some, this meant sacrifices had been made: there was an opportunity cost for volunteering. Some, for example, felt they had neglected housework, gardening or leisure activities, as they had prioritised volunteering.

We came across a couple of families that had delayed or cut short holidays to ensure they could meet their volunteering commitments. Reflecting on the level of commitment the family has made to volunteering, one person said: ‘We also don’t do anything outside volunteering, like normal family things are like very few and far between.’ While this was generally reflected upon warmly within families (a standing family joke about having a messy house, for example), it could cause tensions within families when other things get neglected.

This was particularly so when one part of a couple was more involved in volunteering than the other: ‘It could be that the wife comes to do something but the husband doesn’t and the husband says, “Well, I don’t want you going every week to do something,” it could be the reverse.’ We return to these points in section 5 on the outcomes of volunteering.

For some, the juggling and meeting volunteering commitments can get too much, particularly when volunteering roles carry considerable levels of responsibility and/or at times when the demands from other roles are especially intense. As one person reflected, volunteering can become a ‘job’ that you have to fit into your ‘spare time’.[5]

A number of respondents talked about finding it hard to say no to requests to volunteer, whether to take on a new role or whether to increase their commitment within an existing one. For some, volunteering carried with it a considerable sense of duty, responsibility and obligation; to say no could be associated with feelings of guilt. These pressures felt particularly intense within families that were involved in multiple volunteering roles.

It was suggested that these already ‘busy people’ were the most likely to be asked to volunteer, and there was a risk that they would feel pressured to go on taking on more and more until they reached breaking point. Once involved, some people found it hard to leave, particularly when their whole families were deeply embedded within an organisation. Some felt that the only thing to do was to break all connection with the organisation – to make a dramatic exit:

…people kept saying, ‘We know you don’t want to do this and you’re a bit too busy, but they’ve left and they’ve left and they’ve left…’ and then I just got to the point where I said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t do this anymore.

Family support

The level of support for volunteering within/across a family can have an important influence on the possibilities for and experience of volunteering; this is critical if the volunteering role is particularly intense. This included both practical and emotional support.[6] Practical support can include: directly helping with a volunteering role that one member of the family leads on (we heard of children baking cakes or helping to prepare resources for a parent’s voluntary role, husbands helping out with more physically demanding aspects of a role and wives doing the catering at events associated with their husband’s voluntary role); providing transport or childcare to enable someone to volunteer.

Emotional support was also important. Families can be an important source of encouragement for volunteering, recognition and validation, a boost in confidence, an ear to listen after a stressful session, a shoulder to cry on and a person to vent to. As one person said of her partner and his support of her volunteering:

He’s a great sounding board so there are times when I’ve done a lot of stuff on my own and it’s really nice to actually have that bit of stress alleviation, even if it is like having a bit of a yell at somebody sometimes but actually just take some of the pressure off me a little bit.

In supportive families, volunteering was described as a ‘team effort’, even when they weren’t physically volunteering together:

…as a family I think I sort of feel like we’re a team and we’ll support each other in stuff and we quite enjoy being together and doing things together when that happens but there aren’t that many situations where we’re explicitly volunteering together at the same time in the same place.

...when I took on the chairmanship, I said to him [husband], ‘What do you think?’, because I knew it was going to be taxing, shall we say. And he said, ‘I think you can do it,’ so that was good, and he realised, and he was such a support, he really was a very great support to me.

Even when volunteering wasn’t physically done together, for some there was a sense that the psychological commitment to volunteering was a collective commitment.

A lack of support can cause tensions and resentments, making the continuation of volunteering difficult. We spoke to a number of people who had continued volunteering despite a lack of support for it from other family members, with knock-on effects on other areas of their lives. This lack of support can be reflective of underlying perceptions of and attitudes towards volunteering. Reflecting on conversations she had had with other volunteers, one person said:

...it does…can cause quite a lot of tensions and sort of resentment, ‘What are you doing that there for? You’re not getting paid for this,’ and I suppose it's the mind set isn’t it?

Levels of support for volunteering varied within and between families according to a number of factors, such as the nature of the relationships within families, the balance of other roles and responsibilities, family values, expectations within the family of certain individuals (often gender related) and the relative status of volunteering.

The status of and priority for volunteering

Within many of these findings are implicit or explicit messages about the relative status of volunteering, particularly compared with paid work. In general, it was suggested that societal changes, such as increased costs of living, were meaning that paid work was given priority over everything else, including volunteering. For some, this meant that it was hard to justify prioritising volunteering. For example, while it was generally seen as acceptable to ask grandparents to help out with childcare for paid work, this was not extended to volunteering. As one (very committed) volunteer, who was a single parent to three children, reflected:

…my mam and dad have stepped in [to look after children] since I’ve started work. The volunteering never interfered, if that makes sense. It wasn’t very often that me mam and dad needed to step in when I was volunteering; it was only if I was going on a training course over the weekend that they would step in then. But, school runs and things like that, the volunteering never got in the way of, I always made sure of that. Whereas paid work is paid work and you can’t pay the mortgage without working.

The relative significance of and priority given to different roles and responsibilities was not static; it fluctuated and was influenced by different stages in family life. There was also a clear gender dimension within this. It was suggested, for example, that for many young couples (indeed young adults in general), paid work was the priority, as it was important to establish careers, and that demanding careers, particularly when involving a commute, left little time for volunteering.

As one person put it: ‘We didn’t volunteer as young adults because we just worked’. Priorities and pressures changed with the arrival of children, and indeed grandchildren. Some changes led to volunteering being reprioritised (for example, supporting children’s activities); others had the opposite effect. Other key ‘moments’ included: moving house and wanting to integrate into a new community; changing jobs; retirement; having ageing/ailing parents. Volunteering doesn’t necessarily stop and start as people move through various family life stages but often changes as people readjust their priorities and commitments.

The relative status of volunteering was raised as a particular issue for women volunteering when on maternity leave or while working as homemakers. Some women, for example, suggested that volunteering was given a lower status than paid work, with implications for whether their partners would support their volunteering and whether they themselves felt that they could legitimately expect others to share their other roles and responsibilities in order to be able to volunteer:

There’s a hierarchy and volunteering doesn’t come up as high as I’d like it to, it’s something that you do, you go to Pilates and you do a bit of volunteering, it feels a bit like that…that’s why I try and talk about it a lot and it’s becoming something more valid…my husband will get his company to put money into it so that feels like it’s a validity that’s beginning to take on but that full support of ‘you’ve got to go and do that, so I’ll have to pick up the slack’ – that doesn’t exist.

In some families, volunteers actively chose to talk about their volunteering as ‘work’ or as a ‘job’ in an attempt to raise its status and to justify their involvement to themselves and/or to others within their family and beyond:

I really pushed that, I call it ‘I’m going to work’ and I make [my husband] do the school run on the days I work so that Wednesday morning is counted as ‘I’m working’. I do get pushbacks sometimes that ‘it’s not really’, not because they’re mean but that’s just because that’s what it’s seen as but then [my husband] and I really correct them and say ‘Not just because I don’t get paid doesn’t mean it’s not work.

4.2. How organisation affects families’ volunteering experiences

A range of organisational features were also identified as being particularly significant in shaping families’ experiences of volunteering.

A family-friendly approach

Creating a family-friendly environment and approach to volunteer involvement was a way of enabling and enhancing the family volunteering experience, particularly when the focus was on the involvement of parents and children. This included providing childcare facilities, enabling parents to bring children with them, ensuring volunteering roles and activities were fun and enjoyable for all ages and inviting family members to volunteer training days or celebration events. Putting such things in place helped to support the involvement of people who would otherwise not be able to volunteer, including parents of young children. Comments included:

…so it’s that real feeling of doing something good and I think that’s what also keeps them there and the fact that their children are having a great time, naturally enough you’re going to keep bringing them back, aren’t you?

I'm worried that I might just get in the way in just being there, but I think everybody here was like you do what you can do around your baby and any bit of help does help!

It was suggested that one of the keys to making family volunteering work was the recognition and understanding of the context of families – ‘being mindful of what else pulls on them’ as one person put it. In particular, this meant being mindful of some of the challenges around the unpredictability of family life, organising childcare and the limited time that parents have, and the benefits that volunteers can gain whether volunteering with their family or as an individual in a family context.

Being family friendly was not limited to organisations with specifically designed family volunteering schemes, nor was it limited to volunteering. Indeed, for some organisations it reflected their wider ethos and/or mission, and this had contributed to an extensive engagement with family volunteering by default. One person talked about it as reflecting the ‘organisational personality’, whereby bringing family members along – whether you were a volunteer, a member of staff or a participant/service user – had become ‘part of the socially acceptable narrative’.

Flexibility and variety

Being flexible was frequently identified as being an important way for organisations to enable families to volunteer, ensuring that volunteering can fit around other commitments. Flexibility was important in terms of the time commitments required of volunteers, for example creating roles that could be undertaken at different times of the day and week (school hours suited some; evenings and weekends suited others) or not requiring a regular commitment but allowing more episodic involvement. This helped to reduce barriers to participation, making it easier to fit volunteering around family life. This was recognised by organisations and volunteers alike:

We try to make sure that we’re offering really flexible opportunities through the week that will fit with people’s lifestyles and they can fit volunteering in and it balance, not being too much of something or the other, so volunteering that fits with family life.

This charity, you can come here with your baby or you can also come once a month or every two weeks, so the commitment is flexible, so that was one of the reasons why [I volunteered].

Allowing family members to share volunteer roles was also identified as being an important form of flexibility. Sharing a volunteer role (especially when it was particularly onerous) with another family member, or indeed with someone else from the local community, was highlighted as a way for volunteers to manage the volunteering commitment and balance it with family life: ‘That really supported my family and my lifestyle and commitments outside of [volunteering in this organisation]’.

Similarly, it was suggested that organisations should be mindful of family preferences regarding volunteering together or alongside, being flexible enough to enable a balance between the two. Some families expressed frustration that they had been volunteering alongside each other within an organisation, but had not had the opportunity to see each other or do anything together, making them feel like they were being treated more like workers than volunteers:

I think that’s the thing with volunteering isn’t it? Sometimes people, people in management roles within volunteering organisations, sometimes they forget that we’re volunteers, and I see that not just in [this organisation]. They forget that you’re volunteering and actually you don’t have to, and I bet that happens in all volunteer organisations. It becomes as if it’s your work, but it’s not your work. Actually if it’s not what you want to do, you’ll not do it. So it could be that if we want to spend some time together, we could say ‘Well, if we’re not together, we’re not coming’.

Flexibility was also talked about in terms of enabling volunteers to engage in a wide range of roles and activities, ensuring that there was enough variety to suit different – and changing – interests, needs and time constraints. Having a variety of flexible opportunities was seen as particularly important when engaging with different generations: different roles and activities were needed to suit different age groups. As one respondent reflected:

…it’s the family as a unit but also individuals within that and…if a family is coming in, it’s not necessarily that they’re coming in as a one point to do the same thing, it’s allowing that opportunity for each of the family members to come and do the bits that they enjoy and the bits that they’re wanting to do…

Being flexible also meant organisations recognising that volunteering isn’t static: it changes with people’s life course. It was important for them to consider how they might accommodate potential breaks in volunteering, no longer (for example, having time to volunteer due to the arrival of a new baby or taking care of a sick relative), keeping in touch when appropriate and welcoming people back when their situation altered.

Progression and pathways

Alongside providing a variety of flexible roles and activities, supporting progressions within them was also seen as important. Creating a pathway for people to come into an organisation and gradually move through different forms of engagement, roles and responsibilities was seen as being particularly important for facilitating: young people’s move from participant/service user to volunteer; parents’ move from helping out with activities their children were involved in to a wider, more sustained engagement. This enabled family volunteering to move from ‘do for’, to ‘do together’, to ‘do alongside’. As one person reflected:

…effectively that’s how you end up with whole families being involved because you get young ones that are attending class, middle aged, you know older teenagers who are helping out as young helpers and then parents who might be on a committee or volunteering as an adult helper from a ratio point of view.

Having pathways into different roles was also important for those who, due to age, ill health or changes in circumstances and family needs, needed to step back from a role that had considerable responsibility or was particularly physically or emotionally demanding, but wished to keep helping out in less intense ways.

Finding ways to continue to involve people in new roles more suited to their changed capability and/or capacity was felt to be particularly important when volunteers – and their families – had been involved for long periods of time and the family had become particularly embedded within the organisation. This could be a sensitive issue and could sometimes mean moving people on from a role or organisation, or helping them to allow themselves (‘giving them permission’) to step back, which could have considerable ramifications for that person:

So, if something happens and we take that away from them, that’s ultimately putting somebody into a situation where you’re taking their whole social and their whole meaning away from them.

Some organisations we spoke to had clear routes, or pathways, into and through volunteering, particularly those that provided services and activities for young people (encouraging young people who attended activities to gradually take on responsibility for supporting, delivering and leading those activities, for example). In others, it felt more as if the volunteers were left to find their own way. There was a suggestion in some organisations that traditional pathways, which had previously facilitated family volunteering, had begun to break down due, in part, to societal changes, but also to a lack of attention or leadership.

In one case, it was suggested that there used to be a ‘natural migration’ of parents from volunteering to help with activities in which their children were involved to wider roles within the organisation, and of young people from attending an activity as a participant to volunteering to help with the running of that activity and then to wider roles. However, this ‘flow’ had been neglected, and opportunities to engage families, and build involvement across generations, had been missed.

Balancing risk and regulation

A particular challenge identified for family volunteering was risk and regulation (especially safeguarding), as well as wider associated processes of formalisation and professionalisation. These tended to work against the enabling elements outlined above, such as flexibility and allowing volunteers to bring children along. The balance that organisations struck between risk and regulation, and flexibility and formality, was influential.

Due to safeguarding concerns, some organisations had adopted blanket policies on the involvement of young people which effectively ruled out volunteering amongst under-16-year-olds, creating a barrier to certain forms of family volunteering. Fears and uncertainties about what was and wasn’t allowed in terms of involving young people had led some organisations to be particularly cautious. Others had adopted a more nuanced approach, acknowledging that there was a ‘fine line’ between making sure volunteering opportunities were accessible, flexible and informal and having robust safeguarding and health and safely policies and procedures in place.

Overall, it was suggested that safeguarding concerns were making it harder to involve young people as volunteers, for parents to bring children along when they volunteered and for parents to help out in activities in which their children were involved:

…when I was [my daughter’s] age, grandparents, parents and kids would be in together, because it was okay for kids to come along. Whereas now, it’s not so much okay so when I was a young adult, so when [my children] were born, they would come along to the events with me…whereas that’s not okay anymore.

Even when policies allowed for young people to volunteer, concerns about safeguarding held by staff or other volunteers could create a resistance to volunteering alongside young people. As one young volunteer reflected:

To be fair, like when I go out on duties because…I’m still a [young volunteer], there has to be certain numbers and it kind of feels as if people like dread having [young volunteers] there because they need to worry about paperwork, safeguarding, not leaving them alone and stuff which can sometimes make you feel like a bit of a burden…

More broadly, it was suggested that over the past couple of decades, the tendency had been for organisations to become more formalised, professionalised and centralised, which had worked against flexibility and inclusivity, and against family volunteering by default or by extension. A growing amount of ‘red tape’ created barriers and was contributing to a suggested decline in multigenerational family volunteering in particular. For some organisations, the introduction of a specifically designed, discrete family volunteering scheme had been a way to overcome some of these developments.


  1. Cornwall, A. (2002) ‘Locating citizen participation’ IDS Bulletin 33(2) pp.49-58.

  2. See for example Wajcman, J (2014) Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism

  3. See for example Stebbins, R. (2015) Serious Leisure: A Perspective of Our Time, Transaction Publishers

  4. Emma (2017) ‘The gender wars of household chores: a feminist comic’ The Guardian, 26.05.17 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/26/gender-wars-household-chores-comic

  5. This chimes with other research, such as NCVO’s 2019 Time Well Spent study, which found that one in five volunteers felt that their volunteering was becoming too much like paid work (p9.)

  6. Wider research evidence recognises the emotional and practical support that family members provider each other, in different contexts – see for example Swartz, T. (2009) ‘Intergenerational family relations in adulthood: Patterns, variations, and implications in the contemporary United States’, Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 191–212.

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 28 September 2020