Defining volunteers

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’. Furthermore, there should be benefit to someone other than the volunteer or society at large.

There is a difference between formal and informal volunteering. Formal volunteering relates to people giving unpaid help through groups, clubs or organisations. Informal volunteering is 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.

Given that volunteering covers a wide range of activities, it's difficult to get an accurate picture of how many people volunteer on a regular basis and there’s little consistency between surveys of volunteering, even within the UK.

  • In Scotland, 27% of adults said they had volunteered in the past 12 months, with half of those volunteering for 1–5 hours per week (Scottish Government, 2016 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ).
  • In England in 2016/17, just over a third of people (37%) formally volunteered at least once a year and around a fifth (22%) formally volunteered at least once a month.
  • In Wales, it is estimated that 938,000 people were volunteering in 2014–15 (Wales Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA), 2016).
  • From survey results, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO, 2016) estimate that across the UK 14.2 million people volunteer at least once a month and 42% of all adults aged 16 and over reported volunteering formally at least once in the previous year.

Data also shows that rates of regular formal volunteering do not vary significantly between men and women, and likewise people of all ages volunteer. People aged 16–25 and 65–74 are the only age groups to have increased their rates of volunteering since 2012/2013 (NCVO, 2016). A recent survey by Ipsos Mori in 2013/2014 found that 40% of people aged 10–20 were involved in ‘social action’ (Pye et al, 2014).

Diversity may be an issue with regard to people in higher social grades and a higher level of education being more likely to engage. This is particularly the case with more formal activities, such as trusteeship, that tend to attract the well-resourced and educated. Additionally, a disproportionate amount of time is given by only a small group of people, the ‘civic core’. Read more in NCVO’s Getting Involved paper.

Overall, levels of formal volunteering are generally static and the amount of time that people are giving is decreasing. This starts to illustrate that there are some challenges to recruiting volunteers.

Activity 1

Timing: Allow about 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?


Many of us 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 applying for and being ‘recruited’ to a role and then inducted and trained in it – in a similar way to a paid job.

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 dismiss volunteering and give it less value than a paid job. For most regular volunteers however 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 anyone volunteering in roles that used to be paid jobs, such as in some libraries.

3.1 The role of volunteers

What are volunteers doing?