5. To what effect? The outcomes of family volunteering for families and organisations

When it came to the outcomes of family volunteering, people described a ‘double benefit’ that results from this kind of participation. Family volunteering can bring about the kinds of outcomes that are found in studies of volunteering in general, but also a set of outcomes that particularly relate to or intensify in family volunteering. As with motivations, volunteers cited a number of individual benefits which reflected those seen for volunteering in general. Rather than repeat those, here we focus on outcomes for individuals that specifically relate to family volunteering, and in particular on outcomes that were identified for families and for organisations. In the families section, we highlight some outcomes for individual family members that specifically relate to family volunteering.

5.1. Family outcomes

Family volunteering was felt to have a considerable impact on both the families and the individuals within them. Although volunteering was generally felt to be beneficial for families, not everything was positive. There was, of course, considerable variation according to the wider family context, types of volunteering undertaken, intensity of volunteering and balance with other roles and responsibilities.

Self-identity and individual wellbeing within the family context

Wider evidence suggests that the feeling of making a difference, along with a sense of satisfaction, are among the benefits that individuals gain from volunteering.[1] In the context of family volunteering, these feelings take on a particular dimension: they provide a space for individual family members to develop their own sense of purpose and identity within the family context. This could be seen in a variety of contexts but was particularly highlighted as an important outcome of volunteering for those on maternity leave, stay-at-home parents not currently in paid work and the recently retired, who may otherwise struggle with loss of role identity, feelings of isolation, loneliness, stress and guilt. This took on an additional dimension when children were brought along to the volunteering activities but was equally applicable to those who left their children at home:

I don’t have company or friends, instead of me staying at home coming here helps, really gets a lot out of my brain and seeing my child playing and all that. When he started the crèche, his interaction with kids changed, he wants to play more, since he came here, I see the difference in him.

As a mother, it’s very much that thing of your job is only apparent if you’re not doing it, when you’re volunteering and making a difference, certainly I come away going ‘Actually I can interact with other people’ or ‘I can make somebody laugh’ or 'I can help with something' – there’s a huge sense of feeling like you are good at something.

One organisation had actively promoted this aspect as part of their family volunteering offer:

We talk about volunteering here as ‘something for you’, ‘something to give you some time out so that you can feel valued and you can feel productive and your children will still have a good time as well as they’re socialising but this is for you actually’. That’s how we market it: ‘It feels satisfactory, builds a sense of self-worth, a sense of dignity for a couple of hours being able to put yourself first you can still be a mum and you’re doing something great with your kid’.

Such outcomes were not, however, limited to parents. We spoke to one young woman, for example, who had gone through a particularly challenging time with depression and anxiety, and for whom volunteering had enhanced her mental health and subjective wellbeing. Her volunteering experience has been transformative at an individual level, which had led her to encourage some of her wider family members to get involved, which in turn had provided a space and the opportunity to reshape family relationships.

Enjoying spending time together

An immediate outcome of some family volunteering was the enjoyment of spending (quality, meaningful, active) time together and doing something which was slightly out of the ordinary for everyday family life. This was highlighted in terms of parents spending time with their children:

…for me it’s important because it’s just spending time with the kids on stuff that you wouldn’t normally do as a family, because they see you’re committed to something and you’re doing something and you’re having fun with it, so it’s not part of daily life, if you know what I mean.

And by couples volunteering together:

Because sometimes you don’t get enough time for, especially having three kids and stuff…you come home, putting the kids to bed and everything, and by the time you come to sit down you’re pretty much ready to go to sleep anyway. So having something at the weekend to aim towards that you both kind of work together.

This outcome was somewhat dependent on both the type of family volunteering (it was particularly prevalent when volunteering together) and the nature of the volunteering activities.

Strengthening family ties

A key outcome of family volunteering was a strengthening or deepening of relationships between family members. Family members volunteering together, alongside or with children participating in an activity was particularly felt to strengthen family relationships.

Beyond spending meaningful enjoyable time together, it added a new dimension through which to express shared values and interests, and gave family members something in common (‘gives us something to talk about!’), shared experiences and a sense of joint achievement and pride. Some couples had met through their volunteering and continued to be involved when they got married and had children, after which they brought their children with them. Comments included:

We were all proud of the outcome: we did this thing we did together.

We’re definitely closer. Just being able to spend time with them [children] that isn’t around cinema or a theme park.

Previous research has highlighted the strengthening of family bonds that comes from parents and children volunteering together;[2] our findings confirmed this while also showing how this extends to couples. Indeed, this strengthening of relationships was evident amongst parents, grandparents and children, between couples and amongst siblings. It had the potential to have increased significance at key moments in family life.

For example, for some couples, volunteering gained in significance when children left home or when they reached retirement, both points which were associated with significant shifts in the dynamics between couples. For some, it also gained significance when new blended families were being formed. People talked, for example, about having to reinvent themselves and find new ways to relate to each other and spend (newly available) time together, and how volunteering together or alongside each other could help to facilitate that. Couples in particular talked about the sense of cooperation and teamwork that developed through volunteering together:

I think there’s that element of teamwork stuff and that, as [my partner] has said actually, it’s something we enjoy as part of our relationship. I think it’s not something we necessarily always did, we didn’t set out to be involved perhaps in the fact that we do but we get a lot from it.

…it’s the teamwork a little bit, so it’s a common ground isn’t it, I know doing things together has created a new fresh common ground, something to talk about, something to achieve. And for me it will be something in years to come just to look back at photos or something and say, ‘Oh remember when we did that?’ Just another stepping stone isn’t it.

It was suggested, however, that there is a tipping point when volunteering too closely together can create challenges. Some said that it became too intense, when, for example, they realised that it was all they ever talked about together: ‘It was a thing that we then shared, but I don’t think that was very good for us because that was both of us talking about school constantly’.

This was reflected in some people’s preference for volunteering ‘alongside’ – engaging in the same organisation, and so gaining that commonality, but within different activities so as not to step on each other’s toes. Working through these challenges, however, can sometimes have its own rewards: ‘I’m sure it’s ended up that we are a lot more together, bound together than we would have been, but we’ve probably got quite a lot wrong on the way and you know stressed each other out.’

Relationships with others

Alongside the strengthening of relationships within families, volunteering can also contribute to a strengthening of relationships between families and others. For some, family volunteering had contributed to strengthening relationships with other families involved in an organisation or encouraging other families to also become involved (for example, at a local community event).

For some, most of the family’s socialising was done with other families involved in the organisation, particularly when those families had children of similar ages who had grown up together in the organisation. This was facilitated by organisations encouraging regular social events for volunteers or generally creating convivial volunteering environments. But it was more than the social contact which strengthen relationships; it was suggested that volunteering added extra depth to relationships by providing the opportunity to do something meaningful together – a shared sense of purpose and achievement, for example. For some families, this extended to a sense of being deeply embedded within their communities, not just as individuals, but also collectively as a family:

Oh, it’s huge, it is absolutely huge, I think. It’s community, it builds, it helps you to be part of the fabric of the community and that, it’s really strong and powerful.

Broadening families’ horizons, perspectives and skills

Volunteering had opened doors and expanded the horizons of many of the families that we spoke to, with many also noting that through these opportunities they had developed new skills. For some, volunteering had provided opportunities for the family or family members to get involved in activities and experiences that would otherwise not have been available to them.

Sometimes these new experiences and opportunities were directly through the organisation they volunteered for; sometimes they grew from there: volunteering in one organisation could open doors to others. When these experiences were shared and recognised through family volunteering, they had added value. As one person reflected:

It has a positive effect on families in that respect. I think the impact on families of us giving lots of opportunities for young people to be celebrated, upskilled, recognised, have some sense of achievement, I think that’s inherently positive in terms of a family point of view.

Such opportunities and experiences could also challenge perspectives and create awareness of the world. Some parents, for example, felt that volunteering as a family or alongside family had helped to broaden their children’s minds and to instil values such as the importance of active citizenship and community engagement:

…they can see how things fit in the community and how people work together and that importance of being part of something.

…they’re seeing that it is good to help out, you should, you can be, it’s just like, to be helpful to do things, do things for your community, positive things, and be good role models.

Even where family members were not directly involved, volunteers were taking away reflections to their families at home and, in some cases, changing their behaviours and outlook.

Pressure and stress

As suggested in section 4.1, volunteering can create pressure and put stress on individuals and wider family members. Volunteering can, for example, put pressure on individuals, which is exacerbated when their families are less supportive of volunteering. In families where volunteering was valued less by those members who did not volunteer, those who did reported feeling a greater sense of pressure to manage other people’s expectations of how they fulfilled their various roles and responsibilities.

Pressure and stress were also more intense when multiple family members were involved in volunteering in multiple roles, and when those roles had high levels of responsibility and/or were juggled alongside other intense roles and responsibilities, such as a stressful job. While many of the families we spoke to reflected positively on being busy (when asked how they would describe themselves as a family, ‘busy’ was a common response), it was clear that at times it could get too much.

For some, time spent volunteering meant no time or less time for other family activities. When children were not involved in the volunteering, this could mean time apart from them, and: ‘An extra thing they’ve had to contend with’. When children were brought along to their parents’ volunteering activities, it could mean that they missed out on other things: ‘I resented [the organisation we volunteer for] somewhat at times, especially when I was told I couldn’t go to a friend’s sleepover or I couldn’t have my friend sleepover or I couldn’t have a birthday party or I couldn’t do something because it clashed with [volunteering].’ It can mean that other roles and responsibilities are neglected or passed on to someone else, sacrifices are made and leisure activities are foregone, which can cause resentment within the family:

…sometimes it can be negative, you know, time is precious…so when you want to go away as a family, to go and do a day out somewhere, it’s tough as a coach, because you don’t want to be letting down kids. But it’s tough as a parent because you don’t want to be letting down your wife and kids.

Such tensions within families were exacerbated when the volunteering itself became stressful. Some volunteering brings a strong sense of obligation and responsibility, which can be overwhelming, make it hard to say no or to walk away and create pressure and stress that affects not only those who are volunteering, but also other family members.

In one family case study, the children talked about living with ‘angry mum’ during a period when her volunteering role (in which they all supported her) became too much. There was a sense that these pressures could be particularly intense when whole families were involved in an organisation – their lives were more entangled within it and so it became harder to step back.

5.2. The organisational outcomes of family volunteering

Family volunteering also had an impact on organisations. Again, we focus on those impacts which were highlighted as being specific to or intensified within family volunteering.

Meeting the mission

Family volunteering can support organisations to achieve their mission. For those whose mission, values or strategy focused on improving outcomes for families, family volunteering could be a direct way to achieving that: both through the volunteering itself and through what it achieved for others. In other words, family volunteering was a means to an end as well as an end in itself. As a member of staff from one of our case studies described:

It’s really valuable because it’s the volunteers who run our activities and sessions. Being able to provide family-friendly volunteering means that we are able to achieve our objective which is by supporting families with love and dignity and apart from just helping families it enables us to provide something for other people within the community as well, other more satisfying productive experiences.

Family volunteering could have a similar double effect for those whose missions or values related to empowering young people or engaging with and building community:

Oh, yeah, huge benefits. I think it’s, because again it’s about building better communities, isn’t it? So, actually, it’s the influence those families have out in the community as well…

We tend to find that the family volunteers are really representational of our local community, so it’s our community taking ownership of the gallery and running it for other members of their community.

Family volunteering was identified by some as having changed people’s perceptions of an organisation and helped to improve its image and reputation:

It just gives a different energy to the welcome and people’s perceptions of what the space is about, because I think a lot of what we do is trying to create new ways in which different people can engage.

Recruiting additional resources

Bringing in different family members provides additional resources for organisations. For some organisations, offering family volunteering opportunities was an effective way to enhance volunteer recruitment and, in doing so, brought additional resource into the organisation. Reflective of the findings on motivations and routes into volunteering, for example, family could be an important stimulus for volunteer recruitment and a way of reducing some of the barriers to involvement.

This could be enhanced by having clear pathways into volunteering which, for example, saw parents of young people who attended services provided by an organisation being actively recruited. It could also include young people who were brought along with their parent volunteers, and later moved on to become volunteers themselves.

Respondents frequently talked about getting ‘two for one’ through family volunteering – they may recruit one volunteer but that volunteer then brings along other family members, either to provide occasional help or as ongoing volunteers. In this way, family volunteering increases the organisation’s human resource.

Promoting retention

Family volunteering was also thought to promote retention, as families may be likely to stay longer because of the connections they make or if they have children involved in that activity. This was achieved partly by reducing time conflicts within families, meaning they were more likely to stay longer: ‘I don’t feel like I have to make choices between having a family and continuing to be part of [this organisation] because my family can be part of [it].’

It was also facilitated by the encouragement and support from other family members, which helped to sustain the volunteering. This was particularly highlighted in terms of parents encouraging and motivating their children to stay involved, and vice versa, but was also recognised amongst couples. As one person said:

I suppose the benefit of the family rather than the individual volunteers, they’re probably going to stay longer because their children are going to be there over many years normally.

It was also partly the intensity of the connection and attachment that was established between families and organisations which made them more likely to stay. Some families, for example, talked of a sense of belonging to and/or ownership of an organisation or a ‘community’ which kept them volunteering for longer.

Challenges for volunteer management

While family volunteering was generally viewed positively in terms of its contribution to recruitment and retention, it was also recognised to create potential challenges for volunteer management. For example, while recruiting one volunteer can lead to other family members getting involved, the downside is that when one volunteer leaves – particularly due to some kind of a dispute – the whole family can leave, risking leaving gaps within organisations. When that family has developed close bonds with other families within the organisation, it can result in significant swaths of volunteers leaving.

There was also some suggestion that the risk of dispute was higher when whole families were involved. Domestic tensions within families may bubble over into the organisation, creating an uncomfortable environment for others. As one respondent described:

…if there’s a family breakdown or an argument or something, the impact that has in this organisation is huge because ultimately when, and it’s not just family, there’s the part of friendships and even though it’s still family isn’t it, ultimately? So, when those friendships break down it can just erupt because people haven’t got the skills all of the time to be able to manage that conflict.

The enhanced level of passion and ownership that some family volunteers come to feel for the organisation can make volunteering particularly emotive. This can create challenges for organisations, including, for example, making it harder to manage change:

…it’s got that positive and negative, doesn’t it? The positive is you quite often get like multiple people for the price of one, for want of a better word. The negative side to the organisation is you know some families can be a force to be reckoned with in a sense that where change needs to take place and they’re stubborn and set in their ways and won’t, trying to manage one person and get one person on board is a lot easier than trying to get a whole family on board and sometimes that can cause barriers, sometimes, depending on how the family interact with each other.

Continued involvement in volunteering may also depend on the interest and enjoyment of children in an activity. If that wanes or if they choose to move onto a new activity, whole families may decide not to continue participating. This can pose challenges for organisations in filling the gaps families leave behind.

Volunteer diversity

Family volunteering was generally seen to have led to a widening of participation within organisations by enabling the involvement of a more diverse range of volunteers – particularly children, and parents of young children. An increased diversity of volunteers was achieved through the organisational features and approaches outlined in section 4.2, such as creating a family-friendly atmosphere, providing flexible opportunities, allowing children to be brought along or providing childcare facilities, which enabled parents with young children to be involved.

This finding from our case studies was reinforced through our analysis of the UK Time Use Survey 2014/2015: if they are not volunteering together, families with children are less likely than families with no (dependent) children to engage in volunteering activities. Volunteering together enables families with children to engage.

Involving a more diverse range of volunteers, particularly families, helped some organisations to better understand what families need and want, develop an offer of activities better suited to the communities they were looking to engage with and bring people they knew in to the organisation. Family volunteering was helping organisations to reach out to people who wouldn’t normally get involved:

I think by involving families, they inevitably bring other family friends, other families that they’re in touch with or if the parents are involved in different community groups, whether it’s religious, sporting, book club, they’ll bring different children and families through that way which is great. We do get diversity through that.

Staff from one of our case study organisations talked about their approach to enabling the involvement of families and its positive outcomes in terms of diversifying engagement, which brought not just families with young children, but also families from a wider range of socio-economic and ethnic groups. This had been recognised by partner organisations, which had additional knock-on effects:

If you look at our Tuesday and Thursday [family volunteering] session it is a much more diverse group…it brings that richness, that diversity of experience, diversity of background that we don’t get in our less child-friendly volunteering…it’s allowed us to talk to referral partners…the crèche makes [us] look professional, safe space for children so partner organisations can recommend to a mum with a small child to come and volunteer knowing the child will be looked after and mum has time to themselves and it’s free and accessible.

Bringing a more diverse mix of volunteers into the organisation meant that people from diverse backgrounds were mixing, which in turn was thought to be contributing to more inclusive communities: ‘I think we’re getting a wide range of people, the backgrounds that they come from, and quite a few of the people wouldn’t speak to each other or socialise if it wasn’t for [this organisation].’ This included the value of bringing different generations together through family volunteering.

While we found evidence in our case studies that developing family volunteering had increased the ethnic and socio-economic diversity of the volunteers, this was not mirrored in our analysis of the 2014/15 Time Use survey (see box below).

The risk of exclusivity

While family volunteering was generally thought to have widened participation, there were limits, and indeed some felt that it risked sometimes having the opposite effect. There were different ways in which this played out in practice.

First, in the more designed, specific family volunteering schemes within our case studies, far more women were involved than men.[3] To some extent, this was reflective of the organisations as a whole (focused on families or children), but it was also reflective of the nature of the opportunities on offer and particularly the emphasis on encouraging the involvement of families with young children. A male volunteer in one of the organisations suggested that there needed to be a wider range of volunteering opportunities that appealed to men, beyond ‘stereotypical’ roles such as fixing things and lifting:

We’re good at fixing things, good at lifting heavy boxes, could there be more than that certainly? But I hate fixing stuff, it doesn’t excite me at all; I like talking to people, so that would be more interesting for me…it would be very interesting if they were to say ‘We specifically want some dads to speak with male clients, or to open that much more'.

Second, in some organisations – particularly where family involvement had developed by default over many years or by an extension of activities in which children participated and parents were encouraged to volunteer – the intensity of family involvement could feel like ‘family takeover’ and could contribute to exclusivity by putting other people off getting involved. In such cases, rather than family volunteering encouraging diversity, it did the opposite, with some organisations saying that for them the struggle was not engaging families but recruiting volunteers from outside of the families that were already involved in the organisation. As one person reflected:

…it may lead to feelings of exclusivity. Cliques, favouritism, stuff like that. So, when we’re bringing in to unit areas, if I, like anything, if I come into a small rural community and say, ‘Hang on a minute, my manager is this guy’s dad and his three kids are here and his wife’s here and this kind of stuff and there’s 12 people in this room of which six are related to one another,’ I might not feel comfortable and then the decisions that get taken to prioritise them over me because of service and all the rest of it, I’m going to excuse because of relationships and stuff like that. So, that’s rare but obviously it does happen that we get this suggestion that family ties within the organisation lead to cliques and exclusivity for other individuals.

Footnotes

  1. McGarvey, A. , Jochum, V., Davies, J., Dobbs, J. and Hornung, L. (2019) Time well spent: A national survey on the volunteer experience, NCVO: London.

  2. Bird, C. (2011) Family Volunteering Pilot - Evaluation Report: Getting families more actively involved in the National Trust’s work, National Trust; ; Littlepage, L. Obergfell, E. and Zanin, G. (2003) Family Volunteering: An Exploratory Study of the Impact on Families, Center for Urban Policy and the Environment, Indiana University: Indiana.

  3. This gender imbalance was also reflected in our analysis of the UK Time Use Survey data which found that six out of ten people who volunteered together with family members were women.

  4. That is people who engaged in formal volunteering but not in family volunteering.