3. Why? Why and how family volunteering comes about

In this section, we consider why and how family volunteering comes about. First, we look at this from the family perspective: the motivations for, routes into and triggers for families to get involved in volunteering, and the resources that they draw upon to enable them to do so. Within this, we also consider how family can act as a barrier to volunteering. We then consider why organisations get involved in family volunteering, particularly the more actively designed approaches, while also considering what stops others from getting involved or doing more.

3.1. Beyond the individual: Why and how families get involved in volunteering

There is already a considerable body of evidence on why people volunteer. Most focuses on individual motivations, but there is also evidence on predispositions and triggers for and routes into volunteering.[1] Common reasons given for volunteering include wanting to help people or improve things, having spare time and wanting to support a group, organisation or cause that they think is important.[2] We heard many of these types of responses amongst our respondents. Rather than repeating all those findings here, we focus on the motivations, routes in and resources which were particularly related, in one way or another, to family. Each section incorporates findings on how family can also act as a barrier to volunteering.

Figure 5: Family as a driver for volunteering

Family as a driver for volunteering

Family as motivation

For some, family was a motivation, or reason, for volunteering. The reasons that people gave for volunteering, for example, included those that specifically related to their children or their sense of family and their role within the family.

Instilling and expressing family values

For some, family volunteering was motivated by family values: for example, the importance of family, supporting each other, hard work, helping others, community, active citizenship and faith. These were not just individually held values, but also collective family values, or at least values that parents wanted to instil in their children, and volunteering was seen as a way to both actively express and transmit them. As one parent put it: ‘they can see how things fit in the community and how people work together and that importance of being part of something’. Where parents and children volunteered together or alongside each other, this was seen as a particularly valuable way of expressing and instilling those values: ‘You’re experiencing it with them and you’re showing them that you care for it’. The hope in many cases was that volunteering would become the norm for family life:

Family values and volunteering: The Adair family

Dad (Tom) and mum (Sally) share a strong sense that being part of a local community where you get involved and help one another is important. They have two children (aged five and three). Tom’s volunteering is largely based on his interest in running, and he regularly volunteers for GoodGym. Sally gets involved in more informal ways, including coaching on interview skills, CV writing and supporting people in the community who need help. Exposing their children to experiences in the community and instilling positive values was seen as an important part of their children’s upbringing: ‘We’re very much a values-based family where we try and teach values to our children.’ Involvement in their community and in volunteering was seen as one way of promoting and teaching these values. They talked, for example, about the importance of getting involved as a family in community fundraising events and activities, such as the yearly Santa Dash: ‘It’s a good sort of opportunity for us to tell the kids that not everyone is as lucky as they are and that there are some people that need our help and if we can do it, either by passing on skills or helping raise funds or changing something for them’.

Role modelling

For some parents, the motivation for getting involved was a desire to be a good role model for their children. This was also highlighted in our evidence review.[3] As one volunteer who brought her child along with her to one of our case study organisations reflected:

While being a good role model was particularly associated with volunteering that involved parents and children doing something together or alongside each other, it was not limited to that: other forms of volunteering were also felt to offer the potential for positive role modelling. For example, in some families when it was just one of the parents who volunteered, this was enough to stimulate conversations about volunteering and/or to be seen volunteering by children – the role modelling still happened.

Spending meaningful time together

For some, the reasons given for wanting to get involved in family volunteering related to a desire to do something meaningful together as a family within the time they had available or to spend ‘quality time’ together, as a couple, a family unit of parents and children, or siblings. This was seen to be gaining importance as lives became increasingly busy, meaning that time spent together was more precious.[4] As one person said:

Here, there was an added belief that spending meaningful time together would help to strengthen relationships amongst family members. One family talked about being motivated by a desire to ‘reframe’ their relationships, which had become challenging within the home – it was hoped that volunteering would provide a neutral space to spend meaningful time together and rebuild those relationships.

Time outside of the family

Sometimes, volunteering was motivated by a desire to do something as an individual outside of the wider family or with time that had become available because of changes in family circumstances – volunteering became ‘me time’. For example, for those on maternity leave, volunteering can be motivated by a desire to do something meaningful when paid work has paused, while also providing a reason to get out of the house, meet people, stay connected and do something ‘for me’ rather than with or for the family (we explore this further in the section on triggers/routes into volunteering below). As one person said:

Family payback

Involvement in family volunteering was also motivated by wanting to give something back to an organisation or a community that the family were a part of or had benefited from. One volunteer talked about being motivated by a ‘huge debt of gratitude’ that they felt for the organisation – in this case the Scouts – for support they had provided to their son at a particularly difficult point in his life. For some parents, this meant volunteering for all the activities their children were involved in, particularly those that were run by volunteers: ‘So I think generally if our children do anything run by volunteers, we always try and do something’. Within this there was a sense of building reciprocity and mutuality across parents:

Similarly, wanting to be part of, or contribute to a community was a commonly cited reason for volunteering, particularly for families within the more rurally located cases. This has a particular family dimension to it: it wasn’t about getting involved in the community individually, but about wanting the family to feel part of the community.

Family life providing multiple routes into volunteering

In common with existing research evidence,[5] and as indicated in some of the above, we found that family life could often provide triggers for and routes into volunteering.

Children’s activities as routes into volunteering

Having children was itself an important trigger for volunteering, and children’s involvement in education and leisure activities often provided a route into volunteering for parents. We found many instances of this within our family case studies. This was sometimes actively encouraged by organisations. For some organisations which provide activities/services for young people, becoming a parent helper is almost a requirement; for most, it is more gently encouraged – some do little to encourage or facilitate it, although it may happen by default. In some instances, volunteering had been triggered by an organisation that a child was involved in being threatened with closure if volunteers did not come forward. This left parents feeling as if they had little choice but to step in, and occasionally led them to volunteer in organisations in which they had little: ‘Sometimes you do things because you feel you should, not necessarily because you have got a passion for it’.

Sometimes, however, children didn’t want their parents, or other family members, involved in their activities: they valued their time apart, and indeed time apart was recognised as an important way for children to develop independence. One couple talked about waiting until their child had left an organisation before volunteering, as he hadn’t wanted them to get involved: ‘We fancied [volunteering] a little bit before, but with [our son] it was sort of, “Oh, I don’t want to be going along there with my dad, let us have my own thing.” So we waited a little bit longer until he went off to university before joining it properly.’ This was acknowledged by at least one of our case study organisations, which had questioned the extent to which they should encourage parents to volunteer for activities in which their children were involved because they recognised that some young people’s involvement represented the first thing that they had done independently of school or family: ‘We’re the first active decision they take for themselves’. To involve parents could take away from this.

Additionally, while children’s activities can provide a route into volunteering for their parents, when those activities come to an end for the children, this can also mean the end of volunteering for parents. This was not always the case – we found examples of parents who had kept volunteering for groups that their children had left many years ago.

Children’s activities as a route into volunteering: Mr and Mrs Wilson

Husband and wife, Andy and Carmen, first got involved with volunteering at ‘Parks Kids’ in a casual, ad-hoc way when they took their three children (aged ten, seven and four) to the events: ‘So I’d just naturally – I’d run round with my daughter or I’d grab a couple of elastic bands and help them out. Even if it’s just standing on a corner giving the kids a high five just to motivate them, you know…there’s nothing better than a little bit of mutual support to keep them going when you can see they’re tired’. After going along to the events and helping out for a year, they moved to a new area and approached Kids Run Free to set up a new ‘Parks Kids’ event in their new community. The children wanted to continue to be involved and the parents valued the enjoyment, exercise and time they spent together as a family: ‘That’s why I set it up, because they enjoy it, I want to carry that on, and if nobody else is going to do then you may as well do it yourself’.

Participation as a route into volunteering

Being a participant in or beneficiary of an organisation also provided a route into volunteering for young people themselves, sometimes on their own and sometimes alongside their parents. Sometimes there was a blurry line between being a participant and a volunteer, with no clear distinction between the two. In some cases, this move from participation to volunteering had been facilitated by organisations having a clear pathway, or route of progression, from participation into volunteering that was actively encouraged and supported. In others, young people found their own way. We shall return to this in the section below.

Other family members as a route into volunteering

The route into volunteering for some came from being encouraged to help out at an organisation by another family member. Sometimes this was in the form of a husband ‘mucking in’ to support his wife’s volunteering by, for example, helping out at occasional events that his wife was organising, and at other times it was a more committed, sustained involvement. In such cases, while various family members got involved in volunteering, it was primarily driven by one person who got involved and then roped the others in. As one person put it:

Some volunteers and family members themselves highlighted that they were not choosing to get involved; they felt obliged to help out a partner, for example, or had been told to help out by a parent. As one person said: ‘It’s more important for me than it is for them, they feel obliged to help me out, they certainly don’t need to, but because I’m there every, one Saturday a month, I think my wife particularly has always felt obliged to turn up with me.’ Generally, despite some resistance, being ‘roped in’ was reflected upon positively overall and had sometimes led to a lifelong commitment to an organisation. Indeed, in some cases we heard that while a child’s volunteering may initially have been ‘driven’ by a parent’s, as they were roped in to help, over time this had changed. This was acknowledged by both parents and children:

Family members as a route to volunteering: The Brown family

The Brown family – mum (Tina), dad (Alistair) and two children (Anna, 14 years old, and Emily, six years old) have all been involved in volunteering at Little Village to varying degrees. Tina has been quite heavily involved after first hearing about Little Village through another family-oriented charity. She is described by the family as the ‘linchpin’ who got them all engaged in different activities for the organisation, mostly in an ad-hoc way for Alistair, who helps out with some activities, and Emily, who is brought along sometimes. Anna was initially brought along by her mum, but has since been undertaking her own volunteering at Little Village as part of The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Initially, she felt her involvement was more motivated by her mum and less by her own choice, but having got more involved, she feels more self-motivated and especially enjoys coming with her friends, though she also sometimes participates with one of her parents: ‘I feel like it’s 60% my choice and 40% my mum’s…if a teacher had suggested, “Why don’t you pop along?”, I would have said no, but I’m definitely glad I have. At the beginning it was probably 80% mum and 20% me but it has grown, and I definitely choose to come here…it’s a really good way to catch up with friends and at the end you feel satisfied you’ve done something really good, so I really enjoy coming.’

Family as a resource for volunteering

Families also provided a range of resources to enable volunteering to begin. Time and money were particularly highlighted here. Having more of these resources was generally thought to increase the chance of volunteering; having less of them created barriers to getting involved. We touch on how they relate to getting into volunteering here, and we shall return to them in section 4 when we discuss how they affect the ongoing experience of family volunteering.

As evidenced within the literature,[6] time was thought to be an increasingly scarce resource, and a lack of it was identified as being a key barrier to volunteering by our case study families and organisations. Two developments were particularly highlighted as reducing the time that families had available to volunteer: increased working hours, particularly through rising female employment; the rise of children’s leisure pursuits. Volunteering together as a family or volunteering alongside a child involved in an activity, however, were recognised as good ways to help to overcome time barriers and reduce time conflicts. Some people, for example, said that they were more likely to participate in volunteering at weekends if their children could be involved in the activity as well:

It was also recognised that families often needed a certain level of financial security before they felt that they could volunteer. One member of a couple who undertakes full-time work, for example, may ensure that the family has enough financial resource to enable the other person to work part time and so have capacity (both time and financial security) to volunteer. Similarly, one parent (or grandparent) who looks after children may reduce childcare costs and so enable the other to go out and volunteer. One family, where three generations were volunteering alongside each other in the same organisation, reflected on how the grandmother had stepped back from her own volunteering roles to pick up some of the childcare activities in order to enable her daughter and grandchildren to do their ‘activities’, including volunteering.

Importantly then, these resources were not just individually held and drawn upon, but also pooled and shared across those families, enabling some or all of the members to engage in volunteering in ways which might not have been possible if they were reliant on their own individual resources. Single-parent families faced particular barriers through a lack of pooled resources. Further, when ‘deciding’ whether or not to take on a volunteering role, for some it was a conscious, collective, family (rather than individual) decision, made by weighing up all the resources alongside the other roles and responsibilities that they shared as a family:

For others it was more of an individual decision, although often made in relation to others within the family:

3.2. Mission and reach: Why organisations get involved in family volunteering

When family volunteering had developed ‘by default’ within organisations, it was hard to identify why this had happened, other than a general sense that it had developed organically as a reflection of the organisation’s general mission, values and activities, and how embedded they are within the local community, for example. When family volunteering had been developed ‘by design’ or ‘extension’ however, two key sets of motivating factors were identified.

Family volunteering as a way to meet mission and values

For some organisations, developing family volunteering was seen as a way to meet its mission, to deliver on shorter term strategies and/or to reflect its values. This included organisations which aimed to educate and empower children, engage with families, be family friendly or embed themselves within the community.

It was suggested that it was those organisations which were particularly orientated to either families or communities through their mission and values that were most likely (and able) to actively encourage and facilitate family volunteering: it was something which naturally aligned to what they did more generally. For family-orientated organisations, for example, making volunteering accessible to families through being flexible, relatively informal, responsive to family needs and balanced in their response to safeguarding measures is easier than for other organisations, as it more closely aligns to what they do and how they work in general. As a respondent from one organisation put it: ‘Making sure it is accessible [for families] is one of the things that’s hard baked into any space we take on, it’s got to allow families to come in.’

For other organisations, family volunteering was seen as a way to help them become more family orientated. Here, involving family groups as volunteers was seen as a form of co-production: family members were encouraged not just to give their time but also to contribute ideas as to how activities could be delivered by the organisation to make them more appealing and accessible for families.

Meeting mission through family volunteering at Kids Run Free

Kids Run Free’s Park Kids programme is all about families and getting whole families involved and active. The 45-minute events, held weekly, fortnightly or monthly, rely on parents and other family members to not only bring their children to the events, but also encourage and motivate them: ‘Having their parents there is really, really important because it just relaxes them and it makes them more confident and comfortable’. Parents also play a key role in running many of the Park Kids events as volunteer race directors or in other formal roles, while others get involved in a more ad-hoc casual basis as and when help is needed: ‘The family for us is a key volunteer and more often than not, our volunteers have children with them, that’s what gets them involved or they’ve come to the event with the kids and they’ve realised that the event needs more volunteers to support it and then they’ll help with that’. For some family volunteers, their involvement is regular and more formalised, whereas for others, it is informal and flexible. While the ‘Parks Kids’ events are family orientated, they are also community orientated, and the events aim to appeal to volunteers beyond families of existing participants: ‘although family is definitely at the heart of what we do, we want to appeal to everybody in the community…so, we want everybody in the community to be involved, but we do also advertise that we’re very much a family-friendly organisation; the event itself is for kids’.

Family volunteering as a way to widen participation

Some organisations had designed family volunteering schemes with the intention of widening participation in their organisation, particularly – but not limited to – diversifying their volunteer base. Family volunteering, for example, was seen to have the potential to overcome time pressures for people by enabling couples, or parents and children, to volunteer together, which would enable a wider range of people to get involved. Similarly, explicitly encouraging parents to bring children was seen as a way to overcome childcare as a barrier to volunteering and so widen participation. Encouraging parents and children to volunteer together was recognised as a way to overcome some of the concerns that organisations had about safeguarding when children were unaccompanied.

In some cases, it was hoped that there would be a wider knock-on effect, in terms of engaging more diverse volunteers through family volunteering and subsequently using this to demonstrate that they were an open and relevant organisation. One organisation, for example, talked about encouraging parents and children to volunteer together as a way to engage people from minority ethnic communities (particularly refugee groups) where the child is the main English speaker and so can act as an interpreter for a parent who would otherwise be/feel unable to participate due to the language barrier.

Little Village: family volunteering as a way to widen participation

Volunteers within Little Village have to date been predominantly white and typically from a higher socio-economic background. To address this, the charity has been actively trying to diversify its volunteer base, particularly in terms of being more reflective of the community that it supports. In 2018, it received a grant to diversify volunteering, some of which was used to provide a crèche for one of its two family-friendly volunteering sessions. This was aimed particularly at enabling (and increasing) participation among beneficiary families that might not be able to afford childcare, yet were most likely to benefit from participating in volunteering. The crèche is run by two qualified childcare professionals, who also started out as former beneficiaries of Little Village before becoming volunteers and now staff members. Providing a secure environment, where parents can feel reassured of their child’s safety, means that volunteers have choices about whether they have their children with them or in the crèche while volunteering. Providing this service for volunteers has also supported the organisation’s conversations with referral partners, as it can provide a free, accessible, professional, safe space for children that partners can recommend to individuals in the community who might benefit. Although it is still early days, the initiative already seems to be attracting a more diverse pool of volunteers, including people who had previously been service users. Attracting men, however, is an ongoing challenge.

Organisational barriers and limits to developing family volunteering

We heard from a number of organisations that wanted to develop family volunteering initiatives, but had experienced or perceived barriers to doing so. Reflective of the perception that family volunteering is about parents and children volunteering together, often these barriers were created through concerns about involving children or young people as volunteers: for example, would they be able to get insurance? How would they ensure they met safeguarding regulations? What roles or activities would or could children volunteer within? Would they be able to cope with the extra administration associated with the regulations around involving young people? Would they have the physical space to accommodate parents and children volunteering together? Sometimes these concerns reflected wider organisational cultures which themselves created barriers to the involvement of children. Concerns were also raised by some organisations about their capacity to manage family volunteers, perceiving family volunteering to be more resource intensive than other forms of volunteering.

Overcoming concerns and widening participation through family volunteering: National Trust

The National Trust oversees cultural and conservation activities in heritage properties across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Its engagement with family volunteers is one of the most well-known examples of family volunteering by design in the UK. Having incorporated inclusion into its last volunteering strategy in 2013, families are seen as important for diversifying its volunteering base.

The National Trust actively promotes family volunteering via its website and provides videos and case studies that mention how multiple families or different generations can volunteer together and a search engine for suitable opportunities. However, local properties are responsible for creating family volunteering activities at a local level based on their priorities. These family-friendly activities tend to involve practical outdoor activities, like harvesting vegetables and planting trees, and one-off events, like chalking the White Horse.

The regional volunteering and participation consultants support local National Trust properties that want to develop family volunteering with guidance on designing activities and incorporating volunteering into local conservation plans. Despite initial scepticism about including families and managing additional insurance costs and DBS checks, local staff have been positive about what families have achieved.

The National Trust intends to hold a strategic review in the near future, which will explore ways to strengthen links with community groups and businesses, work with urban communities on green-space conservation and apply the new young people’s strategy, which will all consider the role of family volunteering.


  1. Musick and Wilson provide a thorough review in Musick, M. and Wilson, J. (2008) Volunteers: A social profile. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

  2. See for example McGarvey, A., Jochum, V., Davies, J., Dobbs, J. and Hornung, L. (2019) Time Well Spent: A national survey on the volunteer experience. London: NCVO. www.ncvo.org.uk/images/documents/policy_and_research/volunteering/Volunteer-experience_Full-Report.pdf (accessed September 2020)

  3. See for example Bekkers, R. (2007) ‘Intergenerational transmission of volunteering’, Acta Sociologica, vol. 50, no. 2. pp. 99–114.

  4. Wajcman, J. (2014) Pressed for Time: The acceleration of life in digital capitalism. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

  5. See for example Brodie, E., Hughes, T. Jochum, V., Miller, S., Ockenden, N. and Warburton, D. (2011) Pathways through Participation: What creates and sustains active citizenship? London: NCVO/IVR/Involve. www.involve.org.uk/resources/publications/project-reports/pathways-through-participation (accessed September 2020)

  6. Wajcman, J. (2014) Pressed for Time: The acceleration of life in digital capitalism. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.