Volunteering with other family members

While the evidence above focused on the links between volunteering and families, in this section we look specifically at volunteering that takes place with other family members – ‘family volunteering’. Overall, there is a lack of research on family volunteering, particularly from the UK. Much of the evidence reviewed here draws on research from organisations in the US and Canada.

Family volunteering needs to recognise the diversity of families

The way that we define, understand and talk about family volunteering needs to reflect the wide variety of family types and look beyond the ‘traditional’ idea of the family (Shaw 1997). A useful definition comes from Porritt: 'Family volunteering occurs when family members volunteer together in community service activities. They may come from different generations, in combinations such as parent/child or grandparent/parent/child, or from the same generation, such as adult partners, or brother/sister.' (p2)

It is important to think about volunteering more broadly than this, however, to include families involved together in more informal ways within their communities. The review found very little research in this area.

There is interest in getting involved in volunteering with other family members

Research on the volunteering experience in Great Britain has 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 (19% for those who have never volunteered) (McGarvey et al, 2019). The evidence suggests that for young people, getting involved alongside families and friends would be particularly attractive. Another study found that nearly one in three (31%) of those aged 10 to 20 years not involved in social action or donating over the year would be encouraged to get involved if they could do it with family or friends (Cabinet Office and Ipsos Mori, 2016). Creating opportunities for families to volunteer together could be one way to engage individuals (and families) who haven’t recently volunteered or who have never got involved.

It is unclear how many people currently volunteer with members of their family. A recent global volunteerism study has found that amongst adults and children who volunteered over the course of the year in the UK, just under a third (29%) did so with other family members. This is reportedly lower than in other countries such as the US (40%), however these findings were only based on a survey of 500 people in each country (Points of Light, 2018). Many more people are also likely to be involved with their families in informal ways in their communities.

Spending time together and family bonding are important motivators

Time together, opportunities to bond as a family and having fun are key reasons people give for getting involved in family volunteering (Points of Light, 2018; Littlepage et al, 2003). For adults, the chance to act as role models and instil values in children (such as the importance of helping others) as well as religion have also been identified as motivators for family volunteering (Littlepage et al 2003; Points of Light, 2018). For children, feeling safe through volunteering with other family members has been highlighted (Points of Light, 2018). People may also get involved for reasons unrelated to the family, including for example, a desire to make a difference or to help others (Jalandoni and Hume, 2001; Points of Light, 2018).

Perceived lack of time can act as a barrier to families volunteering together

As with volunteering more generally, time is seen as a key barrier to getting involved in volunteering with other family members (Hegel and McKechnie, 2003). In part, this is likely to reflect of the life stage of the family with parents balancing the demands of work and family life (particularly those with pre-school aged children). One study found that families can face particular challenges with scheduling and being able to find a time when all members of the family can get involved in volunteering together (Littlepage et al, 2003).

Overall, the review found that there is a lack of evidence on other barriers families experience to family volunteering, particularly in the UK. Studies in the US and Canada however, point to a perceived lack of opportunities for families, particularly those suited to children or those that can accommodate them (Evergreen, 2006; Haski-Leventhal et al, 2017; Hegel and McKechnie, 2003). Similarly, there is limited research on the challenges organisations face in involving and supporting family volunteers. In the US and Canada, identified barriers have included a lack of funding and staff capacity and concerns about the impacts, risks and liabilities of involving families and children (Hegel and McKechnie, 2003).

Family volunteering can bring benefits to family members by enabling them to spend time together and share experiences

The small number of studies exploring the impacts of family volunteering suggest that it can help family members to spend quality time with one another and bring families closer together (Bird, 2011; Germann Molz, 2016; Littlepage et al, 2003). The sense that family members are achieving something together and the sharing of experiences through volunteering are highlighted as important (Bird, 2011; Germann Molz, 2016). A few studies have found that volunteering as a family can give individuals a different perspective of the family and family members. An evaluation of a pilot of a family volunteering initiative at the National Trust found that 'family volunteering made families think more about the value of spending time together by providing an environment for quality family time, a chance to bond and see one another in a different light…..activities involving parents and children working alongside one another (and not differentiating on ability or age) ensured team-work, a sense of shared achievement' (Bird, 2011,p 16).

Few studies have explored the possible negative drawbacks of family volunteering, although tension within families, the costs of volunteering and lack of independence among children have been highlighted (Reilly and Vesic, 2002; Littlepage et al 2010). Some of the most useful discussions come from the field of family leisure which highlights how different family members will experience family leisure in variable ways and that individuals can experience both positive and negative impacts from their involvement – while activities might bring a sense of satisfaction, they might also involve 'work, effort, and sometimes frustration and lack of enjoyment' (Shaw and Dawson, 2001).