3. What does volunteer participation look like?
This section explores the context of volunteering in relation to diversity and what we know about who participates, how volunteering is organised, satisfaction levels and motivations for volunteering.
Much of the data in this section comes from the Time Well Spent research and the NCVO UK Civil Society Almanac. It has been complemented by findings from a brief literature review.
There has possibly never been more interest in this topic or more support for inclusive volunteering than there is at this moment in time.
2020 has been an extraordinary year in many ways, with the covid-19 pandemic and global anti-racism efforts. Both, in very different ways, have impacted on volunteering and we should acknowledge that as a result, some organisations have changed over the course of the year, but some of the impact from these events may not be known for some time.
The pandemic has likely shifted volunteering in ways that are yet to be understood. The economic toll alone will be devastating to many organisations financially, with some undoubtedly left with fewer staff and resources, or facing closure.
Some volunteers will have had to step back from their roles. Some will have volunteered online for the first time. Others will have stepped forward to help their local community because they suddenly had time on their hands, and there was an unprecedented need around them.
The death of George Floyd in May 2020 in America sparked a global anti-racism movement and gave momentum to local Black Lives Matter protests and campaigns like #CharitySoWhite in the UK. Support for racial equality has become a greater priority for many organisations in the voluntary sector and beyond this year.
Diversity looks different in formal and informal volunteering settings.
The findings from this report will be most relevant to formal volunteering and within organisations in the UK with paid staff who manage volunteers. There is a mixed body of evidence relating to who volunteers and how people’s involvement might differ in formal and informal volunteering settings. There is also a growing interest in placed-based mutual aid efforts, which has certainly increased during covid-19.
Mutual aid groups are informal, hyper-local efforts to help others and the model is rooted in communities that have fought injustice and inequality. While this report maintains its focus on formal volunteering, it is worth considering mutual aid efforts related to covid-19 and how they might affect formal volunteering (see spotlight on volunteer participation during the covid-19 pandemic).
Volunteering is steeped in a history based on notions of power that are currently being challenged.
Volunteering has been framed by some within a dominant western construct that is exclusionary and based on a service delivery model which can hinder diversity and entrench outdated concepts of ‘helper and helped’ and ‘powerful and powerless’.
Different approaches to volunteering may be more or less conducive to diversity.
In the book Volunteering and Society in the 21st Century (2010), there are several chapters related to making volunteering inclusive. These identify a range of barriers to volunteering faced by minority groups, including direct discrimination and prejudice. This book highlights why diversity is important for organisations (equity, effectiveness, representation and inclusion) and outlines the two main frameworks for volunteer management: modern and home-grown. The modern framework is typical of larger organisations, with paid staff and more hierarchical structures which have set volunteer roles. The home-grown framework is described as smaller, more egalitarian, where the roles are more likely to be matched to the volunteer.
Power, privilege and prejudice must be addressed for inclusion to thrive.
The anti-racism movement has highlighted issues within the voluntary sector that relate to volunteering as well as wider issues. The Home Truths report reminds us that these issues are about power and privilege. It notes the need for ‘top levels of charities to make space for marginalised people and those with lived experience.’ It also underlines the need to move away from past approaches in creating an inclusive environment for people, including volunteers.
This is echoed in Helen Timbrell’s research which shows how volunteers are often unclear as to what their organisations are doing in relation to diversity. Her report also highlights that white volunteers are often ignorant about the barriers faced by ethnic minorities and black people.
Without meaningful change, the sector as it stands cannot be fit for purpose.
Organisational approaches to diversity are changing.
Looking back over the last twenty years, it was common for organisations to focus diversity efforts on policies and strategies to promote diversity, rather than a focus on creating an inclusive environment for volunteers.
The Equality Act of 2010 also helped to push organisations forward on their journey towards diversity. Although this legislation does not directly apply to volunteering, it has been a factor in shifting the context.
There have also been discussions about the business case for diversity linked to discourses around social corporate responsibility and a societal shift for mainstream organisations to acknowledge the importance of diversity and inclusion in their work and as part of their values.
Many organisations have been discussing how to make sure that volunteering is open to all, with varying degrees of success, but often these internal discussions are not communicated to wider stakeholders or the public.
Research findings about volunteering and diversity have been consistent over time.
There has been a plethora of small-scale research projects and reports related to specific groups volunteering. The Institute for Volunteering Research has produced several research reports over the last two decades related to the topic, including an exploration of the link between volunteering and social exclusion and the ‘changing and non-changing faces of volunteering’ as well as numerous related practical guides such as how to monitor volunteer demographics.
The findings from this literature are somewhat consistent with more recent literature on inclusive volunteering. This leads us to ask if organisations are uninformed about what works, unable to implement best practice or uninterested in change.
Volunteer Centres have a track record of recruiting and supporting under-represented people to volunteer.
Research related to volunteering infrastructure has shown that Volunteer Centres are often in a position to support and recruit people who are under-represented as volunteers, who are new to volunteering or who are from disadvantaged or vulnerable groups. It has not been uncommon for Volunteer Centres to run supported volunteering schemes and to recruit people who may not have the resources (such as access to the internet or technology) to volunteer. Additionally, the same research found that Volunteer Centres registered twice the number of black people in proportion to its population and young people were more likely to use their services.
People want to volunteer in ways that resonate with what matters to them and this might mean getting involved in groups that reflect their identity.
We know from NCVO UK Civil Society Almanac data that the voluntary sector is hugely diverse and that most organisations are very small and completely volunteer run and led. We also know that some of those organisations serve very specific communities and sub-sectors, eg the Sikh community, people with visual impairments, Bangladeshi young people in Tower Hamlets, older Afro-Caribbean people with Dementia; while others are broader, eg National Trust and Citizens Advice.
There is evidence showing that some volunteers tend to volunteer within settings where there is a shared identity; for example, LGBTQI+ organisations having a high proportion of LGBTQI+ volunteers, people with mental ill health volunteering with mental health charities or mosques with community centres having a high proportion of Muslim volunteers.
Organisations that serve minority communities tend to attract volunteers from those groups in larger numbers. Organisations that serve mainly minority interests (such as the ones described above) also tend to be smaller organisations outside of the mainstream voluntary sector.
Social capital and volunteer characteristics can have an impact on volunteering.
There is some evidence in the social capital literature that groups which have shared characteristics allow for more in-group bonding (and potentially exclude others). More diverse groups are potentially more challenging and less comfortable, but may be better for social cohesion and social mobility.
Those with fewer resources are less likely to be get involved, meaning that volunteering can reinforce wider inequalities.
The Pathways through participation research showed that participation requires resources (practical resources such as time, money and health; learnt resources like skills, knowledge, and experience; and felt resources such as confidence and sense of efficacy) in addition to opportunity, and so people with fewer resources may be at a disadvantage for volunteering. The research also showed know that in order to continue volunteering, people need a good quality experience, but resources remain key.
More recent research has shown that volunteering can reinforce inequalities by creating unequal relationships between people who are helping and those who are helped, and it may be that mutual aid and less formal participation and support between neighbours may lessen this effect. This would be an interesting area for further research but is beyond the scope of this report.
The involvement of volunteers with lived experience is growing.
There has been a trend, particularly related to the health sector, towards engaging volunteers with lived experience (eg women who have struggled with post-natal depression) as well as engaging service users as volunteers. Many organisations have acknowledged the benefits of this approach, including creating services that are better at meeting the needs of the community.
A lack of diversity in leadership can impact on the diversity of an organisations volunteer base.
For example, if we look at mainstream organisations, particularly larger national charities, they are often led by white, non-disabled people from higher socio-economic groups. More broadly, a recent review found that people from BAME backgrounds accounted for 16% of CEOs in the sector, 10% of senior leaders and 15% of trustees. Women are also under-represented in charity leadership.
There are gaps in research, particularly related to LGBTQI+ and disabled volunteers.
Volunteering research within the LGBTQ+ community is limited but there has been, for example, research commissioned by infrastructure organisation the Consortium for Stronger LGBT+ Communities (serving over 400 LGBT+ groups in the UK) focused on LGBT volunteering in London. There are also several related toolkits (for example vol’n’queer; a toolkit to help organisations recruit LGBT volunteers and Stonewall’s Citizenship 21 guide to active citizenship for LGBT people).
The London LGBT community and voluntary sector almanac from 2012 includes research about LGBTQI+ volunteers. This research concludes that some of the unique characteristics of LGBTQI+ volunteers include the need to create positive identity-affirming spaces and networks as a motivation.
The numbers of LGBTQI+ volunteers in mainstream organisations is not well known as these volunteers are sometimes less visible and many organisations do not monitor the sexual orientation of their volunteers.
There is also both a lack of disaggregated data and research related to the needs and barriers of volunteers with physical or mental impairments.
3.2 Who participates and who doesn't?
There continues to be inequalities in who volunteers through groups, clubs and organisations.
Research over recent decades has consistently demonstrated that as well as continued participation levels, those who are participating also remains largely unchanged with some groups less likely to participate than others. Time Well Spent data has largely confirmed findings from previous research in this area.
This was confirmed in our own Time Well Spent research, which showed that recent volunteers are more likely to be older, from higher socio-economic groups, female and educated and that those who have never volunteered are more likely to be younger, from lower socio-economic groups, male, unemployed or not working, living in an urban area and educated to a lower level.
Despite these findings, almost three-quarters of volunteers (73%) agreed that ‘there was a wide range of backgrounds among those who volunteered’ with them.
Figure 1: Volunteering by characteristics
People aged 65 and over are the most likely to have volunteered recently.
45% of this age group volunteered in the last year and were most likely to volunteer frequently (35%). The proportion of those who had volunteered in the last 12 months was lowest among 25–34 year-olds (31%) and generally lower for people aged between 25 and 54.
There has been increasing research related to young people and volunteering, including student volunteering and the link between volunteering and social exclusion. Recent research has looked at young people from lower socio-economic groups and found that they are less likely to volunteer and yet potentially have the most to gain in terms of the benefits of volunteering. Related to this has been research on volunteering as a gateway to employment and in increasing skills and confidence of young people. The more recent #iwill campaign was launched in 2013 to link young people to social action and organisations.
The most significant differences between volunteers and non-volunteers relate to socio-economic status and education levels.
The Time Well Spent research found that the most notable difference between those who volunteer and those who do not relates to socio-economic status. People from higher socio-economic groups were more likely than those from lower grades to be recent volunteers (44% vs 30%) and frequent volunteers (30% vs 19%). Those from lower socio-economic groups were most likely to say they had never volunteered (40% vs 25%).
Additionally, those with higher educational qualifications were more likely to have volunteered recently than those with lower educational qualifications. For example, 48% of those educated to degree level or above had volunteered recently, compared with 20% of those with no qualifications.
The ‘civic core’ that comprises the most engaged is made up of people who are more likely to be from managerial and professional occupations and who have higher educational qualifications.
Charities are inflexible and inaccessible for diverse volunteers - many people can’t afford to do unpaid work which means that volunteers tend to be better-off financially (ie middle-class).
Full time workers are less likely to have volunteered recently than those working part time, retired people and students.
People who are unemployed or not working (eg no need to work or are unable to work) were most likely to say they had never volunteered (both 42%) and showed the lowest recent participation rates overall (both 28%) and for frequent volunteering (both 18%). People working full time were less likely to have volunteered in the last year (35%) than those working part time for 8–29 hours a week (41%) or fewer than eight hours a week (53%). They were also less likely to volunteer than retired people (44%) or full-time students (42%).
Those working part time (fewer than eight hours a week) and retired people were most likely to report consistent involvement over their lifetime (34% and 28%). Retired people were the most likely to say they had always been heavily involved or more heavily than lightly involved (23%).
Women are more engaged than men, but this is likely related to their working patterns.
When we look at just full-time workers, part-time workers and the unemployed, we see no differences in the propensity of men and women to volunteer. A greater proportion of women than men work part time and part-time workers were more likely to volunteer. This may explain the slightly higher instance of volunteering among women.
Men were more likely to say they have never volunteered than women (34% vs 29%) and men who have volunteered at some point were more likely than women to say they have been hardly involved throughout their life (23% vs 19%).
Participation by ethnicity shows a mixed picture of volunteering.
Time Well Spent data found that ethnicity has little bearing on overall propensity to volunteer. Rates of volunteering were similar for people who were white and people from BAME backgrounds with 38% and 36% having respectively volunteered at least once in the last 12 months; this was similar across individual ethnic groups as well as overall.
It also found that people from BAME backgrounds may be less likely to volunteer frequently, however low base sizes among BAME respondents, especially among those who are older, means the data was not conclusive. People’s participation over the course of their life was similar between those from BAME backgrounds and white ethnic groups.
The ABC of BAME research found that as an aggregate, black and minority ethnic people volunteer less frequently compared to white British counterparts, and lower income BAME groups are even less likely to volunteer. This research shows that participation by form and type of organisation may vary across ethnic groups and there are differences when this is broken down by specific groups and gender.
The research indicates that there is an under-representation of British Asians in volunteering and particularly of women in this category. It shows that the under-representation of Asian people in volunteering drives the lower likelihood of volunteering at the aggregate BAME level.
According to Time Well Spent data, BAME volunteers were more likely to volunteer for religious causes than white volunteers (19% and 10% respectively) and to cite their religious belief as a factor in their decision to volunteer.
Most religions encourage their followers to be of service to others in some form. For example, the Sikh community has the concept of Seva as central to the religion. Some of this faith-based service may take the form of less formal types of helping while some faith-based organisations have extensive volunteering programmes, community centres and networks.
Black and minority ethnic communities in the UK have long histories of activism, peer support and self-help. The black and minority ethnic voluntary and community sector was built on the foundations of activist networks going as far back as the 1950s and 60s and stemmed from the need for infrastructure to support communities that had been neglected by mainstream institutions, as illustrated by the Communities Inc’s project on the story of Black Community Activism in the East Midlands over the last 60 years
Chart 1: Volunteer status by characteristics
There is little variation based on disability overall, though some by age.
People who reported that their day-to-day activities were limited in some way because of a disability were no more or less likely to be recent volunteers (39%) than people who reported that their activities were not limited in any way (38%). Disabled respondents were slightly more likely to be frequent volunteers (27% vs 25%).
However, these figures mask significant variation by age. Young disabled people (those aged 18–24 and 25–34) were more likely to have volunteered recently and frequently than non-disabled people of the same age, and older disabled people (55+) were less likely to have volunteered recently than non-disabled people of the same age. This could be reflective of the types of disability experienced by each age group or the different impact disability has on people as they get older.
Some have questioned the accessibility of volunteering and it is possible that covid-19 has, in some ways, made volunteering more accessible for disabled people due to an increase in remote volunteering and online volunteering. This would be an important area for further research.
Diversity is important to our organisation, but we do not attract a wide range of participants. Our activities are open to all, but the majority of our activities are attended by a small range of society. Our aim is that our events are inclusive to all as we want all sectors of society to connect with their environment.
Participation levels overall and by demographics have remained relatively unchanged over recent years.
According to the 2019/20 Community Life Survey, levels of volunteer participation have remained relatively steady between 2013/14 and 2019/20. Community Life Survey also shows that participation by key characteristics (eg age, ethnicity and gender) have also remained largely unchanged over the same period. This shows that despite efforts from organisations to increase the diversity of their volunteer base, there are persistent differences in who volunteers in the sector.
3.3 In what setting are people more likely to volunteer?
Diversity varies by type of participation and wider context.
The mixed picture in relation to ethnicity highlights a wider reality - that participation varies greatly. Time Well Spent highlighted some common features in how people volunteer, but also showed that the reality is often far more complex – volunteers combine different types of activity, cause, organisation, frequency and intensity of involvement, which reflects their own lifestyle and life stage, values and interests.
People’s lives and priorities change and, consequently, the ways they get involved may change too. This can also be influenced by the wider context – for example, the covid-19 pandemic has impacted on who volunteered and what activities they got involved in (see spotlight on volunteer participation during the covid-19 pandemic). So, while there are clear overall patterns of participation, this variability should not be ignored.
There are some notable differences by type of activities undertaken.
Volunteers were involved in a range of activities, most commonly relating to organising events (39%), administration (28%), raising money and taking part in sponsored events (27%) and getting others involved (27%). People mainly volunteered locally, in their own neighbourhoods (81%).
Those over 65 were most likely (than other age groups) to be helping with secretarial or administration (35%), leading an organisation or being a trustee or member of a committee (27%) and handling money (19%). This is likely to be explained primarily by the higher proportion of older volunteers who volunteer frequently and are from a higher social grade.
One of the more common activities among the youngest age group (18–24) was befriending and mentoring, which around one in five (23%) of this age group were involved in; this ranked lower among other age groups.
Volunteering is more likely to involve a mix of online and offline activities (57%) than one or the other. Very few people volunteer exclusively online (6%). Disabled people were more likely to volunteer exclusively online (10%) than non-disabled people (4%), and this was even higher among those whose day-to-day activities were limited a lot because of a health problem or disability (16%). Disabled volunteers were also more likely to be often or very often online, indicating that online volunteering may be providing a means for disabled people to get involved or may indicate higher levels of exclusion for volunteers with disabilities.
Those aged over 55 were least likely to volunteer exclusively online, with 3% of this age group volunteering in this way, but otherwise there were few differences across age groups.
Older age groups were more likely to volunteer in their own neighbourhoods (88% of those aged 55+) than those aged under 55, the biggest contrast being with 25–34 year-olds (69%). Volunteers aged 25–34, on the other hand, were the most likely to give time outside their neighbourhood (36%) or outside the UK (6%).
Areas or causes varied by age and gender but less so across other demographic groups.
Men and women broadly supported similar causes. However, some notable differences included women being more likely than men to volunteer in children’s education or schools (16% vs 10%) and youth or children’s activities outside of school (16% vs 12%). Men were more likely to be involved in sports or exercise (20% vs 11%), which was the most common cause among male volunteers. They were also more likely to be involved in politics (13% vs 6%).
There are fewer differences in the areas or causes that people volunteer for by other demographic groups, including social grade, level of educational qualifications and ethnicity.
Inequalities are evident particularly in leadership or representative roles.
Time Well Spent highlighted that among those from lower socio-economic groups, as well as being more likely to have never volunteered, are less likely to undertake activities that involve organising and leading (for example being a trustee or member of a committee) if they do volunteer.
Women are less likely than men to be involved in representative roles, such as representing the organisation at meetings or events.
The organisation, Getting on Board has been working to develop practical approaches which can improve the diversity of charity boards. In their 2017 research, they reported that 90% of charities recruited most of their trustees through word-of-mouth and existing networks, leading directly to chronic diversity problems at board level with men outnumbering women by two-thirds; the average age of trustees 55-64; and people of colour representing just 9% of trustees.
It is of course common sense that if you recruit by "asking around" from a trustee base which is whiter, older and more male than wider society, those that are recruited are most likely to be from similar groups.
Figure 2: Proportion of recent volunteers who lead an organisation, are trustees or members of a committee, by characteristics
Some activities and settings are likely to be more inclusive than others.
There are different levels of formality within volunteering settings, ranging from large organisations with paid staff and more formal policies and procedures, to more informal grassroots community groups. Formal volunteering processes, such as having an interview before starting to volunteer or role-specific training, are more common in certain settings and activities, eg where there are safeguarding risks.
We know that larger mainstream organisations are more likely to have volunteering infrastructure in place. This could be a volunteer manager and other paid staff who recruit and support volunteers. However, for many, the journey into and through volunteering is characterised by informal processes or ad-hoc organising.
There has been some debate in recent years between the home-grown model of volunteering (which builds volunteer roles around the individual), and the modern volunteer model (which recruits volunteers around pre-defined roles) (see section 3.1). Informal feedback from organisations indicates that the home-grown model may be more inclusive, however the modern model is potentially easier to manage.
3.4 How satisfied are volunteers and why?
Some groups are more likely to be more satisfied than others.
Overall satisfaction with volunteering is very high: 96% of recent volunteers say they are very or fairly satisfied. Almost seven in ten (69%) have already or would recommend their volunteering.
Older volunteers aged 55 and over are more likely to report being satisfied than younger volunteers. This gap was most visible for those who were very satisfied: 62% of volunteers aged 55 and over, 43% of those aged 18—34 and 46% of those aged 35—44.
While generally, higher satisfaction levels mean that volunteers are more likely to recommend volunteering to others, this is not the case for older volunteers. Those aged 45—54 (27%) and 55 and over (27%) were more likely to say they had not and were not likely to recommend their volunteering in the future than those aged 18—34 (19%).
Young people, BAME volunteers and disabled people are having less positive experiences of volunteering.
Time Well Spent highlighted that while volunteering is generally a positive experience, some volunteers have a less positive experience. This includes younger, disabled or BAME volunteers for a range of reasons. Our research into diversity and volunteering found that factors such as a lack of flexibility and attitudes of other volunteers may be contributing to this (see more on this in section 6).
Overall, satisfaction among BAME volunteers was lower than among white volunteers (91% vs 96%).
This difference was seen over a range of factors. BAME volunteers were:
- less likely to agree that getting involved was easy and straightforward (83% vs 91%)
- more likely to agree the organisation they mainly volunteered for could be ‘much better organised’ (49% vs 34%)
- much more likely to agree that the organisation was too structured (36% vs 12%), there was too much bureaucracy (34% vs 24%) and too much concern about risk (34% vs 15%).
This group were also less likely to agree that they received enough recognition (73% vs 84%) and were less likely to feel they ‘belong’ in their main organisation (77% vs 85%). BAME volunteers were also more likely to report negative experiences, including feeling unappreciated and excluded.
BAME volunteers were more likely to report tensions and conflict within the organisation (37% vs 28%) and less likely to feel they volunteered within a culture of respect (81% vs 88%). Given all this, it is perhaps not surprising that those from BAME backgrounds were less likely than white volunteers to say they planned to continue volunteering in future (73% vs 81%).
Because the profile of BAME volunteers is younger, and younger volunteers tend to be less satisfied with certain aspects of their experience of volunteering, we should interpret these findings with caution.
Key aspects of the volunteer experience strongly associated with being satisfied include having a culture of respect and trust, feeling well supported, being recognised, and feeling that they belong to the organisation. On the other hand, volunteers were much less likely to be satisfied where they felt things could be much better organised or the organisation wasn’t going anywhere.
Almost three in ten (28%) volunteers reported tensions and conflicts within their organisation. There were some demographic variations, including: men were more likely to report tensions and conflict than women (32% vs 25%), and disabled volunteers were more likely to report tensions and conflict than non-disabled volunteers (32% vs 26%).
Disabled volunteers were more likely to say volunteering had negatively impacted their health and wellbeing than non-disabled volunteers (16% vs 9%).
A lack of flexible opportunities (17%) and a lack of opportunities that matched skills, interests or experience (17%) were cited as barriers for potential volunteers.
Among those who hadn’t volunteered in the past and who felt they could be encouraged to volunteer, being flexible with the time committed was the key factor cited by all groups, whether they had volunteered or not (50%). Flexibility of the role (40%) and being asked directly to get involved in volunteering (28%) were also important factor. Being asked directly to volunteer was more likely to encourage women than men (52% vs 48%); similar differences were seen for being flexible about the way they volunteered (43% vs 36%).
Disabled respondents were more likely to be encouraged by transport being provided than non-disabled respondents (20% vs 12%). This was the same for those who were unemployed or not working (25% and 21 vs 10% of those in full-time work).
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