Is volunteering equally accessible to everyone?

Naomi Harflett is a research manager for the National Development Team for Inclusion, a not-for-profit organisation promoting inclusion and equality for those at risk of exclusion. She has completed a PhD on volunteering and diversity at the University of Southampton’s Third Sector Research Centre.

Volunteering and inclusion

I read many studies and reports on inclusion and it is not unusual for research to suggest that formal volunteering promotes inclusion. Volunteering is put forward as a solution to the social isolation of older people, for example. It may be suggested as a way for those with learning disabilities to be included in communities. Or volunteering may be recommended as a step towards paid employment for those with mental health problems.

These proposals tend to assume that volunteering is freely accessible to everyone. If you decide to volunteer you can. But is this true?

Barriers to volunteering

I have found that being without a car prevented me from volunteering on a number of occasions. Moving to a new area, I decided to volunteer to meet people and feel part of the community. I found that as I did not know many local people or groups I was limited to advertised opportunities.

American sociologists, Wilson and Musick, in a 1997 study, have suggested volunteering is not equally accessible to everyone because resources are required to volunteer.


In my PhD research on those volunteering with the National Trust, I looked at this in detail. Through interviews with National Trust volunteers, and in other research, I found evidence to support the idea that at least five different resources (or types of capital) enable people to volunteer.

1. Social capital

Social contacts and networks can introduce people to volunteer opportunities and increase the likelihood of being asked to volunteer.

2. Economic capital

Financial resources are important in providing the option to pay travel costs in advance, or use a car, for example. Financial support by families, particularly of young people volunteering to gain work experience, helps volunteers take up opportunities.

3. Human capital

Some volunteer opportunities require a certain level of education, skill or experience. Even when qualifications are not necessary to fulfil a role, this perception may persist. A perceived lack of skills or knowledge may deter people from putting themselves forward to volunteer.

4. Symbolic capital

Symbolic capital refers to position, affiliation, prestige or reputation. These attributes can enable volunteering, as with trustee roles where board members are appointed on the basis of reputation or affiliation to a specific field.

5. Cultural capital

Cultural resources are particularly interesting. Formal volunteering is less common among some classes and ethnic groups. Much volunteering takes place in organisations associated with particular interests such as arts, music, museums, and heritage organisations. Participation and interest in these sectors are shaped by class, ethnicity and age.

Recognising that volunteering can require resources or capital helps to explain why levels of volunteering vary among groups of people of different ages, genders, classes and ethnic backgrounds. See the post by Matt Hill, senior research officer at the Institute for Volunteering Research which is now part of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO).

Volunteering and diversity

Justin Davis Smith, NCVO’s executive director of volunteering and development, suggests in his blog that organisations involving volunteers have a moral obligation to be inclusive. Thinking about barriers to volunteering in terms of the types of resources needed to volunteer can be a useful way for an organisation to challenge itself, make volunteering more inclusive and increase diversity.


There is a final point worth reflecting on. Those who have volunteered, worked with, or managed volunteers, understand the benefits that volunteering can bring. If resources are needed to volunteer, there is the risk that it is only those who already have resources who will have the opportunity to acquire more. If attention is not given to some of the less obvious barriers to volunteering, there is the danger that, rather than being an activity which promotes inclusion, volunteering could exacerbate inequality and exclusion.


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