Supporting effective volunteering for the 2020s

From March to May 2021, the Law Family Commission on Civil Society ran an open call for evidence, requesting input on a range of questions about how to unleash the full potential of civil society in the 2020s. This note is the first of a series of summaries we’ll be publishing, outlining what we learned.

We asked respondents two questions about volunteering:

  • How can civil society make most effective use of volunteers’ time and what support is needed to do so?
  • If you currently work with volunteers, will how you work with volunteers change over the 2020s?

Respondents to the Call for Evidence broadly concluded that:

  • They place a great deal of value on volunteering.
  • Making the most effective use of volunteers’ time begins with increasing access to volunteering.
  • Meeting the needs of modern volunteers requires a wide range of volunteering models.
  • Communication with volunteers works best when it flows in both directions.
  • Increased flexibility and engagement from within the sector must be accompanied by rigorous infrastructure, careful planning, and long-term funding.


Respondent organisations place a great deal of value on volunteering.

Volunteers make an incredible contribution to the UK. A total of 19.4 million people volunteered formally (through a group, club, or organisation) in 2018-19,[1] typifying an effort that adds roughly £24 billion of value to the economy each year.[2] This is before we account for the various forms of informal volunteering in which more than half of the population participate.[3]

And this huge workforce helps to deliver a wide range of often vital services. Most recently, it contributed to efforts to vaccinate the country against Covid, with jab volunteers providing almost half a million hours of support in England alone over the first four months of the vaccine campaign.

It is not surprising, then, that respondents to our call for evidence well recognised the power of this contribution to society. In fact, they stressed that volunteering is misunderstood as merely a source of ‘added value’ to society, or as a reactive force in ‘time[s] of emergency’. Rather, they felt that volunteers should be recognised as foundational to everyday life – from their contributions to the lay magistracy to their delivery of vital first aid.

The social sector is not the only sector that utilises volunteers. Even in times of relative calm, three million volunteers play a role in our health and social care system,[4] and there are an estimated 350,000 school governors in England alone.[5] Meanwhile, 10% of respondents to NCVO’s 2019 Time Well Spent survey reported carrying out their volunteering activities in the private sector.[6] But respondents to our call emphasised the value that volunteering brings to the social sector specifically.

‘Volunteers are an essential part of the success we see in UK charity fundraising. The support and commitment of volunteers helps deliver fundraising activities, encourage[s] people and communities to get involved in fundraising, as well as contributing to strategic development of fundraising initiatives’, Institute of Fundraising.

And they further stressed the value of volunteering for the volunteers themselves – gains not limited to the well-known benefits of volunteering for wellbeing,[7] but also including broader outcomes such as helping volunteers to develop new skills and open doors to new career options. For example, digital charity Mental Health Innovations reported that volunteers with its Shout 85258 text messaging support service have ‘been better able to support family and friends thanks to the Shout training and that their relationships are improved. They also report workplace benefits gained from being more skilled at managing and supporting colleagues and teams, and that their greater confidence has also helped career progression’.


Making the most effective use of volunteers’ time begins with increasing access to volunteering.

The value that volunteering generates is not available to all equally. Some social groups – such as younger people, people from lower socio-economic groups, and people from BAME backgrounds – are either less likely to volunteer, or less likely to have a good experience when doing so.[8] This is a challenge that many organisations relying on volunteers have wrestled with unsuccessfully for some time.

However, respondents to our call were broadly optimistic that this problem has started to change over the past year. Covid has generated more interest in volunteering from a wider range of people than before, and between March and July 2020, people who identified as ethnic minorities were more likely to start volunteering for the first time than white people.[9] This shift provides a valuable opportunity that respondents felt should be nurtured as the country recovers from the pandemic.

‘A diversified volunteer base will not only better future-proof civil society organisations but help them to better meet the needs of a diverse society’, Samaritans.

Seizing this opportunity means providing support and opportunities for those who face barriers to volunteering, including by channelling resource into direct engagement and relationship building with different communities. Civil society can lead the way here, working actively to recruit more volunteers from underrepresented groups. But strengthening the relationship between volunteering and social mobility also requires an open partnership with businesses and public sector bodies.[10]

Speaking to this need, Scottish children’s hospital charity CHAS called for ‘increased clarity from agencies across Scotland about how under-represented groups’, from job-seekers to asylum seekers and refugees, ‘can participate in volunteering’.

Meanwhile, SCVO suggested increasing opportunities for volunteering within schools, to ‘help develop a volunteering mindset early in life’, and encouraging employers to ‘support volunteering through corporate social responsibility policies and long-term partnerships with the voluntary sector’. While levels of employer-supported volunteering (ESV) have increased over the last decade, numbers remain low, with just 10% of volunteer respondents to Time Well Spent reporting that their volunteering took place through ESV.[11]

Initiatives such as the ones suggested by our respondents will be vital in helping more people feel the benefits of a vibrant culture of volunteering. But increasing access to volunteering is only the first step in achieving that.


Meeting the needs of modern volunteers requires a wide range of volunteering models.

If Covid has sparked a shift in the profile of our volunteer workforce, then it has also highlighted the need for innovation and dynamism on the part of civil society organisations in adopting and adapting to these changes. One of the most profound changes in volunteering has been the movement from formal to informal opportunities. For instance, prior to Covid, 28% of the population reported undertaking informal volunteering at least once a month.[12] Over the summer of 2020, that figure reached 47%.[13] This has been matched by – and is undoubtedly linked to – the change in the country’s working habits, with the number of people working from home more than doubling (25.9% in 2020 compared to 12.4% in 2019) during the Covid pandemic and, at points, up to 8.9 million employees on furlough.[14]

With hybrid working here to stay and a glut of newly activated volunteers at their fingertips, respondents were clear in their opinion that effectively utilising this widening workforce requires civil society organisations to be flexible and creative in adapting to people’s schedules and developing ways of volunteering that match their capabilities. In a changing world, Samaritans told us that ‘traditional expectations – of fixed shifts, for example – may make it more difficult to volunteer for people with dependents or who prefer irregular hours’. As the British Heart Foundation put it, ‘organisations need to be able to offer volunteering opportunities that are both short- and long-term[,] from ad hoc 1 hour ‘quick hits’ such as taking part in a cash collection, befriending, or digital campaigning, to regular, time-defined shifts of volunteering in, for example, a charity shop’.

The pandemic has encouraged civil society organisations to innovate on multiple fronts to survive and to serve. One of the biggest changes has been the rise in digital adoption, with two-thirds (66%) of charities delivering all work remotely and 61% planning to offer more online services.[15] And our respondents told us that technology – and specifically the rise of remote and virtual volunteering – will play an increasing role in both ‘attract[ing] a wider cohort of volunteers and mak[ing] the process of volunteering easier and more efficient for them’. Lloyds Bank Foundation, for example, told us that ‘the shift to online prompted by the pandemic has helped overcome previous hesitancy about engaging with volunteers in this way’.

The routes that civil society organisations are taking to entrench a more digital approach to volunteering in their work are varied. Place2Be, for instance, described how ‘in the 2020s we will increasingly use the power of technology and digital to engage more supporters in a wider range of activities’, from broadening involvement in campaigns to facilitating more effective and efficient training for volunteers. Meanwhile, the British Heart Foundation informed us that ‘many organisations have already moved to app-based shift selections and this is something that will be increasingly important for time-pressed volunteers, such as parents/carers, students and those in full-time employment to identify volunteering opportunities’.

And yet, the potential benefits offered by technology are not a given. Mental Health Innovations warned that ‘to unleash the potential of digital volunteering the UK needs to invest in its digital infrastructure, capabilities and training to ensure that everyone has equal access and skills to take advantage’. Nevertheless, with seven in 10 charities wanting to make more services digital and deliver new services remotely in the year ahead, it does appear likely that the form volunteering takes will change in a permanent way across much of civil society – hopefully bringing a bigger and more diverse volunteer force along with it.[16]


Communication with volunteers works best when it flows in both directions.

Among social sector organisations, closer engagement with volunteers during Covid has led to a growing eagerness to include them in strategic, organisational decision making – an issue with which some organisations have historically struggled.[17] The benefits of involving volunteers more deeply in these discussions can be felt by charities and volunteers alike.

‘We have also found that bringing together volunteers from Lloyds Banking Group to work with charities to think through specific challenges can be really valuable – not only in helping charities to see a new way through, but also in helping to develop new relationships between volunteers and charities that can lead to further opportunities’, Lloyds Bank Foundation.

In particular, Cancer Research UK emphasised their organisation’s need ‘to be driven forward and held accountable by people with lived experiences of cancer’. The result is a still broader view of what volunteering can look like that involves stronger partnerships and co-creation aimed at increasing the relevance, accessibility, and accountability of voluntary sector work.

In fact, Birmingham-based community and environment charity Groundwork UK stressed the importance of ‘break[ing] down the divide between volunteer and “beneficiary”’ altogether, saying that ‘being valued as a volunteer increases people’s self-confidence and recognises that everyone has something to offer’. This includes the vital input volunteers can provide in helping voluntary organisations deliver the most social value and raises the question of whether volunteering schemes that co-create with, rather than commission, volunteers can also be a more productive route to generating wellbeing benefits through volunteering.


Increased flexibility and engagement from within the sector must be accompanied by rigorous infrastructure, careful planning, and long-term funding.

While making volunteer voices heard is important, respondents were clear that this should not be an exercise in passing the buck. Rather, they stressed the need for the sector to ensure that volunteers are equipped to do the best work they can. This means taking volunteering seriously and investing in volunteers as assets – through strategic planning and supportive infrastructure, and by providing the funding necessary to make volunteering schemes successful. As digital citizenship company Smart Social says, ‘volunteers cost money but their social impact is incredibly high’.

In addition to better engagement, other vital measures that fall under this investment umbrella include the provision of quality induction processes and ongoing training for volunteers. There is a major opportunity here for renewed investment in volunteer leadership and management – roles which have disappeared during Covid.

‘It is not possible to deliver effective volunteer involvement without good volunteer management; it ensures effective recruitment, safeguarding, training, and ongoing support and engagement for volunteers to provide a positive experience’, SCVO.

We also heard about the need to address the sustainability of volunteer provision via careful planning: ‘volunteers can only give so much time, may become fatigued, and many will be able to give different amounts of time from one month to the next’, said St John Ambulance, who have been organising 30,000 volunteer vaccinators to support the Covid jab campaign. According to the WCVA, in the wake of Covid that means we will need to see ‘better planning ahead for how volunteers can be part of future emergency response. This includes both new, spontaneous volunteers who want to help and also organisations that represent a complete infrastructure of fully-trained volunteers with specialist expertise’.

Both better volunteering infrastructure and better planning require an improved culture of volunteer funding. One of the smaller volunteer-led organisations to answer our call described being cut off from funding streams, forcing volunteers to foot the costs of service delivery out of their own pockets. And, according to the SCVO, rigid funding practices also impact the whole sector, reducing the capacity of organisations to involve volunteers.

As such, strengthening volunteer funding streams begins with raising awareness about the costs of volunteering.

‘Too often volunteering is seen [as a] “free resource” but effective volunteering requires an investment in resource to gain maximum benefit for the charity and those involved’, Lloyds Bank Foundation.

But it also means developing more flexible, accessible, and sustainable funding arrangements for volunteering. Routes to achieving these aims might include developing local independent funding organisations to complement government funding streams, shoring up connections between local voluntary organisations and elected bodies, and tapping into local strategies for community development.[18] Efforts from within the social sector to better support volunteering after Covid have already begun in earnest.[19] What is clear is that continuing to invest in solutions like these now could pay dividends to everybody – from volunteers and the social sector to society writ large – in the 2020s and beyond.

For responding to our call for evidence, we’d like to thank Smart Social, Aylesbury Vale LGBT Social Group, Shopmobility South Gloucestershire, Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action, Kinsman and Treningle Tenants and Residents Association, Fabricants de Futur, Observatory for Sport in Scotland, Groundwork UK, Pilotlight, The Baring Foundation, Harshad Chauhan, Centre for Justice Innovation, CHAS, Carnegie UK Trust, ACEVO, FaithAction, Charities’ Property Association, St John Ambulance, PlaceShapers, Samaritans, Wikimedia UK, Lloyds Bank Foundation England and Wales, Cancer Research UK, Place2Be, Institute of Fundraising, Cancer52, London Funders, Mental Health Innovations, Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Charity Tax Group, Wales Council for Voluntary Action, British Heart Foundation, Association of Charitable Foundations, and Impetus-PEF. We will be publishing further summaries of their responses to our call in the coming weeks.

[1] L Hornung et al., UK Civil Society Almanac 2020, NCVO, June 2020

[2] C Payne & G Vassilev, Household satellite account, UK: 2015 and 2016, ONS, October 2018

[3] Hornung et al., Civil Society Almanac

[4] NHS, Recruiting and Managing Volunteers in NHS Providers – a practical guide, NHS England, 8 September 2017

[5] M Balarin et al., The school governance study, Business in the Community, 2008

[6] A McGarvey et al., Time Well Spent: A National Survey on the Volunteer Experience, NCVO, January 2019

[7] Pro Bono Economics, How cost effective are employee volunteering schemes as a way of improving staff wellbeing?, March 2021

[8] K Donahue et al., Time Well Spent: Diversity and Volunteering, NCVO, 17 December 2020

[9] DCMS, A look at volunteering during the response to COVID-19, 11 January 2021

[10] E Hogg & A Smith, Social Mobility: Unleashing the Power of Volunteering, Royal Voluntary Service, April 2021

[11] A McGarvey et al., Time Well Spent

[12] DCMS, Volunteering and Charitable Giving – Community Life Survey 2019/20, 14 July 2020

[13] DCMS, Executive Summary – Community Life COVID-19 Re-contact Survey 2020, 8 December 2020

[14] ONS, Coronavirus (COVID-19) in charts: What we learned over the past month (May 2021), 27 May 2021, and ONS, Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme statistics: December 2020, 24 December 2020

[15] Z Amar, Charity Digital Skills Report 2020, Skills Platform, 2020

[16] Pro Bono Economics, The Charity Sector through Covid, January 2020

[17] B Nixon, ‘How can you involve volunteers successfully in developing and delivering your strategy?’, Ideas to Impact, 21 September 2018.

[18] L Thomson & J Caulier-Grice, Improving Small Scale Grant Funding for Local Voluntary and Community Organisations, The Young Foundation, July 2007

[19] J Plummer, ‘Major charities launch initiative to support volunteering post-Covid-19’, Third Sector, 7 June 2021