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Week 7: The role of volunteering

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Week 7: The role of volunteering


Throughout this course, the crucial role of volunteers has been emphasised. You saw in Week 1 how the involvement of volunteers is one of the defining features of a voluntary or community organisation and each week of the course, their role and contribution has been mentioned in different contexts. This week they are centre stage.

Volunteers might be trustees, board or management committee members or front-line workers fulfilling numerous roles. The importance of volunteering has long been recognised, particularly by organisations themselves – many of which would not exist without unpaid help and some vital services could even collapse.

This importance is also recognised by governments promoting the role of volunteers in service delivery, an increasingly controversial area, particularly where volunteers replace paid staff – such as in some libraries. Thus, the value of volunteering in society holds considerable value. It is often difficult to quantify this value and consequently some organisations try to put a monetary value on volunteering as often this is the most direct way to get others to understand its importance.

Although this course is about the voluntary sector, volunteers have traditionally been involved in other sectors too: for example, volunteers in hospitals do fundraising, run cafes and visit patients; government heritage agencies (e.g. Cadw in Wales or Historic Scotland) involve volunteers as guides in historic homes. Furthermore, many private sector organisations promote and support volunteering with their employees (known as employer-supported volunteering(ESV)).

You may be a volunteer yourself or work in an organisation that involves volunteers on an extensive basis. This week aims to help you understand the role of volunteers at both a personal and an organisational level as you explore the nature of volunteering and, in particular, who volunteers and why.

In the following video, Julie introduces you to Week 7.

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By the end of this week, you will be able to:

  • explain what is meant by volunteering
  • develop a profile of who volunteers
  • outline the reasons why people volunteer
  • describe the types of volunteering activities supported by your organisation or in an organisation with which you are familiar.

1 What is volunteering?

A volunteer creating shade by holding an umbrella over a contestant at the London 2012 Paralympics.
Figure 1 Volunteering at the London 2012 Paralympics

It might seem straightforward to ask: ‘What is volunteering?’. However, the roles that volunteers fulfil are diverse, and the amounts of time that people give vary substantially, so it is not easy to pin down an answer. You saw in Week 3 that many small voluntary organisations are ‘under the radar’, so it stands to reason that many acts of volunteering and many volunteers will never be counted or appear in surveys or official statistics.

Many definitions of volunteering are used by government and voluntary organisations, but one that probably captures most people’s definitions of volunteering is given by Musick and Wilson (2008, p. 1). They describe volunteering as an altruistic activity, which has the goal of providing ‘help to others, a group, an organisation, a cause, or the community at large, without expectation of material reward’.

The idea that all volunteering is ‘altruistic’ will be explored later, but certainly the main defining feature of volunteering is considered to be that a person’s time is given for free. Interestingly, the Scottish Government (2013) adds to their own definition, ‘it is a choice undertaken of one’s own free will’.

There is also a difference between formal and informal volunteering. Formal volunteering relates to people giving unpaid help through groups, clubs or organisations. Informal volunteering relates to people giving unpaid help as an individual to other people who are not relatives, such as getting an elderly neighbour’s shopping, clearing snow from the streets and so on. Informal volunteering is less likely to be recorded in surveys as people may not think of it as volunteering.

1.1 How many people volunteer?

Given that volunteering covers a wide range of activities, it is useful to know how many people actually volunteer. It is difficult to get an accurate picture of how many people volunteer on a regular basis and there is little consistency between surveys of volunteering, even within the UK. In Scotland, 29% of adults said they had volunteered in the past 12 months, with half of those volunteering for 1–5 hours per week (Scottish Government, 2013).

In England in 2012–2013, 29% of adults had formally volunteered at least once a month in the previous year and 44% had volunteered at least once in the previous year. In Wales, it is estimated that 931,000 people were volunteering in 2013–2014 (Wales Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA), 2014).

From survey results, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) (2015) estimate that across the UK 13.8 million people volunteer at least once a month and 21.1 million volunteer at least once a year.

Surveys are generally aimed at adults, so figures would be higher if children were included. Organisations usually have a starting age limit of 16 for volunteering independently but many children volunteer alongside their parents and many organisations actively promote family volunteering, for example the National Trust.

Activity 1 Thinking about volunteering

Timing: Allow approximately 5 minutes

What experience do you have of formal and/or informal volunteering – either you personally or what you know about your friends’ or relatives’ experience? If you volunteer, what are people’s reactions to this when (if) you tell them?

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Many of us will do informal volunteering, perhaps without even thinking about it. Formal volunteering often involves more of a commitment, with a regular time slot and a specified number of hours. Most importantly, it often involves completing an application form and being ‘recruited’ to a role, being inducted and trained – in a similar way to a paid job.

Organisations can offer some flexibility to their volunteers but many cannot function without them and need to devise work rotas in similar ways to those for paid staff. The main difference between a volunteer and a paid member of staff is that the organisation knows that many of their volunteers wish to work for only a day, a week or a month.

One exception to this is the role of ‘intern’. These are often full-time unpaid roles for a specified amount of time and are perceived to be useful in gaining training and more work experience, particularly for graduates. However, they have been criticised as exploitative.

People’s reactions to volunteering vary substantially: some people never volunteer, as they wish only to work for a salary and may struggle with the concept of giving their time for free. Others might say, ‘Why do you have to volunteer today? It’s not a job’. However, for most regular volunteers it is like a job, one with a strong commitment and sense of obligation and they feel they would be ‘letting people down’ if they did not do their shift. Other people might struggle with the concept of their friends or relatives volunteering in roles that used to be paid jobs, such as in some libraries.

The role of volunteering gained much more attention during the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, and the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, where volunteers were very visible as helpers and participants in the opening and closing ceremonies.

This section has given a sense of what volunteering is in general. In the next section you will explore what types of role and task volunteers might take on.

2 What do volunteers do?

Men and women volunteers working in a garden
Figure 2 Garden volunteers at work

You’ll now explore what types of role and activity volunteers take on, as well as which ‘industries’ (arts, leisure, health and social care and so on) have the most volunteers.

As you might expect, formal voluntary work is diverse: in terms of skills, it can range from simple, repetitive jobs to highly skilled tasks requiring decision making. In other words, formal voluntary work is very similar to paid work, with the same variety of jobs and subject to the same ‘hierarchies’ between skilled and unskilled workers (Musick and Wilson, 2008).

In England, the top activities are:

  • fundraising
  • handling money
  • organising or helping at events
  • leading or managing a group
  • giving advice
  • information and counselling
  • other practical help.
(Cabinet Office, 2013; NCVO, 2014)

In Scotland, ‘generally helping out’ is the main volunteer activity, followed by raising money, organising events and ‘doing whatever is required’ (Scottish Government, 2013).

In Northern Ireland, a survey of a sample of households found that fundraising and events are the most popular, together with volunteering for church or other religious organisations (Department for Social Development, 2015). In Wales, the various surveys illustrate the difficulty of pinning down exact activities and many volunteers will fulfil several roles within the same organisation.

Some types of organisation attract more volunteers than others: in England, sports organisations have the most volunteers (55% of volunteers) and in Scotland, health, disability and social welfare groups have the most (22%).

The next activity will help you get a sense of the variety of roles and activities volunteers can take on – and, if you are looking for one, you may even find a volunteering role you would like to apply for!

Activity 2 Focus on volunteer roles

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

Do-it is a UK-wide organisation that promotes volunteering and advertises volunteering vacancies. Go to their website and search for opportunities in your home town. Note how many vacancies come up and look through the variety of roles as well as the types of organisation (i.e. health and social care, a museum, a conservation charity, and so on). You won’t be able to examine all of them so just scroll through and get a sense of what’s available.

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A search on ‘Glasgow’ (August 2015) showed 263 opportunities and a diverse range of roles that included:

  • fundraising
  • massage therapist
  • family support
  • outdoor event helpers
  • health and social support
  • advocacy roles
  • mentoring
  • tutoring
  • charity shop helper.

The roles ranged across one-off events, regular volunteering and even some full-time roles. The types of organisation included animal charities, children’s play schemes, health care and medical charities. Health and social care provided the most opportunities for volunteering.

Of course, Do-it is advertising actual volunteering vacancies – some organisations may not need to advertise as they have a steady stream of applicants. Some big city museums, for example, may never need to advertise because they are extremely popular with retired people, as well as with younger people looking for experience in order to boost their CVs for paid work.

Many organisations usually have a section of their website dedicated to volunteering, giving information on the types of roles available and the commitment level they would like. Local ‘umbrella bodies’ also advertise opportunities – for example, Volunteering Wales.

2.1 Volunteers in specific organisations

In the next activity, you will think about your own organisation (or one you are familiar with) and consider what volunteers do.

Activity 3 What do volunteers do?

Timing: Allow approximately 5 minutes

Thinking about the volunteers in an organisation, club or group you are familiar with, what activities do they carry out? The list of activities in Table 1, which are in order of the most common activities (based on volunteering in England), will help you. You might like to copy out Table 1  or download it and fill it in.

Add in any other activities you have identified that are not included in this list. Alternatively, you could apply the list to yourself if you are a volunteer.

If you don’t have an example of an organisation, you could choose a local museum and look on its website: there is usually a section called ‘get involved’ that will give an indication of what its volunteers do.

Table 1 Volunteer activities
List of activitiesYes/No
Helping to organise an event
Other practical help
Leading, steering, managing
Giving advice, information, counselling
Visiting people
Provide transport, driving
Befriending or mentoring people
Secretarial, administration, clerical
Any other help

You may have found it difficult to find the information if you are not working or volunteering in an organisation. As an example from my own volunteering, I know that volunteers are involved with all of these categories except visiting people, transport and befriending. This is mainly die to the nature of the organisation, as it is not involved in those activities.

2.2 Volunteering case studies

Surveys of volunteering activities are useful, but overall percentages or quantities do not provide much information about the extent of variation in a volunteer’s work or exactly what these activities entail. Case studies and interviews can help to illustrate this and give a sense of what volunteers think about the work they do. In the next activity, you will watch a video featuring volunteers talking about their roles.

Activity 4 Spotlight on volunteers

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

Watch this video in which four volunteers talk about their volunteering roles. Make some notes on the activities the volunteers participate in. Also think about whether you get a sense of the impact or value that volunteering has on them. If you are a volunteer, how do their experiences compare with your own?

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You probably noted the range of tasks these volunteers carry out and perhaps gained a sense of what volunteering means to them. The tasks included running Sunday school sessions and discussion groups, organising and fundraising for a Bravery Box scheme for children’s hospital wards, helping in a library and helping at a food scheme for homeless people.

This section has given you an overview of the types of activities and roles that volunteers take on. In the next section you will explore who volunteers.

3 Who volunteers?

A male volunteer at the London Olympics 2012
Figure 3 Volunteering at the London Olympics 2012

You will now explore ‘who’ volunteers are. Organisations are often concerned about the composition and diversity of their workforce or volunteer pool. Composition in this context usually refers to age, gender, ethnic origin, religion, disability and so on. For volunteers, organisations might be interested in their employment status too, i.e. whether they are unemployed, employed, retired and so on.

The reasons why organisations are interested in this information is that they endeavour to have a diverse and representative workforce of paid and unpaid staff. For example, if an organisation offers services to people experiencing mental health problems, it might want volunteers with similar direct experience. Alternatively, if an organisation is based in an ethnically mixed community, it might want these different groups represented through its volunteers, thereby increasing its appeal to the people it is trying to help.

National organisations, based in one locality but working across the country, might want volunteers from different areas so that there is more representation by geography. Above all, organisations strive to offer equal opportunities in work and volunteering.

Of course, not all voluntary organisations collect data on their volunteers. They might not have access to it or might have concerns about data protection and confidentiality; they might not have the resources to collect data; or it might not have occurred to them to collect data on volunteers.

There are various surveys about the composition of the volunteering workforce within the UK and there are differences between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Here are a few general points from NCVO (2015):

  • Rates of regular formal volunteering do not vary between men and women.
  • People of all ages volunteer (16–75+).
  • Rates of regular formal volunteering among young people are at their highest since 2003.
  • Rates of volunteering vary according to where people live.
  • The employment status of volunteers does not impact on rates of regular volunteering.

Activity 5 Thinking about volunteers in an organisation

Timing: Allow approximately 5 minutes

Think about the points made above:

  • Rates of regular formal volunteering do not vary between men and women.
  • People of all ages volunteer (16–75+).
  • Rates of regular formal volunteering among young people are at their highest since 2003.
  • Rates of volunteering vary according to where people live.
  • The employment status of volunteers does not impact on rates of regular volunteering.

Now think about the volunteers in your own voluntary organisation or a voluntary organisation you know well.

  • Do you think the volunteers you know reflect this data? In other words, are there approximately equal numbers of men and women volunteers; the volunteers vary in age, but quite a few are young people; the number of volunteers depends on where the local offices are based; the volunteers’ employment status doesn’t affect their commitment to regular volunteering?
  • If the volunteers you know don’t reflect this data, what are they like?
  • Is the profile of volunteers similar to what you know about the local population?
  • Are there any implications for your organisation? For example, are the volunteers representative of the people your organisation helps?
  • How would your organisation benefit by having a diverse group of volunteers?

Make some notes about the volunteers you know.

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You will have specific findings and ideas about what your observations mean for your organisation. The following extract provides a useful summary of the benefits of encouraging diversity in a volunteer workforce:

By encouraging diversity in volunteering your organisation will:

  • benefit from new ideas and fresh approaches generated by people from different backgrounds and experiences
  • help ensure that your work is relevant to and impacts on all kinds of people in society
  • present a more welcoming face to volunteers, client groups and the general public
  • have more volunteers
  • be better equipped to respond to the needs of your community or service users
  • attract new clients or service users.
(Volunteer Now, 2005)

You should now have an overview of the profile of volunteering in a broader context as well as in an organisation you are familiar with. This will help you to understand the nature of volunteering and the voluntary sector, as well as why organisations are interested in gathering data about their volunteers. If you recall, in Week 3 Karl Wilding emphasised the importance of such data to policy making and understanding changes and trends in the voluntary sector.

4 Why volunteer?

Described image
Figure 4 The many reasons why people volunteer

Understanding why people volunteer is one of the biggest topics of interest to policy makers, organisations and researchers. If politicians and policy makers want more people to volunteer, then they need to know what motivates people to give their time for free. Equally, organisations may use this information in terms of their own recruitment and retention policies.

Increasingly, organisations target their adverts at volunteers – for example, highlighting how volunteering can be useful for work experience and CVs, or perhaps for making friends or for gaining health benefits. These aspects are based on an understanding of why people volunteer and the differences between groups such as younger people or between different ethnic groups.

Much discussion on people’s motivation at work has traditionally focused on paid staff (viewing pay as an important incentive to work), which may not be that helpful in understanding volunteers’ motivations. Is there something different about volunteers’ motivations and does this mean working with, and managing, them also needs to be different? If you are a volunteer yourself, this section should help you explore your own motivations and your role in your organisation.

To note, some of these issues fall into the area of management and are explored in the free badged open course Working in voluntary organisations, which will be available in 2016.

Activity 6 Why volunteer?

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

Watch the following video featuring the same volunteers you met in Activity 4. Write notes on why they volunteer.

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What you might have noticed is that some of the volunteers use what they get out of volunteering as part of their explanation of why they volunteer.

So, for example, Louisa talks about learning new skills and being in a different environment. Lisa’s motivation for helping with the Bravery Box scheme came about because her friend had a seriously ill child and started the scheme as a way of helping children on oncology wards.

Bernard volunteered because he enjoyed attending discussion groups and saw the benefits for his own children from attending Sunday school. Both Bernard and Lisa were asked to help, which is a common reason why many people volunteer in the first place but, of course, the person asked has to identify an interest or concern in the cause.

Sas volunteered for three organisations doing very different tasks. He felt these activities were so different from his day job that they were almost therapeutic for him. However, at the same time he was aware that volunteering with homeless people was a very important role and one that might not appeal to everybody because it is emotionally challenging. As Sas highlights, some of the reasons for volunteering sound selfish but that is quite common as people often need to see benefits for themselves when giving their time for free.

4.1 Making sense of reasons for volunteering

Surveys are frequently carried out to find out why people volunteer. If you volunteer, you might have been asked why you volunteer, perhaps at an interview or on an application form. Theorists use this data to develop models of volunteering, and policy makers use it to inform initiatives to encourage more volunteering.

Box 1 outlines three perspectives on volunteering, which Rochester et al. suggest can be used to understand why people volunteer.

Box 1 Perspectives on volunteering

Volunteering as service: this is perhaps the dominant perspective, where volunteering is seen as an altruistic act, i.e., it is the ‘gift’ of a person’s time (similar to the gift of money as in philanthropic acts). People volunteer in order to help others in need. This type of volunteering is most common in social welfare and in large, formal organisations such as charities or hospitals. Volunteers are frequently managed in the same way as paid staff, and they are recruited and trained for specific roles.

Civil society/activist: in this perspective, motivation is based on self-help and mutual aid and people working together to meet common needs. Volunteers may work in small, informal self-help groups that may not have any paid staff. Volunteers may fulfil several roles including leadership as well as front-line work. They are not necessarily recruited for a specific activity: their role tends to evolve and develop over time. Volunteers also get involved with bigger campaigning organisations such as Greenpeace or political parties such as The Green Party.

Volunteering as serious leisure: this implies a much more committed attitude to volunteering. Volunteers have enthusiasm, knowledge and skills in a specific area and tend to be involved in arts and culture or sports clubs. The organisations offering these opportunities can range from large national organisations to small, local clubs or societies. Roles may include coaching, teaching, administration and so on.

(Source: based on Rochester et al., 2010, pp. 10–15)

Activity 7 Understanding why people volunteer

Timing: Allow approximately 5 minutes

Reread the overview of the different perspectives in Box 1 and note down which perspective fits with your view on why and how you volunteer. If you do not volunteer, try to relate the perspectives to volunteers in an organisation you are familiar with or look back at the volunteers in Activity 6.

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These perspectives can be used to help us understand volunteering in a general context and you may have found it difficult to ‘fit’ yourself to one (and you probably wanted more information on each anyway). Rochester et al. highlight that in reality the situation is complex and people’s reasons for volunteering do not necessarily fit into neat categories, as you saw with the volunteers talking in Activity 6.

4.2 Further motivations for volunteering

As you have seen, motivations for volunteering can usually be divided into those that address a person’s own needs and interests and those that relate to the needs and interests of others. The relative importance of these differs, for example, by gender, age, income and so on (Musick and Wilson, 2008, pp. 54–80).

One issue raised about surveys of volunteering is that often people are asked to choose from a list of statements, so they feel compelled to choose the one that seems to fit and they may not actually put much thought into analysing why they decided to volunteer. People who have been volunteering for, say, 20 years or more may also have forgotten why they started! Many people will also give ‘because someone asked me to’ as a reason.

So why is motivation important? Organisations need to function efficiently and effectively, therefore staff and volunteers need to work with energy and enthusiasm. Managers of the organisation have a responsibility to provide staff and volunteers with work they find satisfying and rewarding, which they are unlikely to do if the managers do not understand what people really want and expect from their work.

Understanding the motivations of volunteers is important: they are not dependent on the organisation they work for to meet their basic needs and volunteers are not tied by a formal employment contract. As a result, volunteers are usually more free than employees to pick and choose the organisation to which they give their time and efforts. If organisations do not provide an appealing environment and motivating work, they are likely to experience problems with recruitment and retention.

Furthermore, there has been considerable attention in recent years on the benefits of volunteering and how it can contribute to health. Based on a survey of the research, Harflett (2015, p. 5) summarises the potential benefits as:

  • improved mental and physical health
  • increased life expectancy
  • improved physical health and happiness
  • enjoyment and pleasure
  • positive well-being
  • increased self-confidence
  • social inclusion
  • empowerment and increased employability.

Obviously, the context of the volunteering is important: where someone volunteers, what they are doing and whether the volunteering is likely to be stressful. Not everyone can expect these benefits.

5 This week’s quiz

This week’s quiz is your last opportunity to practise before the final badge quiz next week.

Week 7 practice quiz.

Open the quiz in a new tab or window (by holding Ctrl [or cmd on a Mac] when you click the link).

6 Summary

Your work this week should have given you a broader context in which to understand the role and activities of volunteers in organisations, as well as your own role if you are a volunteer. You have examined what volunteering is and what activities it involves. There was also discussion about who volunteers and the reasons why people volunteer.

If you are interested in learning more about what it is like to work for a voluntary organisation, for example how they deal with recruitment and management issues, then you might be interested in studying the badged open course, Working in voluntary organisations, which will be available in 2016.

In Week 7, you have learned about:

  • what volunteering is
  • the role of volunteers in voluntary organisations
  • what activities volunteers do
  • the reasons why people volunteer
  • the benefits of volunteering.

You can now go to Week 8.


Cabinet Office (2013) Community Life Survey 2012 to 2013 Findings [Online]. Available at government/ publications/ community-life-survey-2012-to-2013-findings/ community-life-survey-2012-to-2013-findings#Volunteering (Accessed 19 July 2015).
Department for Social Development (2015) Volunteering in Northern Ireland: A Research Report [Online]. Available at supporting-organisations/ research-bank (Accessed 19 July 2015).
Harflett, N. (2015) ‘Bringing them with personal interests’: the role of cultural capital in explaining who volunteers’, Voluntary Sector Review, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 3–19.
Musick, M. A. and Wilson, J. (2008) Volunteers: A Social Profile, Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press.
National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) (2014) UK Civil Society Almanac 2014 [Online]. Available at a/ almanac14/ how-many-people-regularly-volunteer-in-the-uk-3/ (Accessed 19 July 2015).
National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) (2015) UK Civil Society Almanac 2015 [Online]. Available at a/ almanac15/ volunteering/ (Accessed 3 September 2015).
Rochester, C., Ellis Paine, A., Howlett, S. with Zimmeck, M. (2010) Volunteering and Society in the 21st Century, London, Palgrave Macmillan.
Scottish Government (2013) Scotland’s People Annual Report: Results from the 2012 Scottish Household Survey [Online]. Available at Publications/ 2013/ 08/ 6973/ 12 (Accessed 19 July 2015).
Volunteer Now (2005) Diversity in Volunteering [Online]. Available at fs/ doc/ publications/ diversity-in-volunteering-information-sheet.pdf?keywords=diversity+in+organisations (Accessed 27 July 2015).
Wales Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA) (2014) Third Sector Statistical Resource 2014 [Online]. Available at what-we-do/ research (Accessed 19 July 2015).


This course was written by Julie Charlesworth.

Except for third party materials and otherwise stated in the acknowledgements section, this content is made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 Licence.

The material acknowledged below is Proprietary and used under licence (not subject to Creative Commons Licence). For the avoidance of doubt: All third party videos credited below, and those which link you to Youtube for viewing, are not subject to Creative Commons licensing. Grateful acknowledgement is made to the following sources for permission to reproduce material in this course:

Course image: © Katie Hetrick in Flickr licenses/ by/ 2.0/.

Figure 1: Courtesy of Alan Davidson.

Figure 2: Author’s own photo.

Figure 3: Courtesy of Alan Davidson.

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