The links between family and volunteering: what the evidence tells us

Joanna Stuart is an NCVO Research Associate and Visiting Research Fellow at Nottingham Trent University. She specialises in research and evaluation on volunteering, with recent work including research on the impacts of volunteering in later life and training for organisations on volunteering impact assessment.

In July, NCVO announced the start of an exciting new research project on family and volunteering. The project, in a nutshell, is looking to better understand the links between family and volunteering with a view to supporting organisations that want to develop opportunities for families to volunteer together.

To get to grips with what research is already out there we carried out a review of the existing evidence – a summary of which is published today. The evidence review brings together academic and practice articles, firstly on the links between family and volunteering, and secondly on volunteering that takes place with other family members – ‘family volunteering’.

Family ties and role models matter

Our review highlights, perhaps unsurprisingly, that family (and parents in particular) play a key role in influencing and inspiring their children and other family members to volunteer. If parents are involved in volunteering then their children are more likely to volunteer in childhood and as adults. Volunteering is in effect passed on.

Most interestingly though, the evidence points to how the nature of those family relationships makes a difference – the strength of family bonds and closeness influences involvement. Interesting new research  from a study in Wales has found that young people who have positive relationships with their parents and grandparents were more likely to be involved meaningfully ‘in activities to help other people or the environment’.

Family as a route in

Family members can act as a key route into volunteering – you might get to know about a particular cause or organisation because a partner or parent is involved or they might ask you directly to volunteer. Children, in particular, have been highlighted in the research as triggers for parents to volunteer, for example, helping out at a school, a Parents Association, youth or sports clubs.

While family might influence and encourage involvement in volunteering, they might also restrict or stop participation. The 2017/18 Community Life Survey found that amongst those who don’t take part in volunteering through a group, club or organisation regularly, one in four said looking after the children or home was a barrier to getting involved.

Barriers to volunteering from the 2017/18 Community Life Survey

Having young and pre-school children has particularly been highlighted in the research as a time when volunteering involvement dips as time and energy is taken up with looking after children.

Negotiation, conflict and tension

Volunteering may ‘spill over’ into family life when time committed to volunteering means less time is spent with a partner, children and other family members. The limited research in this area points to how this may lead to tension and resentment with families. TSRC’s research highlights, for example, how some volunteers can feel that they are neglecting their families because of the time and energy spent volunteering.

Interestingly, a small number of studies look at how volunteering can be seen as an area of negotiation. Alongside other responsibilities, such as childcare and housework, volunteering might be negotiated and re-negotiated amongst family members and between partners, influenced by the carving up of roles and responsibilities within the household. In this way, family members and family life might be enabling volunteering or they might be restricting it.

Families volunteering together

One way to make it easier to volunteer and get over some of the barriers we’ve talked about here (including the time restraints of family) could be for family members to volunteer together. It’s relatively unclear how many people currently get involved in this way in the UK. A recent global volunteerism study reports that amongst adults and children who volunteered over the course of a year, just under a third did so with other family members, reportedly lower than other countries such as the US (based on a sample of only 500 people in each country)

More usefully, NCVO’s recent research on the volunteer experience suggests that there is an appetite for family volunteering in the UK. This study found that nearly one in five (18%) of those interested in volunteering said that they would like to give unpaid help together with their family. The figure was 19% among those who have never volunteered suggesting that giving families opportunities to get involved together could be one way to engage different people who haven’t volunteered before and an opportunity for organisations to involve more diverse volunteers.

From the perspective of the family, the limited research shows that volunteering together can enable family members to spend more quality time with one another and achieve something together. A useful evaluation of the National Trust’s family volunteering pilot, for example, found that volunteering as a family provided time for family members to bond and gave them a shared sense of achievement.

Key issues to think about

A key message we’ve got from our review on family and volunteering is that we don’t know enough about family volunteering and what it could offer organisations, families and the community more widely. There are particular gaps in what we know about the extent and nature of family volunteering opportunities in the UK and the experiences of family volunteers and organisations which provide opportunities.

The review, however, highlights that future work and research on family and volunteering must recognise a few important things. Firstly, that families are diverse and we need to think beyond the traditional idea of family to include extended families, single parent families, gay and lesbian families, blended, non-custodial families, kinship families and families without children.

Secondly, we need to consider the broad spectrum of volunteering and the influence of family on more informal volunteering (not just volunteering through formal organisations) as well as the involvement of families in informal ways in their communities.

And thirdly, we need to recognise the different voices and gender roles within families and listen to the different experiences of family members, including children.

The summary findings from the evidence review will be used to inform the research being carried out in partnership with the University of Birmingham and the University of Salford, and funded by Sport England, Pears #iwill Fund, Greater London Authority and the Scouts Association. You can read more about this project here.

If you’re interested by this project, want to be kept informed of its progress and/or would consider taking part, please let NCVO know by completing the expression of interest form.



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