2. What? Defining and describing family volunteering

Like all volunteering, family volunteering is diverse. Here we outline our findings on the ways that families got involved in volunteering and how we have grouped these together to come up with categories of involvement. Our categories go beyond what others have traditionally defined as family volunteering. We then look at the ways in which organisations engage with families as volunteers and suggest that there is a spectrum of approaches – from family volunteering by design through to family volunteering going unnoticed.

2.1. What volunteering looks like within families

We identified five ways in which families engage in volunteering, as summarised in figure 2 and detailed below. While these take us beyond traditional definitions, we suggest that all of these are part of family volunteering: they all reflect how families engage in volunteering and all are important to consider. These are not mutually exclusive: many of our families were engaged in a number of these types. Indeed, we found that some families do them all. More likely, however, is that they move between types over their life course, depending on personal, family and organisational circumstances, opportunities and constraints.

Figure 2: Types of family volunteering

Types of family volunteering

Figure 3: Examples of types of family volunteering

Examples of types of family volunteering

Do together: two or more family members volunteering together for the same organisation, doing the same activity at the same time and place

Our first category – ‘do together’ – is perhaps what people typically think of as family volunteering. It is when two or more members of the same family volunteer together for the same organisation, doing the same activity at the same time. It can be any combination of family members volunteering together: couples, parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, siblings, aunts and nieces, etc. Indeed, while we often think of family volunteering as being parents and children volunteering together, our analysis of the Time Use Survey data suggests that it is more often couples volunteering together.

Sometimes family volunteering together can be through specific initiatives set up to engage whole families as volunteers: our mapping work suggested that opportunities for families to volunteer together are most likely to be offered within organisations in the fields of heritage and culture (for example, museums and art galleries) and the environment (for example, conservation). More often, however, it is likely to be part of the general volunteering going on within the organisation, whether or not this is explicitly recognised. See section 2.2 for more on these different organisational approaches.

Volunteering together: The Johnston family

Rosie, Sam (seven) and Ellie (five) Johnston volunteer together at The Whitworth. Rosie used to come to the gallery for the free Baby Art sessions when Sam was only a few months old. They both really enjoyed the sessions, more so than other baby activities in town. The gallery then closed for a major refurbishment and they came back once Ellie was born. The circumstances were very different, as Ellie was ill and spent months in hospital.

They came to the gallery in between hospital visits, as it was nearby. A couple of years later, Rosie saw on the gallery’s Facebook page that it was looking for family volunteers and she was really interested in taking this opportunity up. She felt that it was a way of ‘giving back’ to the gallery as it had ‘been a wonderful resource for her and the children’. Rosie initially only volunteered with Sam during the summer holidays and at half-term, but Ellie ‘was desperate to do it too’, so now they volunteer together.

Sam and Ellie help set things up at the beginning of the activity, show the children taking part what to do and help to clear up. Rosie wasn’t sure whether having both children volunteer together would work, but they support each other and are comfortable in the gallery setting. It’s very much about play and fun, but Rosie feels that it’s also a way for her children to understand what helping others means.

Do alongside: different members of the same family volunteering for the same organisation, but doing different activities, often at different times

As well as families volunteering together, we also found that family members volunteer alongside each other – multiple members of the same family volunteering for the same organisation, but doing different roles and activities, potentially at different times. While our mapping work only revealed a few instances of opportunities for families to volunteer alongside each other being actively promoted, our case studies suggested that it is happening far more extensively than this would suggest.

Some families we spoke to talked about the value of being involved in the same organisation but doing different roles and activities, which reflects their different interests, skills and experiences, and enables them to have a common connection but not step on each other’s toes: ‘it worked better that way’. As we would expect from existing evidence of volunteering, there was often a gender dimension to the roles being undertaken;[1] there was also an age dimension. We discuss in section 4.2 how having a variety of flexible roles and activities available for family members of different ages and genders enables families to volunteer alongside each other.

Family members volunteering alongside each other: Jane and Peter

Jane and Peter are both in their 70s and retired. They have been married for 50 years, they have two grown-up children – both in the 40s and no longer living locally – and four grandchildren. They have lived in their current community for over 40 years and have been involved in the local church all that time. They are also involved in lots of other groups and organisations within the local community: ‘We’ve been participants in as many things as we can in the village because we find that that is part of being in a village that you need to be in with things to know what’s going on and to do that.’

When their children were younger, Jane and Peter encouraged them to be actively involved in things and often volunteered to support activities for them – Peter, for example, volunteered in the Scouts, and Jane in the Guides. Both their children volunteer, their daughter more so than their son. Although Jane and Peter are involved in many of the same groups and organisations, they took the active decision to volunteer not together but alongside: ‘we did agree between us that we wouldn’t be on any committees where both of us were on it because any conflictions of ideas or that we might disagree on something. So, either [Peter] would be on something or I would be on something but not together.’ In the past, while Peter was on the school’s PTA, for example, Jane volunteered in the classroom, helping with sewing and reading. In the church, while Peter is on the church council, Jane is heavily involved in various administrative activities, including spending one day a week sorting all the arrangements for weddings in the church. Fitting in such extensive commitments can be a bit of a juggle, with Jane leading on careful diary planning to ensure all their commitments can be met.

Family volunteering together and alongside: Some insightful data

The UK Time Use Survey captures family members within the same household volunteering together or alongside each other, at the same time. It does not, therefore, neatly fit in to any one of our categories, but it provides valuable insights into the scale of family volunteering that are not available from any other data source.

Our analysis of the 2014/2015 Time Use Survey found that on an average day, 3% of the households in the UK volunteered together or alongside each other as a family in the same group or organisation at the same time. This is equivalent to approximately 810,000 households. With 9% of households containing at least one member who formally volunteered on an average day, it represents one-third of all formal volunteering. In other words, one-third of all the households that volunteered, did so together as a family.

These family households spent on average 27 minutes per person per day volunteering together – one hour per household per day. This is a considerable amount of time, but is less than the average of 47 minutes for volunteers in households where people volunteer alone.

Most commonly, this was couples volunteering together. Couples of all ages volunteered together, but 7 out of 10 volunteering couples were aged 60 or over. The second most common category was an adult volunteering with at least one child younger than 16, followed by two adults volunteering with at least one child.

Bring along: one family member actively volunteering and bringing other family members with them in more passive roles

Rather than all volunteering together, some family volunteering involves one, or more, family members actively volunteering while bringing others with them – they are present together, but not everyone is actively involved in volunteering. Often this is parents bringing along young children. We found examples of babies being strapped to parents’ chests while out on a march, prams being parked up in the back of a room during meetings and children playing while their parents got on with the task in hand. It also works the other way round: children bringing a parent/responsible adult with them for safeguarding or transport reasons.

For some, bringing family members along with them is what makes it possible for them to volunteer. A single mother of young children, for example, may not have childcare so could not take part in volunteering if she did not bring her child with her. For some, it is a more active choice: bringing children along, for example, can be part of a desire to instil values and build norms of behaviour. We heard that for some, being ‘brought along’ as a child had developed into a lifelong engagement with an organisation. We also heard suggestions that it was getting harder to bring children along due to growing safeguarding commitments. We explore these issues further in subsequent sections.

Volunteers bringing family members along: Samira and her children

Samira is a single mother in her 30s with two young children (aged one and three years old). She initially came to Little Village as a beneficiary of its services, receiving support at a difficult time in her life. After receiving this support, she felt strongly about giving back to the organisation that had helped her, and she has been getting involved as a volunteer up to twice a week. One of her sons is at nursery, but she is able to bring her one-year-old to the family-friendly sessions held at Little Village, where she can either have her son looked after in the crèche or have him near her as she volunteers in a designated area. Other volunteers have got to know her and her son, so they also look out for him. As she doesn’t have a support network of wider friends and family, she would not be able to participate in this volunteering without being able to bring her son along, and a key benefit for her is to be around others, which helps her mental health. She has recommended volunteering at Little Village to someone else she knows, who has since attended with their child.

Do for: one (or more) family members volunteering for a group or organisation that provides a service or activity to another family member

Parents volunteering for their children’s activities: the Dickens family

The Dickens family – dad (Matt), stepmum (Sara) and Matt’s two children (aged ten and seven) – consider themselves to be an ‘active’ family with ‘frenetic’ calendars. Sara now works full time and Matt is a freelancer at home, which gives him more flexibility with home life. The children are involved in many after-school and extracurricular activities – drama, rugby, Beavers, Cubs and running – and both Matt and Sara volunteer in various capacities to support these activities, sometimes together and sometimes individually. Sara is also the leader of a Rainbows group, which her stepdaughter once attended. Most of their volunteering can be considered ‘do for’ and is closely connected to their children’s activities and interests, although they both actively volunteer in other areas too. Much of this involvement has been unplanned for Sara – helping to fill a role when there was no one else to do it, or helping out on the day has turned into a more regular commitment. Matt is very supportive of Sara’s volunteering, both emotionally and practically, and he ‘mucks in’ and helps her in the various roles she has taken on. He also gets involved more directly in other community events and activities, often related to the children and his interest in music. Both Matt and Sara are keen for the children to be busy and for them to see first-hand the value of being active and taking action: ‘ I really want them to see get up and go and that’s a really good way to be and live.’ Getting involved and helping out with their children’s activities and clubs is seen as part of what they do as a family and an important element of the children’s upbringing.

We came across many examples of one (or more) family member volunteering for a group or organisation that provided a service or activity for another family member; often this was parents volunteering to support activities their children were involved in, such as coaching a sports teams or helping out at Brownie packs, youth clubs or schools. There were also instances of volunteering at a care home where elderly parents were residents; it could also include, for example, chairing a local dementia support group that a partner attends, or volunteering at a hospice where a cousin, grandparent, aunt or other resident is cared for.

Our mapping suggests that this kind of family volunteering is quite prominent in sport and recreation (especially in local sports clubs), education (schools) and campaigns (education, climate change or bereavement justice).

Do separately: multiple members of the same family volunteering for separate groups and organisations

This category recognises that family is an important context for volunteering and that multiple family members might volunteer for different organisations. They volunteer but not together or alongside each other. Sometimes the decisions to volunteer in separate organisations are made collectively, based on an assessment of the family and community needs, resources and interests. For example, we found families with young children where one parent volunteered to support the school that their children attend, while the other parent volunteered to support a sporting activity.

A perceived need to support the different organisations that families engaged in led to volunteering being shared out across the family, with family members volunteering separately in the different groups and organisations. Such decisions were actively negotiated in some families. Sometimes, however, volunteering separately was a purely individual decision that reflected the different interests and skills of family members.

Volunteering separately: the Lowe family

Roger and Sandra are a married couple, with two sons (in their early 20s). One of their sons still lives at home; the other spends a lot of time abroad. Both work from home, Roger as a self-employed management consultant and Sandra as a foreign language teacher. They met overseas – Sandra was working and Roger volunteering. They describe themselves as a ‘small’ and ‘tight-knit’ family with lots of shared interests, including a love of music and the outdoors. While they have lots of common interests and are all actively involved in the community in a variety of ways, they currently tend to volunteer separately: ‘We don’t do many things together.’ Roger is heavily involved in the local youth centre, while Sandra is a central figure within a local refugee resettlement initiative. Most things, however, can be traced back to a connection with the church. Sandra describes Roger as a real volunteer type, having volunteered throughout his life, and herself less so, although alongside her work with refugees she supports the local Scouts group, which Roger was also involved in the past, and a local singing group and takes on various voluntary roles in the church.

Talking about family volunteering

Throughout this report, when we talk about ‘family volunteering’ we are talking inclusively about all five categories within the typology, although sometimes we differentiate between them by specifying certain types when they are pertinent to the point being made. We recognise that this is different to the much narrower understanding of family volunteering as family members (typically parents and children) volunteering together within the same organisation, which is more commonly used and much closer to our ‘do together’ category.[2] As noted above, these categories are not mutually exclusive, and families may engage in multiple forms of family volunteering at any one time or over time. Often, they move between them as their circumstances change. For some families, volunteering is a small part of what they do – one of a number of activities, roles and responsibilities that they engage in as a family. For others, it is a key part of who they are as a family, representing a significant investment of time and energy, often across multiple roles and organisations. We explore these experiences of family volunteering in section 4.1.

Family volunteering at the heart of the civic core: the Edwards family

The Edwards family – mum (Olivia), dad (Graham) and two teenage children (Stuart and Catherine) – are all active volunteers. When the children were little, a lot of their volunteering fitted within our ‘bring along’ category: at the church, for example, they brought their children along with them. Now that their children are older, they ask them if they want to come along: ‘it’s about enjoying time together, rather than getting them volunteering’. Some of their volunteering is now ‘done together’. They are all, for example, involved in the local youth club, although Catherine is involved more as a beneficiary than a volunteer. Olivia and Graham also volunteer together at a local toddler group – they enjoy going back to support the group that they ran when their children were small. They also do things ‘alongside’ each other – they are all, for example, involved in the local church, but while Olivia spent a number of years running the church shop, Graham has been more involved in the pastoral side, and Catherine helps with services for young people. They also do some things separately: Graham, for example, helps out with the local cricket club. As one of them said: ‘We do like spending time together and so we do quite a lot of things together, but we also do quite a lot of things apart.’

2.2. Organisational approaches to family volunteering

There were also different approaches to involving family members as volunteers from an organisational perspective. The key dimension here was the extent to which organisations had intentionally sought to encourage family volunteering within their organisation. We suggest that there was a spectrum of approaches taken by organisations ranging from discrete, designed family volunteering programmes, to family volunteering by extension and family volunteering by default, to family volunteering going unnoticed within organisations (see figure 4).

Figure 4: The spectrum of ways that family volunteering can develop in organisations

By design: organisations specifically seek to engage family groups as volunteers, within discrete family volunteering programmes, projects and activities

Some organisations reported developing discrete activities and programmes designed specifically to encourage family volunteering. Our mapping work suggests that family volunteering by design remains relatively uncommon, but it does appear to be on the increase, with a number of organisations having dedicated sections on their websites, for example, to promote and recruit family volunteers. The examples we found were concentrated, but not exclusively, within organisations working in the fields of the environment, and heritage and culture. Where organisations had specific family volunteering programmes, projects or activities, these generally fell within our ‘do together’ or sometimes our ‘do alongside’ categories. Most of the examples that we found focused on engaging parents and children, rather than couples or other family groupings. Some ran continuously throughout the year; others provided opportunities for more discrete, episodic engagement, for example in events during summer, school term breaks and occasional weekend events. We explore the reasons why organisations have developed such schemes in section 3.2.

Family volunteering by design at The Whitworth

As part of a drive to become more relevant, representative and embedded within the local community, The Whitworth has designed interventions specifically aimed at engaging families as both visitors and volunteers. The family volunteering scheme has developed incrementally, building on the success of existing activities targeted at families, including a well-established early years programme. There is a specific family workshop volunteer role (not exclusively for people wanting to volunteer with members of their own family) and parents can bring their babies when volunteering. They are also able to volunteer together, with children of a very young age being encouraged to help with small tasks. All are given a volunteer t-shirt, even the babies. The families that are volunteering are predominantly mothers (in their 20s and 30s, often on maternity leave) with one young child (over two-thirds are babies and toddlers), although there are a few cases of older children being involved and some mothers volunteering with several children. In one instance, siblings are volunteering together, and there have also been some grandparents volunteering with their grandchildren, but this isn’t common. Overall, working with and for families is helping to make the gallery more open and relevant, and has enabled it to reach out to people who wouldn’t usually get involved.

By extension: family members are encouraged to volunteer as an extension of the activities and services that organisations provide for families, children or young people

Rather than having a discrete, specifically designed family volunteering scheme, some organisations actively sought to engage family members as volunteers as an extension of the activities and services that the organisation provided for families, children or young people. Typically, this was parents being encouraged to volunteer to support activities that their children were involved in, not within a discrete family volunteering initiative but as part of the organisation’s wider volunteer involvement. While family-friendly practices might be put in place to facilitate this and organisations might mention the possibility of family members volunteering together on a volunteering page or frequently asked questions section of their website, it is part of a general volunteering offer rather than being contained within a specially designed family volunteering programme/activity or exclusively for family members. We found examples of this approach within uniformed youth groups and sports groups. We also came across examples in care homes, where the family members of residents were encouraged to volunteer to support various activities.

Family volunteering by extension at Kids Run Free

Recruiting and retaining families is key to Kids Run Free’s organisational mission and model. Its aim is to involve children in outdoor running activities, and it relies on the support of parent volunteers, although other volunteers are also encouraged to get involved. The organisation recognises the important role played by families in the scaling up of the programme into new communities, particularly in setting up new ‘Parks Kids’ events: ‘The family is going to be integral for years because without them, we can’t get in to the next community because there’s only so many of us here I suppose, so we need them to want it and to, I suppose to run it as well, so we need them to take the lead on their event’. It has not, however, set out to develop a discrete family volunteering programme. Indeed, the organisation wants to keep volunteering opportunities open to all in the community and this is reflected in its marketing for volunteers. As one staff member said: ‘So from that aspect it happens unintentionally if that makes sense, but I don’t think as an organisation we’ve ever talked about the idea of, well can we engage families to volunteer, because I don’t think we’ve even thought that that was a concept that could happen’.

By default: multiple members of the same family volunteer within an organisation not through any targeted approach but incrementally over time

Our research suggests that many organisations engage multiple members of the same family more by default than by design. Here, family volunteering had often evolved over time within the organisation; it was not something that the organisation had actively set out to achieve, although it may have implicitly encouraged it through its general ways of working, but multiple family members had been attracted to volunteering within the organisation. We frequently heard stories of couples volunteering together and of generations of the same family volunteering for an organisation, without ever having been specifically encouraged to do so. Some organisations had, however, implicitly acknowledged and therefore potentially encouraged family volunteering through, for example, recognising volunteering families within organisational materials or generally working in ways which were ‘family friendly’. We found examples of this approach within uniform organisations, local community-based groups, including churches and sports clubs, and particular volunteering roles such as fundraising and environmental clean-ups. As we shall discuss below, there was concern amongst some organisations that had historically involved families more by default than by design that there was less family volunteering now than in the past,[3] leading some to consider whether they needed a more active approach to sustain it.

Family volunteering by default at St Mary’s church

Families have always been involved in volunteering at St Mary’s church, which reflects the nature of the organisation. Like all volunteering at the church, however, this is largely organic, self-organised and not formally ‘managed’. There has been no drive to specifically encourage families to volunteer and no discretely designed family volunteering project. Instead, families have got involved in the church over the years by default: they come to the church together and get involved together; roles are often shared out amongst family members or passed on from one generation to the next. This has been further facilitated by the church having a range of activities which tend to focus on different age groups, enabling an informal pathway through participation (see section 4.2). Although St Mary’s remains an active, lively church, as congregations dwindle and families face increasing pressures on their time, concerns have been raised that family volunteering is declining and if left unchecked will likely continue to do so.

Going unnoticed: family volunteering is not explicitly acknowledged or encouraged by organisations

Our research suggests that some organisations may engage with multiple members of the same family as volunteers without giving it active thought or explicit acknowledgement: family volunteering goes unnoticed. It is hard to judge the scale of this or its significance, although with our analysis of the 2014/15 Time Use survey identifying that one-third of formal volunteering households volunteer together, the indication is that family volunteering may happen more than is acknowledged by organisations. Our mapping work, for example, highlighted that many volunteer-involving organisations made no mention of family on their volunteering webpages or social media feed.

A spectrum of approaches to family volunteering

As noted above, although we have presented discrete approaches, they fall along a spectrum, with organisations often focusing more or less on families and on family volunteering at different points in time, depending on a range of wider organisational and contextual factors. It was possible to follow the journey that some organisations had been on – from family volunteering largely having occurred by default, through to a more proactive approach whereby they had designed a specific programme to target families. For other organisations, the journey was less linear and more fluid. There was also considerable variation within these approaches according to whether the family volunteering tended, for example, to be planned or spontaneous, regular or episodic, formally organised and managed or organically led. In the sections below, we explore some of the factors which seemed to influence the approaches adopted by different organisations and the motivations behind them.


  1. See for example Low, N. et al (2007) Helping Out: A national survey of volunteering and charitable giving. London: Cabinet Office.

  2. In our literature review, for example, we found that Porritt (1995: 2) defined family volunteering as being: ‘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 brothers/sisters’. While we think this is a useful starting point, particularly its emphasis on different family groupings, we would encourage a broader definition reflective of the broader types of engagement we found through this research. Porritt, K. (1995) Family Volunteering: The Ties That Bind: An Introduction to Preparing Your Agency for Family Volunteers. Ottawa: Department of Canadian Heritage volunteeringculture.or.kr/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/Family-Volunteering.pdf (accessed September 2020)

  3. Reflective of what Hustinx and Lammertyn refer to as a wider move from ‘collective’ to ‘reflexive’ volunteering. Hustinx, L. and Lammertyn, F. (2003) ‘Collective and reflexive styles of volunteering: A sociological modernization perspective’, Voluntas, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 167–187.