1. At a glance

This section provides an overview of each of the main sections of this report, including a summary of key findings.


  • This report on volunteering in the public sector is the second in a series of focused reports building on our Time Well Spent research, which looks at the volunteer experience.
  • The report draws on further analysis of the Time Well Spent data, focus groups with volunteers who give time to public sector organisations carried out specifically for the report, and existing literature.
  • It aims to shed more light on public sector volunteers (specifically those who are involved directly in public sector organisations) and focuses on particular aspects of their experience, including their motivations and relationship with paid staff, with a view to informing practice and policy in this area.

What does participation look like?

  • For this research we have focused on volunteering within public sector organisations in receipt of government funding, but the landscape of public service delivery is more complex.
  • While making up a smaller proportion of volunteer participation overall compared with civil society (17% public sector vs 67% civil society), the scale of public sector volunteering should not be underestimated.
  • Increased need for, and reliance on volunteers has been a common experience for organisations in recent years. However, recruitment of volunteers has been a challenge.
  • Public sector volunteers have a younger age profile than civil society volunteers though this varies by sub-sector and role. Diversity is an issue among public sector volunteers as for the overall volunteer population.
  • Public sector volunteers are involved in a wide range of activities and causes, though are generally found to give time less frequently compared with civil society volunteers.

Why do public sector volunteers get involved?

  • Wanting to make a difference is the most common reason for getting involved but there are a range of other motivations, including wanting to volunteer locally – whether that be for practical reasons or to respond to a need in their local community.
  • Most do not look to volunteer specifically in the public sector, although they may have underlying perceptions of different sectors which may influence their decisions.
  • Motivations among public sector and civil society volunteers are similar on the whole, but for public sector volunteers volunteering for a cause of personal importance is more common than a connection to a particular organisation. Additionally, volunteering to improve career prospects is more common, especially among younger volunteers and those from the health and police sub-sectors.

What is the volunteer experience like in public sector organisations?

  • Public sector volunteers are largely positive about their experience overall, with the feeling of making a difference and enjoyment contributing to their positive views. However, public sector volunteers report lower levels of satisfaction compared with civil society volunteers and have less positive views about specific parts of their volunteer journey. Key challenges vary but volunteers commonly felt the effect of funding cuts on their volunteer experience over time.
  • Public sector volunteers tend to be managed by paid staff and through more formalised processes, and they are more likely to feel it is too formalised and structured. However, getting the right balance is not easy. Perceptions, in large part, reflect expectations and these can be challenging to manage alongside addressing the needs of organisations to deliver services effectively and safely.
  • Feeling their contribution is of value is important to volunteers but in turn, a lack of resources or training can lead to frustration.
  • For some, volunteering can feel similar to paid work. While this in itself is not always framed negatively, when volunteering begins to feel like an obligation this can feel too much like paid work, especially if there is a lack of appreciation.
  • For the most part the distinction between paid and voluntary roles is clear but it can depend on sub-sector and role. Tensions tend to arise most where there is a significant overlap of roles or where volunteers are doing roles which used to be undertaken by paid staff.
  • Relationships between volunteers and paid staff are shaped by a number of factors including the intensity of the interaction, organisational culture and nature of the role. Across these different features, however, there are a number of common factors which drive the quality of these relationships, namely: clear roles that complement each other, appreciation and value, respect, staff morale, support and understanding, and inclusion and camaraderie.
  • Around three-quarters (76%) of volunteers say they are likely to continue in the next 12 months. Motivations to continue largely reflect motivations to start volunteering.
  • Some continue to volunteer despite challenges, and a sense of duty is a driver for around a quarter of participants. Where volunteers are unlikely to continue, practical reasons are often cited but experience also matters for retention.

What is the impact of public sector volunteers?

  • Feeling they make a difference and enjoyment are the most commonly perceived positive impacts of volunteering among volunteers. Volunteering can also have less positive impacts on volunteers also, including feeling out of pocket, and too much time being taken up.
  • Volunteers feel they have a positive impact on others (individuals and organisations) which organisations themselves also recognise and value. Volunteers perceive their distinctive value to be their ability to speak up and go ‘beyond the necessities’ for service users.
  • As well as benefits, volunteers can also present challenges for volunteer-involving organisations, for example, where roles are not clear.
  • The findings indicate the value of volunteers could be enhanced further, especially in relation to making better use of their skills, further training and resource, and encouraging greater understanding among paid staff of the role and value of volunteers.

What do these findings mean for practitioners and decision-makers?

  • Making broad conclusions for an area like public sector volunteering which covers such a variety of volunteering roles and contexts is a challenge.
  • The research suggests that the eight key features that make up a quality experience for volunteers – as suggested by our main Time Well Spent report – of being inclusive, flexible, impactful, connected, balanced, enjoyable, voluntary and meaningful – can also be considered by volunteer-involving organisations, when looking at the challenges and opportunities of volunteering in relation to volunteering practice. In the particular public sector context, these features take on a particular focus or meaning.
  • In the context of volunteering in the public sector organisations the additional feature of being valued emerged as being important, both for staff-volunteer relationships and overall volunteer satisfaction and retention.
  • For decision-makers we pose four key questions that might be considered. Firstly, why the organisations want to involve volunteers: being clear about this and considering how their involvement fits with the organisation’s purpose, values and wider culture.
  • Secondly, how to get buy-in within the organisation: thinking about involving staff, service users and wider stakeholders (eg partner organisations) and managing communications and messaging to them.
  • Thirdly, how to ensure the approach taken is fair, equitable and inclusive: investing time and resource, and promoting a culture which includes people of different backgrounds, identities and experiences.
  • Finally, how to engage and support volunteers, including considering different approaches to volunteer management and ensuring their voices are heard.