7. Concluding reflections and implications

This section summarises some of our key learning from across the research and looks at what the findings might mean for practice and for decision-makers.

7.1. Concluding reflections

These concluding comments are designed to capture some of our key reflections that have struck us overall. Making broad conclusions when looking at an area like public sector volunteering, which covers such a variety of volunteering roles and contexts, is not easy. While we have focused on public sector volunteering in this report, we know that some of the features we have highlighted are also present in other contexts, including in volunteering in civil society.

Key motivations for volunteering are making a difference and cause – most do not look to volunteer specifically for a public sector organisation

Most public sector volunteers do not actively look to volunteer for a public sector organisation, although they may have views of the different types of organisations and sectors which might influence their decisions about who they volunteer for.

Other factors matter more. The primary reason public sector volunteers cite for getting involved is to make a difference – which they share in common with other volunteers. Volunteering for a cause that is of personal importance to them is also a key driver, and appears to be more of a motivation than a personal attachment to the organisation itself. Often these causes which volunteers want to support are local – and volunteering locally also appeals to volunteers on a practical level too, allowing them to fit their volunteering more easily around their day-to-day lives.

As well as being major motivations to start volunteering in the first place, among those who intend to carry on giving time in the next twelve months, wanting to make a difference and the cause are the main reasons for these volunteers give for wanting to continue.

The majority are positive about their experience but less so than civil society volunteers

Overall satisfaction levels are high among public sector volunteers (94% very or fairly satisfied), however they report lower levels of satisfaction compared with civil society volunteers, particularly for being ‘very’ satisfied (47% public sector vs 58% civil society). They are also less likely to continue volunteering in the next 12 months. This may relate to age profile (as younger volunteers overall are less likely to be satisfied and public sector volunteers have a younger age profile overall). However, it is likely there are a variety of factors at play.

As well as these overall measures, when asked about different aspects of their volunteer journey – such as how their volunteering is organised, feeling supported, and a sense of belonging – we see a similar story. Public sector volunteers mostly feel happy with their experience, but less than civil society volunteers.

Getting the balance right when it comes to managing and organising volunteers can be particularly challenging

Organisation and management of volunteers is highlighted as a particular challenge. Public sector volunteering is more likely than volunteering in civil society to involve more formalised processes and paid staff managing volunteers. Unsurprisingly, these volunteers are more likely to perceive their volunteering to be structured and formal in nature. This is not always a negative thing: in some instances, public sector volunteers expect and may even want this kind of volunteering setting.

However, getting the right balance can be challenging. Our Time Well Spent research tells us that public sector volunteers are more likely to feel their volunteering is too structured and formalised, less flexible, as well as too bureaucratic compared with civil society volunteers. At the same time, they are also more likely to say their volunteering is not organised enough.

These perceptions, which can sometimes feel contradictory, are likely to reflect the nature of public sector organisations (typically larger in size, more formalised processes etc – which are not unique to them but are common features of these organisations) and the fact that volunteers’ perceptions are driven partly by their expectations. These expectations can be based on various factors from the type of volunteering role to wider environmental factors.

Moreover, organisations have a further balance to strike, between managing the expectations of volunteers and addressing their own organisational needs to deliver services and activities effectively and safely.

There is a tipping point where volunteering starts to feel too much like paid work

The boundary between volunteering and paid work was a key area of interest for this research. The findings highlight that in a public sector volunteering context, the potential for boundaries between the two to be blurred is greater where roles are structured in ways that resemble paid work, eg fixed number of hours that needed to be fulfilled, and are time-intensive. Among the focus group participants this was cited among those who were magistrates, governors or special constables, for example.

Where this can become negative to volunteers, ie ‘too much like paid work’ is where volunteering begins to feel like an obligation, and particularly where volunteers did not feel they were appreciated for their time or recognised as a volunteer.

Funding cuts have a number of direct and indirect impacts on volunteers’ experiences

The boundary between volunteering and paid work tended to become more blurred in services facing funding cuts. While not unique to public sector organisations, many of these organisations have had funding cuts in recent years. Our findings highlight that the impact on volunteers’ experiences is wide-ranging, from feeling ‘put upon’ to commit more time, to feeling frustrated that they are not able to fulfil their role as well because of reduced training, and feeling unsupported by those managing them. These impacts underlie many of the challenges raised by volunteers and for some, have resulted in negative experiences, and even ceasing their volunteering entirely.

Relationships between volunteers and paid staff relate to, but go beyond, distinctive roles

The relationships between volunteers and paid staff are shaped by a variety of factors.

Public sector volunteers are more likely to be managed by paid staff, compared with civil society volunteers, therefore the relationship between paid staff and volunteers plays a key role in the volunteer experience in this context.

The nature of paid and volunteering roles also impact on these relationships. Our findings highlight that in most cases, the distinction between paid and volunteering roles is clear but tensions are most likely to occur where there is overlap or where volunteers were undertaking roles formerly done by paid staff.

While the distinction of roles can play a part in the quality of volunteer and paid staff relationships, focus group participants identified a number of other factors as important: for example, having mutual respect, feeling valued and feeling included. These seem to be of particular importance where volunteers and paid staff are working closely alongside one another.

Public sector volunteers contribute in a number of positive ways – but their impact can be further enhanced

As with motivations, the main benefits public sector volunteers perceive are similar to other volunteers – primarily the feeling of making a difference and enjoying themselves.

As well as the personal impacts which volunteering has, volunteers and organisations themselves also recognise the positive impacts their contributions have on organisations, service users and staff. They felt in particular that as volunteers they can ‘speak up’ and go beyond the necessities in ways which time-pressed paid staff may find it more challenging to do.

However, our findings indicate they have potential to increase their impact more. Many feel that they could (and want to) use their skills and experiences further within their volunteering. Furthermore, while most are happy with the way impact is communicated by organisations, they are more likely to feel there is too little rather than too much communication – indicating more could be done by organisations to show volunteers how they are making a difference.

7.2. Implications for practice

In our main Time Well Spent report, while recognising that volunteers go through a variety of different journeys, we suggested a number of key features that make a quality experience for volunteers.

Having looked in more depth at the experience of public sector volunteers, we can see that these features (see chart 8) of being inclusive, flexible, impactful, connected, balanced, enjoyable, voluntary and meaningful, are just as applicable in this context. However, at times they may take on a particular meaning or focus.

Image showing the eight features of a quality volunteer experience
Chart 8: Features of a quality volunteer experience (from the main Time Well Spent report)

In the rest of this section, we explore what in each of these areas, volunteer-involving organisations in the public sector might consider when it comes to practice. The feature of being ‘valued’ is explored as an additional aspect of the volunteer experience that has emerged from this focused piece of research.

As highlighted previously, as some of the aspects of public sector volunteering overlap with other sectors, wider learnings can be taken across all types of organisation.

1. Inclusive

The same diversity issues exist among public sector volunteers as among volunteers as a whole, especially in relation to socio-economic status. The research findings also highlight that public sector volunteers are less likely to feel like a sense of belonging to the organisation compared with civil society volunteers. Focus group participants reflected that this may relate to the structured nature of volunteering which may be a barrier to feeling embedded in the organisation.

Public sector organisations might consider:

  • how to make it easy for people to get involved and use different recruitment methods to reach out to different potential volunteers, including through service users
  • how to promote an organisational culture that actively encourages equity, diversity and inclusion at all levels
  • how to ensure volunteers do not feel excluded, encouraging paid staff to support volunteers feel ‘part of the team’, but also recognising the pressures staff may be under. This could mean promoting a wider culture within the organisation that welcomes volunteers and supports staff and volunteers to work well together.
  • how to offer a range of roles and opportunities, both formal and informal
  • how to ensure volunteers are not out of pocket.

2. Flexible

Public sector volunteers are more likely to feel their volunteering is more formalised and more structured compared with civil society volunteers. They also felt public sector organisations were less flexible around the time they give. Focus group discussions highlighted that this can depend on the type of role, with some being more like paid roles, with set times and commitments.

Public sector organisations might consider:

  • how to take on board what volunteers and potential volunteers are looking for and want to offer, being clear what roles require to enable potential volunteers to choose whether it might work for them and offering a range of options
  • not adopting a ‘one size fits all’ approach in managing volunteers – being able to adapt
  • how to support volunteers to shape their volunteer journey taking into account life changes that might influence the way they can get involved

3. Impactful

Cause is a bigger motivation than the actual organisation itself for public sector volunteers – both as a motivation to start volunteering and as a motivation to continue. Most public sector volunteers feel they make a difference through their volunteering. However, our findings highlight that the impact of volunteers can be increased even more.

Public sector organisations might consider:

  • focusing on the impact the organisation wants to create through the service they provide, and the role volunteers play in helping them to achieve this
  • understanding the main motivations that volunteers get involved – especially around cause and impact, and thinking about what that means for different types of volunteers
  • how they present to volunteers the impact that they can have on the cause, and managing expectations and being clear about that impact – as well as communicating more about the impact they’ve had (eg giving feedback from a service user)
  • how to support volunteers to use the skills and experiences they have within their volunteering and enable them to develop existing ones through training so that they can make the difference in the way they want.

4. Connected

Public sector volunteers are more likely to be managed by paid staff than civil society volunteers, and this relationship can be one of the factors shaping volunteers’ experiences. Where it works well, relationships between public sector volunteers, paid staff and the organisation itself can enhance the volunteer experience, but there are examples of volunteers feeling that they are just there to ‘fill gaps’, and paid staff not understanding the role of volunteers, especially where there is more overlap of roles.

Public sector organisations might consider:

  • being clear about why they are involving volunteers in the first place and making sure all those within the organisation (both paid staff and volunteers) understand this
  • making sure staff and volunteers have a common understanding of the purpose of the organisation and can come together around shared values
  • how to involve staff, service users and volunteers in the design of volunteer roles and opportunities
  • how to involve volunteers in activities and events that bring people together (social events, team meetings etc.).
  • how frontline staff are prepared, supported and trained in managing volunteers

5. Balanced

Getting the balance right is arguably even more challenging in a public sector volunteering context, as the nature of these organisations can make it difficult to meet volunteers’ expectations of how they want to be managed and organised.

Public sector organisations might consider:

  • being aware of volunteers’ expectations and how to manage them – from the start of their interactions (eg in how opportunities are framed) to how they manage their processes (eg being transparent and accountable about how they spend money)
  • making sure they are proportionate in how they manage and organise volunteers and not reliant on existing HR practice
  • how to balance what volunteers want with what the organisation needs to do to deliver its services and activities effectively and safely.

6. Enjoyable

Enjoyment is the most highly ranked benefit – but too much pressure on volunteers to commit more than they feel they are able to, can take that feeling away. Our wider Time Well Spent findings show that enjoyment is associated both with satisfaction and likelihood to volunteer. Our findings, however, show that public sector volunteers are less likely to continue with their volunteering compared with civil society.

Public sector organisations might consider:

  • recognising the importance of enjoyment to the volunteer experience (and acknowledging it can mean different things to different people such as having fun and feeling a sense of fulfilment or purpose)
  • making sure volunteering is an enjoyable experience over time, checking in with volunteers to see how they are feeling.

7. Voluntary

Public sector volunteers are more likely to feel their volunteering is becoming ‘too much like paid work’ – where this is the case, driven by a feeling of obligation, along with a lack of appreciation.

Public sector organisations might consider:

  • how to inspire rather than require commitment from volunteers, to ensure that it feels driven by their own motivation, rather than organisations’ need for them
  • how to ensure volunteers do not feel too pressured by the organisation (to the point they feel obliged to participate) or taken advantage of
  • how to make sure boundaries are maintained between paid and unpaid roles, especially when the organisation is under pressure
  • investing in volunteer management with training and induction for staff managing volunteers, to make sure volunteers are well supported
  • avoiding the use of terms such as ‘workforce’ when involving volunteers, and designing roles based on the value they bring to the organisation.

8. Meaningful

Volunteers want to make a difference in ways that align with their priorities and personal values.

Public sector organisations might consider:

  • how to make roles meaningful, linking them to causes that resonate with volunteers
  • how to enable volunteers to have a voice (for example, through volunteer forums) – and make sure they’re listened to
  • taking the time to understand volunteers and their experiences by engaging directly with volunteers in the organisation and wider evidence on volunteering
  • how to bring together the shared values – of volunteers, staff and the organisational aims and goals.

9. Valued

In addition to the features outlined above, appreciation is an area which this focused research highlights as being important. Where it is missing, it not only contributes to a feeling that volunteering is becoming too much like paid work but also can have a negative impact on staff-volunteer relationships and on overall volunteer satisfaction and retention.

Public sector organisations might consider:

  • how to make volunteers feel appreciated and valued, even with a simple ‘thank you’
  • how to ensure volunteers are visible within the organisation and knows why volunteers are involved and what their distinctive value is
  • how to promote a wider culture of appreciation within the organisation embedded at different levels – from staff to volunteers.

7.3. Implications for decision-makers

Below we draw attention to four key questions decision-makers might consider when approaching volunteer involvement from a strategic level within public sector organisations.

1. Why do you want to involve volunteers?

From the outset, be clear as to why you are involving volunteers in your organisation and consider how their involvement fits with the organisation’s purpose, values and wider culture. Volunteer involvement should not be an end in itself, or a purely cost-saving measure.

  • Think about how you will achieve your objectives, and when designing your long-term strategy think about volunteering as a part of this rather than an add on.
  • Consider developing a theory of change for volunteer involvement, making sure you engage with key stakeholders from across the organisation. This can form the basis for implementation and wider communication with staff.
  • Focus on the impact on people you work with. What will be gained or lost by making a particular role voluntary? How does the voluntary nature of this role improve the service offered? These questions should form the basis of role design to consider whether volunteers could, for example, help you reach new communities, or add a new level of impartiality.
  • Take into consideration where strategic responsibility for volunteering sits in your organisation. Be aware of how the positioning of volunteering in an organisational structure influences how volunteering is developed. Volunteering strategies often see the best results when they are directly connected to senior strategic decision making.

2. How will you get buy-in across the organisation?

Involving staff, people who use services, and wider stakeholders (eg partner organisations and existing volunteers) will help you to design roles which align with the needs and priorities of these groups. This will also help to reduce tensions between staff, service users and volunteers in the long term.

  • Consider developing a business case for volunteer involvement, including funding for volunteer management. Make sure the leaders in your organisation have an understanding of volunteer engagement and are involved in the process.
  • Work with staff, service users and wider stakeholders from the beginning, rather than consulting with them once you have developed the plans. While working with these groups, focus on the question of ‘what do we want to achieve’ rather than simply looking for ways for volunteers to do what staff already do.
  • Think about making use of existing forums and groups that represent service users or staff. You may also want to consider having ‘champions’ for volunteering at different levels of your organisation.
  • Consider your messaging and the audiences you’re communicating with. Does your messaging help you to create the type of service you want to deliver? For example, if you recruit volunteers as ‘heroes’ to ‘save’ your service, what impression will that give to service users? Does that give an unrealistic impression of what volunteers will actually be doing? You may want to test your messaging on different audiences, and make sure your messaging is informed by research on why people want to volunteer.
  • Make sure you communicate your rationale for engaging volunteers to staff well before you bring volunteers into your organisation.

3. How will you ensure your approach is fair, equitable and inclusive?

Fostering an organisational culture which actively promotes equality, diversity and inclusion at all levels across the organisation is important for attracting and involving volunteers from diverse backgrounds.

  • Invest time and resource into making volunteering inclusive of people of different backgrounds, identities and experiences, including people who use services. This is especially important as volunteers within the public sector are more likely to be from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. By involving volunteers from diverse backgrounds, you are bringing an invaluable range of lived experiences, skills and values into your organisation. It will also help you to create a service which more accurately reflects the makeup of the community it serves.
  • Ensure that volunteering doesn’t become the only route into employment in your organisation. We know that younger volunteers engage in volunteering as a route into employment but it is important to make sure opportunities are open to all.
  • Consider including volunteering in your organisations’ equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) strategy and highlight that there is a strong business case for diversity. Ensure you apply the Public Sector Equality Duty when considering volunteer engagement.

4. How will you engage and support volunteers?

Investment in volunteer management and development is crucial for ensuring volunteer managers are well resourced, trained and supported. A well supported volunteer management setup is likely to have a positive knock-on effect to volunteers’ experiences, as well as be more efficient and more effective in meeting your aims.

  • Consider the different approaches to volunteer management as there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Think about how these approaches fit with the reason for involving volunteers and the organisation’s wider purpose and mission. It may also be beneficial to look to civil society organisations to understand the full diversity of volunteer management approaches and how these could benefit your organisation.
  • Make sure your messaging aligns with the reality of the volunteering opportunity. Managing expectations is vital for involving volunteers effectively. Building feedback loops into volunteer management can help you take early action if expectations change.
  • Take into consideration the level of risk you are willing to accept. Many organisational processes are designed to manage risk. However often, the opportunities of volunteering can be dramatically increased by ceding a little control to volunteers.
  • Think about how to make sure volunteers’ voices are heard, alongside those of staff and people using services, to improve both volunteer engagement and service delivery. This can be done by fostering a culture where volunteers feel able to give feedback on their experiences. You could also consider setting up a feedback loop to hear and act on volunteer feedback, either through direct engagement with volunteers or through a management structure.