The effects of family on volunteering

Parents can be strong role models for their children

Many of the reviewed research studies point to a strong relationship between parental and child volunteering – if parents volunteer then their children are more likely to volunteer in childhood and as adults (Grimm et al, 2005; Perks and Knoecny, 2015).

This relationship has also been found across other forms of participation, including community activism (Janoski and Wilson, 1995). Parents (and other family members such as siblings and grandparents) inspire and influence children, passing on values, attitudes and behaviours that promote and encourage (or discourage) helping others, community involvement and volunteering (Wiepking and Bekkers, 2007; Taylor-Collins et al, 2019). Religion can also play an important role, with religious involvement in childhood associated with higher levels of volunteering later in life (Nesbit 2012b; Vermeer and Scheepers, 2012).

In short, family (and parents in particular) have a strong influence on their children’s involvement in volunteering. Family transition and the separation of parents during childhood can, however, affect this passing on of values as well as opportunities for role modelling. Distress in a parent’s relationship when growing up as well as poverty have been identified as ‘risk factors’ in the development of values that promote helping others and as having a negative effect on volunteering into adulthood (Ottoni-Wilhelm and Bandy, 2013; Voorpostel and Coffe, 2015).

The strength and nature of family ties matter

The nature of relationships and connections within families has been found by a number of studies to influence involvement in volunteering (Duke et al, 2009; McNamara and Gonzales, 2011). Strong bonds between children and parents are linked to higher levels of involvement, with studies highlighting the importance of shared activities between the parent and child, parental warmth and closeness (Duke et al 2009; Fletcher et al, 2004). Positive relationships with parents and grandparents have been identified as predictors of ‘meaningful civic participation’ among young people where ‘closeness and bonds within the family’ are found to lead to ‘strong linkages beyond it’ (Muddiman et al, 2018, p14).

Not all studies however, make this positive link between family closeness and volunteering. There is limited evidence which suggests that closeness to parents could in fact have the opposite effect and that staying close to parents discourages 'caring for the world outside of one’s own circle' (Pavlova et al, p2213).

Family can encourage and support involvement but may also put on pressure

Family members can play an important role in encouraging other family members to volunteer. Among young people, this can be influential. In the UK’s 2015 Youth Social Action Survey, 63% of 10 to 20-year olds involved in meaningful social action said family encouraged them to take part (Cabinet Office and Ipsos MORI, 2016). The extent to which people feel pressure from families or a sense of obligation to get involved is less clear, although this has been highlighted in a small number of studies where volunteering for some individuals was found to be 'driven more from a sense of duty, rather than from free choice' (Ellis Paine, 2015, p5).

As well as encouraging involvement, families may also provide support to other family members in their volunteering. The evidence on the effects of this is limited, however a few studies suggest that family support can help volunteers to manage the demands and impacts of their role (Malinen and Mankkinen, 2018), with links made to the improved satisfaction of volunteers and retention (Kulik, 2007).

Family can act as a key route into volunteering but might also be a barrier to involvement

Individuals can become aware of a cause, organisation or volunteering activity because another family member is involved or they might be asked directly by a family member to volunteer. Indeed, the evidence suggests that the higher the number of people volunteering in your household the more likely you are to get involved (Nesbit, 2012b). Partners and children have been particularly identified as important influencers and triggers for involvement in volunteering (Brodie et al, 2011). A number of studies point in particular to how children can provide parents with a route into volunteering as they support their child’s needs and interests through involvement, for example, Brownies and Scouts groups, School Parents’ Associations or children’s sports clubs (Brodie et al, 2011; Einolf, 2018; Ravanera; 2002; Wiepking and Bekkers, 2012). Parenthood can also play a role in shifting priorities, redirecting parents’ volunteering efforts to other activities more focused on their children (Brodie et al, 2011).

Whilst children can provide a route into volunteering, there are a number of studies which show younger pre-school children can act as a barrier to involvement due to the time parents spend looking after them (Gray, Khoo, and Reimondos, 2012). Indeed, more broadly, family can limit or stop involvement for other members. The 2017/18 Community Life Survey found that among those who don’t take part in formal volunteering, one in four said looking after their children or the home was a barrier to taking part (DCMS, 2018).

Volunteering may be negotiated and shared within families

Alongside other roles and responsibilities, such as paid work, childcare and housework, volunteering may be negotiated within the family. There is limited evidence on how this happens and the effects of this within the household, however a small number of studies highlight this as important (Ellis Paine, 2015, Smith, 2010). They argue that the time and energy used for volunteering is 'negotiated, renegotiated and kept in balance, in an attempt to ensure the relationships remain fair and are not seen to become exploitative' (Ellis Paine, 2015, p6).

The role of men and women in the household and the structure of the family will influence this. Single-parent families, for example, may have less capacity and time to share and negotiate roles and responsibilities with other family members (Ellis Paine, 2015).

There is some limited evidence on volunteer roles being shared between family members, for example, sharing seats on a committee. Within communities, it has been found that roles may be divided across different activities meaning particular families are especially active and influential (Ellis Paine, 2015). Voluntary roles might also be ‘inherited’ and passed on to other family members, with some children volunteering for the same organisations their parents did (Jones, 2018).