Benefitting from Time Well Spent: Why is enjoyment taboo in volunteering?

Dr Eddy Hogg is a lecturer in social policy at the University of Kent

Dr Eddy Hogg is a lecturer in social policy at the University of Kent. His recent research includes work on youth volunteering, on charitable giving and volunteering in schools, on the value of charity involvement in supporting young people and, on charity and fundraising regulation.

Last Friday, NCVO launched Time Well Spent, the most comprehensive piece of research into volunteering in the UK for over a decade. At the launch, one of the research findings that created the most buzz was that ‘enjoyment’ ranked highest among a range of benefits that volunteers feel they get out of volunteering.

This really should not surprise us. Volunteering is something we do in our free time, of our free will and for free – any activity this freely chosen should be enjoyable, or so you might think. Yet research on volunteering and the benefits that volunteers get from it has often been reluctant to acknowledge enjoyment as something people might get out of volunteering their time.

Take academic research on volunteering. Of the roughly 4,750 research papers listed on Google Scholar which use the term ‘volunteer motivation’, just 825 also include the word ‘enjoyment’. This compares to 2,230 that also include ‘friends’, 2,830 that also include ‘family’ and 3,820 that also include ‘community’.

Volunteering for leisure

Perhaps this isn’t surprising, given the way we often think about volunteering in the UK. As Ruth Leonard, chair of the Association of Volunteer Managers argued at the Time Well Spent launch, we all too often fall into the trap of seeing all volunteering as being a form of unpaid work or service. By doing so, we ignore that it is also a form of leisure activity that people undertake to take part in, as well as support, something they are passionate about. This view sees volunteering as a form of serious leisure, a term which refers to the systematic pursuit of a hobbyist or volunteer activity which is substantial, interesting and fulfilling.

Enjoyment, fun and satisfaction

By falling into the trap of thinking of volunteering only as a form of unpaid work, identified by Colin Rochester and colleagues in their seminal book Volunteering and Society in the 21st Century as the dominant model of volunteering in the UK, we risk making it taboo to think of it as being enjoyable. This is particularly the case if we conflate enjoyment with fun. There are a number of volunteer roles that through this lens it feels somewhat uncomfortable to think of as enjoyable – bereavement councillors, police special constables and people who volunteer in crisis situations would all be potentially reluctant to describe their volunteering in this way.

Yet this need not be the case. Enjoyment comes in many forms. A night shift as a volunteer paramedic is unlikely to be fun, but can provide volunteers with a deep sense of satisfaction. The same is true for a huge range of volunteer roles. The feeling of a job well done and the enjoyment that comes with this may not be keenly felt mid-activity, but in the warm bath or over the cold beer that follows the feeling of satisfaction may be extremely enjoyable. Indeed, the camaraderie that volunteering provides may be key to enjoyment, providing a sense of connectedness with people, organisations and communities which can sustain long term engagement.

Breaking the enjoyment taboo

This distinction between fun and satisfaction is important because we should be clear on this – volunteering can be and should be enjoyable. The pretence that it is a worthy undertaking not to be enjoyed damages volunteering. It puts people off, makes people feel that volunteering is not for them. Volunteering is competing for people’s time with a huge range of activities, from sport and thrills to Netflix and chill. If the prevailing view is it should not be thought of as enjoyable, it is hard to see how we can make the case that more people should volunteer.

The enjoyment that volunteers derive is what keeps people coming back for more. The Time Well Spent research finds that enjoying volunteering is strongly linked to overall satisfaction with volunteering. And, so long as their circumstances allow, a satisfied volunteer is likely to be a volunteer who continues to give their time again and again.

This research is, therefore, a rallying call. We should shout from the rooftops, or at least in our monthly newsletters, that volunteering is enjoyable! Enjoyment should not be taboo, it should be front and centre in how we think about and support volunteering.

Read NCVO’s Time Well Spent report for more insights or watch the live stream recording of discussions and presentations from the Time Well Spent launch event.

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