Volunteering: A family affair? Our research findings

Over a year ago, NCVO, in partnership with the University of Birmingham and the University of Salford, started looking into the links between family and volunteering. We wanted to:

  • improve understanding of how families engage with volunteering and how organisations engage with families through volunteering
  • use the evidence to support volunteer-involving organisations that want to develop or enhance volunteering opportunities for family members.

Today we’re able to share the findings of our research project funded by Sport England, Pears #iwill Fund, Greater London Authority and the Scouts.

Family volunteering is more diverse and extensive than we anticipated

When people talk about family volunteering, they usually refer to family members volunteering together. But we found it was far more varied, and identified in total five types of family volunteering:

Types of family volunteering

People typically associate family volunteering with parents and children volunteering together. However our analysis of the Time Use Survey shows more often it means couples. We came across examples of many different combinations of family members volunteering together, including siblings, and grandparents and grandchildren volunteering together.

Family context shapes why and how people volunteer

This project highlights just how significant family circumstances, relationships and events can be in:

  • whether family members get involved
  • what sort of activities they get involved in
  • how they sustain their involvement over time.

With increasingly busy family lives, finding the time to volunteer can be difficult. Particularly when it is given less priority than other roles and responsibilities.

We noted important gender differences here, with women often carrying the responsibility for making volunteering fit within the family schedule. We also found sharing resources, including physical and emotional support, amongst family members could be crucial in sustaining volunteering.

There is a spectrum of organisational approaches to family volunteering

The research identified different ways in which organisations approach family volunteering. In some organisations, family volunteering can happen ‘by design’ leading to the development of family volunteering schemes aimed specifically at family members (often parents and children).

These schemes are seen by organisations as a way of fulfilling organisational aims and values, or widening participation and diversifying their volunteer base.

In other organisations, it might be something that has developed ‘by default’ over the organisation’s history, or ‘by extension’ of the activities and services they deliver. But in many organisations, family volunteering is not explicitly encouraged and goes largely ‘unnoticed’.

How your organisation can make a difference

The research indicates volunteering generally has positive outcomes for families, but can also have its downsides. It can be an enjoyable and meaningful way to spend time together; it can deepen the bonds between family members and can also be a route to new opportunities and experiences.

But the research found that at times, it could also add to the stresses of family life. Some organisations were able to minimise the risk of this happening by creating a family-friendly environment that:

  • actively encouraged families to get involved in a range of flexible opportunities that provide a pathway through different forms of involvement
  • offered opportunities that suited the needs and interests of different family members
  • ensured people were able to step up and step back as circumstances changed over their life course
  • supported volunteers in a way which recognised and accommodated their individual and family circumstances and how these may affect their involvement.

Looking ahead

Despite family volunteering being extensive, the evidence we gathered suggests it may no longer continue to flourish by default. The involvement of families in volunteering needs attention and nurturing. The interest expressed by organisations and families in learning about and designing ways to support families to volunteer suggests this might be possible.

While the fieldwork for this project was completed before covid-19, the key messages from the research seem particularly relevant in the current context – which has seen people across communities mobilise. We’ve seen many examples in the media of family members volunteering together.

Families spending more time together, the rise of flexible and remote working and the development of online opportunities may help people fit volunteering around their busy family life. However, as with all forms of volunteering, it will be crucial for organisations to think carefully about how inclusive their family volunteering offer is.

To help organisations reflect on how they currently involve families in volunteering and consider how they could develop this in the future, we’ve put together a practical framework based on our research findings.

You can read the summary report and the full research report (which includes several organisational and family case studies) online.

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Avatar photo Véronique Jochum, head of research, blogs about the latest research from NCVO and other research related topics on civil society.

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