6. So what? Conclusions and considerations
In this section, we bring together findings from across all stages of the research and all sections of the report to draw conclusions about how families engage in volunteering and how organisations engage with family volunteers.
Family volunteering is extensive
Family volunteering is an extensive form of volunteering. In 2014/15 one-third of all formal volunteering households in the UK volunteered together as a family, most often as couples without (dependent) children, followed by one parent with at least one child. And we define family volunteering more broadly than is reflected within this data, suggesting that it is likely to represent an even greater proportion of volunteering. Much of it takes place, however, with little explicit acknowledgement or encouragement. We can’t tell from our data whether the extent of family volunteering has changed over time. On the one hand, a number of societal developments seem to work against it, not least in terms of time becoming increasingly pressured within families through a combination of longer working hours, rising female employment and the growth in children’s leisure pursuits. On the other hand, organisations are paying it increasing attention and more are overtly encouraging it. Either way, it is clear that family volunteering is changing.
Family volunteering is varied
Family volunteering is also varied. It looks and feels very different in different families. We identified five types of family volunteering: do together, do alongside, do for, bring along and do separately. Family volunteering can mean parents and children getting involved in volunteering; more often it means couples. Families may engage in these types of volunteering at different stages of their lives. For example, on moving to a new area, couples may use volunteering as a way to integrate themselves into the community; parents may volunteer for activities in which their young children are involved and then volunteer alongside each other as their children grow older, and they may all volunteer separately after their children leave home. This does not suggest, however, that there is a linear model of progression. Some families were involved in a number of different types of family volunteering at any one time. For some families, volunteering is a small part of what they do – they might, for example, help out at an organisation once a week as one of many activities that they are involved in with little more significance than other leisure or work pursuits. For others, it is more fundamentally a part of who they are. Volunteering becomes part of everyday life in some families, reflective of their values and integral to their identity, which leads significant levels of commitment and responsibility within one organisation and/or to multiple volunteer roles being undertaken by family members.
Organisations adopt different approaches to family volunteering
The ways in which organisations approach family volunteering also differ. For many organisations, family volunteering is something that has evolved, largely by default, over the organisation’s history or as an extension of the activities and services that they deliver, which themselves have been focused on families or children. Family volunteering was often not a discrete thing, but integral to the organisation’s engagement with volunteers per se, and often reflective of a general orientation towards families or communities. While some efforts may be made to promote and encourage family members to get involved, particularly in terms of parents being encouraged to help out with activities in which their children participate, often family volunteering goes unacknowledged. Some organisations, however, had developed specific family volunteering schemes, in which families (particularly parents and children) were explicitly encouraged to volunteer together, often within discrete projects or activities, and family volunteering was seen as a way to meet mission or strategy and/or to diversify engagement. Whether by design or by default, family volunteering can have a considerable impact on organisations: it can help them meet their mission and boost volunteer recruitment, retention and resource. It can also, however, create challenges for volunteer managers and get in the way of inclusivity.
Organisational context makes a difference to family volunteering
What organisations do and how they do it can make a difference to the opportunities for, experiences of and outcomes from family volunteering. Creating a ‘family-friendly’ environment is significant. Key aspects seen to facilitate engagement included: actively encouraging families to get involved in a range of flexible opportunities; opportunities that suit the (changing) needs and interests of different family members (particularly of different ages); having the potential for stepping up and stepping back as circumstances change; supporting volunteers in a way which recognises and accommodates both their individual and family circumstances and how these may affect their volunteering. Some organisations grapple with how to balance a desire to be inclusive, particularly of children and young people, with the need to ensure safeguarding measures are followed. Some grapple with how to balance the deep commitment to an organisation that family volunteering can bring (akin to what others have referred to as ‘thick volunteering’) with the need to manage individuals, organisations and change.
Family context also shapes volunteering
Families’ own situations can also make a considerable difference to the chances, experiences and outcomes of family volunteering. This study has highlighted just how significant the family context is for volunteering. Our review of existing research shows us that marriage, divorce, strength of relationships, having children and caring for elderly/ailing relatives can all make a difference to volunteering: some make it more likely that families will volunteer; others have the opposite effect. Further, like others, we found that families can provide motivations for, routes into and triggers for volunteering, as well as the resources for volunteering. With ever-busy lives, fitting volunteering in can be difficult, particularly as it is often given less priority than other roles and responsibilities. There were important gender dimensions to family volunteering, which were reflective of those within wider society, not least of which included women often shouldering the responsibility for making volunteering fit within the family schedule. Sharing resources, including physical and emotional support, amongst family members can be crucial in sustaining volunteering: it becomes a team effort.
Volunteering shapes families
In return, volunteering can make a considerable difference to those families that get involved. It can deepen the bonds between family members, providing a point of commonality, an expression of shared values and identity, a way to spend meaningful time together and a route to new opportunities and experiences. It can, however, also add to the stresses and strains of family life. When volunteering becomes too onerous – in time and/or energy – it can take its toll not just on those individuals directly involved, but also on the wider family; other roles and responsibilities can be neglected, opportunities missed and tensions heightened. For some, however, when the stresses were not too great, working through these issues as a family had in itself been developmental.
Family volunteering as collective volunteering: Under threat?
Family does more than provide one of the contextual layers shaping an individual’s volunteering. Exploring how families engage in volunteering reminds us that volunteering is not a purely individual activity – it can also be a collective one. In this case, the collective is the family. Volunteering can be an expression of family values. Decisions on whether to get involved, and what and how much to do (or not to do) are made both individually and collectively, through negotiation and a sharing of opportunities, roles, responsibilities and resources amongst family members. Recognising volunteering as a collective activity, and family as one important collective, serves to highlight the relational aspects of volunteering. It also raises the question as to whether family volunteering, like other forms of collective volunteering, is on the decline. While we found it to be extensive – even more so than we had imagined – the evidence suggests that it is no longer possible to assume that family volunteering will continue to flourish by default. If it is to be sustained, it needs attention and nurturing. The considerable interest expressed by both organisations and families in learning about and designing ways to support families to volunteer suggests that this might be possible.
The conclusions of this research raise a set of questions that organisations may want to consider if they wanted to develop family volunteering. None of this is rocket science: a lot of what we set out below will be familiar territory to those who know about general good volunteer management practice. This is not the type of good volunteer management practice which focuses primarily on policies and procedures, but instead it focuses on the relational and developmental aspects of volunteering. While we introduce these considerations here, we develop them further within our separate guidance document.
How do families currently engage with your organisation?
Family volunteering is diverse, and it is extensive. It includes, but is about far more than, parents and children volunteering together within the same organisation. It can be about any number of family members volunteering and can involve volunteering alongside each other, for each other or with each other. It goes beyond what people typically think of as family volunteering. Much of this volunteering currently goes unacknowledged by organisations. We encourage all organisations to reflect upon how they currently involve families as volunteers (and members, supporters and participants), how this has been facilitated to date and how it is changing.
How do you want to involve families and what approach to family volunteering is right for you?
Organisations have different approaches to family volunteering. More often than not, family volunteering has happened by default within organisations. Different family members – couples, grandparents, parents and children – have come to be involved over many years with relatively little active encouragement or support of that collective involvement by the organisation. Despite largely going unacknowledged, this family volunteering has often had a significant effect on those organisations, enhancing volunteer recruitment and retention, and community connection, for example. At the same time, there are risks of the volunteering becoming exclusionary or resistant to change. Wider societal (and organisational) changes have begun to alter the ways in which families volunteer, and without more active support and encouragement, family volunteering seems likely to decline. Some organisations have begun attempts to counter this by moving towards a more active approach to facilitation, with an increasing number looking to design specific discrete family volunteering schemes. It would seem that there is a demand for such schemes – 18% of respondents to NCVO’s Time Well Spent survey who weren’t currently volunteering, for example, said that they would be encouraged to get involved if they could do so with a member of their family or a friend. For some organisations, it was possible to follow the journey that they 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 others, the journey was less linear and more fluid.
When organisations have specifically set to encourage family volunteering, this is often out of a desire to fulfil organisational values and strategies which align to family involvement and/or a desire to diversify volunteer involvement, particularly as a way of engaging parents with young children. But family volunteering can help organisations to meet other ambitions too. Specifically designed, discrete family volunteering schemes offer the potential to overcome some of the barriers to volunteering by, for example, allowing parents to volunteer with or bring along their children, but can be resource intensive and limited in scope. A more active facilitation of the more diffuse family volunteering that has previously occurred by default offers a more organic approach with the potential to involve a wider range of families and types of participation, but may require strong leadership and a shift in culture and practices across the whole organisation. Careful consideration of what family volunteering already happens and contributes to your organisation, but also what you might want it to achieve through more active facilitation, can help you think through what approach(es) to adopt.
In short, the different approaches affect family volunteering in different ways. We encourage organisations to think through what family volunteering currently looks like within their own organisation and then to reflect upon what they want to achieve through family volunteering and what the different approaches might offer.
Can you enhance the volunteering pathways for families within your organisation?
As mentioned at above, traditional pathways that have previously facilitated family volunteering largely by default have begun to break down due, in part, to societal changes and a lack of attention or leadership. It was suggested that in some organisations there used to be a ‘natural migration’ of parents from volunteering to help with activities in which their children were involved to other roles, and of young people from participating in an activity to volunteering to help with the running of that activity, but this ‘flow’ had been neglected and opportunities to engage families and build involvement across generations had been missed. We encourage organisations to consider the pathways through participation for families within, and indeed beyond, their organisation and how these might be further supported. This may include, for example, developing a wider variety of roles suited to a wider range of people (or, rather than having specified roles, working with potential volunteers to identify what they might offer the organisation). It may also include a more active encouragement of migration through different forms of engagement with the organisation – not just volunteering. This may facilitate progression by supporting people along the journey from being beneficiaries of an activity to actively supporting it and taking on additional roles and responsibilities, but it is also about recognising and supporting people when they need to take a temporary or permanent step back from their volunteering as their circumstances change over their life course. This may require a more systems-based approach to volunteer leadership that looks beyond individual roles, programmes, activities, teams and even organisations.
Can you do more to help families balance volunteering with family life?
Families provide important reasons for, routes into and resources for volunteering. But family life is busy – increasingly so – often making it difficult to fit volunteering in alongside or even as part of other roles and responsibilities. If organisations want to facilitate family volunteering, it is important that organisations recognise and support their volunteers with this. A key way to do this is to be flexible. This does not necessarily mean moving to short-term, episodic volunteering roles with no expectation of commitment; it means being specific about what levels of commitments are required and then being flexible in terms of how these are met. This might mean offering greater flexibility in the duration and frequency of volunteering – recognising that different ‘working’ hours suit different people at different stages in their lives, and that volunteers may be able to do more on some days than others, for example. It might also mean being flexible in terms of who does the volunteering, recognising that families sometimes share volunteering roles/responsibilities amongst themselves and supporting them in this. Of course, there are limits to how flexible some organisations or some volunteering roles can be, so organisations may need to weigh up the pros and cons of flexibility versus consistency.
Helping families fit volunteering in also includes considering how volunteering can be seen as part, or an extension, of a family’s other roles and responsibilities rather than a source of conflict about a family’s resources. This might include allowing/encouraging parents to bring along their children when they are volunteering or encouraging parents and children, and couples, to volunteer together and alongside each other. This way, volunteering becomes part of family time rather than conflicting with it. It might be about providing childcare facilities or expenses. It might be about ensuring that volunteering is convivial and enjoyable so that it becomes part of leisure time rather than competing with it. It might be about ensuring that those who lead, manage, support volunteers actively talk to their volunteers about their family contexts, and the pressures they are under, ensuring that volunteering does not add to those stresses, letting them step back and do less when they need to and, step up and do more when circumstances change. This can be particularly challenging in volunteer-led organisations when volunteers take on considerable levels of responsibility, often have more intense feelings of ownership and duty, and may be less likely to have explicitly considered how to ‘manage’ volunteers.
How can you ensure that family volunteering is as inclusive as possible?
It was recognised that family volunteering could have the potential to create more inclusive volunteering practices. It was, for example, more inclusive of parents with young children than other types of formal volunteering. Some organisations had found that offering discrete family volunteering programmes had enabled them to engage people from more diverse ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds than they had previously been able to do. Some recognised, however, that while such schemes had been successful at engaging mothers and their children, they had not been so successful at engaging men. Further, left to its own devices, family volunteering has the potential to become exclusionary. When certain families come to dominate an activity, group or organisation, there is a risk that others will be put off getting involved or made to feel unwelcome. Organisations need to consider how they can develop their volunteering offer to make it more inclusive of families, and within that a more diverse range of families, while also guarding against the potential for family takeover.
How does the balance you are striking between risk management and being inclusive affect the involvement of families in volunteering?
Reflective of wider evidence, we found that over the past couple of decades the tendency has been for organisations to become more formalised, professionalised and centralised, which has sometimes worked against flexibility and inclusivity, and against family volunteering by default/extension. A growing amount of ‘red tape’ created barriers and was contributing to a suggested decline in multigenerational family volunteering in particular. It was seen as increasingly difficult, for example, for volunteers to bring young children along with them, which created a barrier to participation for parents, particularly single parents. More generally, it was seen to be difficult to involve children and young people as volunteers, due to concerns about safeguarding, risk and insurance. Sometimes, this had led organisations to adopt blanket policies which ruled out volunteering by people under the age of 18 or 16, creating a direct barrier to participation and limiting the potential to build pathways through participation. Developing specific family volunteering schemes was one way to try to overcome some of these issues within a contained programme, but they may still affect more diffuse forms of family volunteering. We encourage organisations to think more about how they can strike the right balance between the management of risk and being inclusive.
How can you help to ensure that families, and your organisation, get the most out of volunteering?
Volunteering can make a considerable difference to those families that get involved. It can be an enjoyable way to spend (meaningful) time together. Perhaps more significantly, it can deepen the bonds between family members, providing a point of commonality and an expression of shared values and identity. It can also be a route to new opportunities and experiences. It can, however, add to the stresses and strains of family life. When it becomes too onerous – in time and/or energy – it can take its toll not just on those individuals directly involved, but also on the wider family; other roles and responsibilities can be neglected, opportunities missed and tensions heightened.
Organisations can also get a lot out of family volunteering. When families have a positive experience of volunteering, the returns for organisations are likely to be greater, not least because happy volunteers are likely to do more and stay longer. We encourage organisations to think more about how they can ensure that families get the most out of volunteering: not only will this improve the volunteering experience and outcomes for families, it will also improve the outcomes for organisations and their beneficiaries.
Two or more family members from the same household.
O’Toole, M. and Grey, C. (2016) ‘Beyond choice: “Thick” volunteering and the case of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’, Human Relations, vol. 69, no. 1, pp. 85 –109.
Stuart, J. (2019) The Links Between Family and Volunteering: A review of the evidence. London: NCVO. https://publications.ncvo.org.uk/the-links-between-family-and-volunteering-a-review-of-the-evidence-/ (accessed September 2020)
Hustinx, L. and Lammertyn, F. (2003) ‘Collective and reflexive styles of volunteering: A sociological modernization perspective’, Voluntas, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 167–187.