3. Context

This section explores the wider context of volunteering in public services, levels of volunteering in public sector organisations, who gets involved, what participation looks like and how it is organised.

3.1. What is the policy context?

Volunteering in public services is longstanding – but has developed over time

Voluntary action has long played a role in the delivery of public services, but it has evolved over time. Before the creation of the welfare state, voluntary action was essential to deliver services, and a number of these services and organisations still exist today, primarily funded by legacies and donations, such as St John’s Ambulance and RNLI. State services were initially developed to address the disparities in quality and availability, but even in the early stages of the welfare state roles were being created for volunteers. For example, independent monitoring boards: statutory bodies to monitor the welfare of people in prison.

Well established volunteering roles, such as magistrates and school governors, are still involved in public service organisations, but in recent years many new roles have been developed such as police support volunteers.

Policy makers have given several reasons for supporting the involvement of volunteers: to make the most of their distinctive contribution, to democratise or open up services, and to be cost effective. Support for volunteering has cut across political lines from New Labour’s concept of active citizenship,[1] to the Big Society agenda.[2] More recently, the civil society strategy[3] puts forward a vision of a shared society. This has been framed as a society where state and citizen are equal partners, rather than a way of facilitating the shrinking of the state.

The wider policy environment is also supportive of volunteering in public services, as can be seen by a number of developments in recent years. For example, there was a clear commitment to volunteering in the NHS Long Term Plan (2019).[4] The Police Transformation Fund allocated funding to the Institute for Public Safety Crime and Justice to pilot different forms of volunteering in the police, and in 2018 the Home Office were considering involving volunteers in the Border Force in a similar way.

Many areas of public services have seen a reduction in funding over the past decade, particularly at a local level. Between 2010 and 2020, councils will have lost almost 60p in every £1 of central government funding. According to the LGA, councils will face an overall funding gap of £3.1bn in 2019/20, which they estimate will rise to £8bn by 2024/25.[5] This means there is insufficient funding to manage rising demand, at a time when a number of public service areas have seen a fall in the number of paid staff. Between 2009 and 2016 there were over 1 million fewer people employed in the public sector, with particular declines in local government employment.[6]

Within this context, stakeholders across the public and voluntary sectors, but most notably the unions, have expressed concerns that the engagement of volunteers is used as a mechanism to cut costs and jobs.

3.2. What does volunteering in public services look like?

The wider landscape of public service delivery is complex

For this research we have focused on volunteering within public sector organisations in receipt of government funding, but we know that the landscape of public service delivery is more complex.

Voluntary organisations can be funded by commissioners at a national and local level to deliver services on behalf of government. Often these organisations will engage volunteers, although research has shown that the professionalisation of organisations as a result of being contracted to deliver services has changed the role, position and experience of volunteers.[7]

'Hybrid' organisations blur the boundaries between the private, public and voluntary sectors. A good example of this trend are social enterprises – businesses with social objectives. Hybrid organisations, such as academies, housing associations, some museums and galleries, and mutuals or spinouts, are funded by government to deliver services. Some of these organisations engage volunteers.

A number of public sector organisations, such as hospitals, may have charitable arms with their own source of voluntary income. There are also voluntary organisations that may deliver some similar functions to a public service but are primarily supported by voluntary income.

Reflecting this complexity, the charter developed by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and what was Volunteering England in 2009[8] covers the relationship between paid staff and volunteers in any organisation.

3.3. What are the levels of participation?

Fewer people volunteer in the public sector than in civil society but the scale of involvement should not be underestimated

In our Time Well Spent survey, around one in six (17%) reported volunteering for public sector organisations in the last 12 months, compared with 67% volunteering for civil society.

However, it can be challenging to get an accurate picture of the scale of public sector volunteering overall. The figures cited above, which focus on volunteers’ main organisation if they give time to multiple organisations, do not include those who may volunteer for public sector organisations as their ‘secondary’ volunteering. Additionally, as previously outlined, public sector volunteering is not always easily distinguished from volunteering in other sectors. Furthermore, it has been highlighted in national surveys[9] that respondents are not always able to correctly identify the sector of their volunteering organisation.

While it can be challenging to get an overall picture, data from specific sub-sectors gives us an indication of the numbers involved in volunteering in the public sector. This also highlights that while less common than volunteering for civil society organisations, the scale of public sector volunteering should not be underestimated.

Examples include:

  • The estimated number of school governors in England alone is 350,000, making it ‘one of the largest groups of volunteers in the country’[10]– and these are just one group of volunteers giving unpaid help in an education setting.
  • Approximately 39,000 people volunteer directly in police services, in roles such as special constables, police support volunteers, and Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner (OPCC) volunteers.[11]
  • At least 78,000 people volunteer regularly in acute hospitals across England. However, this does not take into account volunteering in a variety of other health settings.[12]

An increased need for volunteers is a common theme

Evidence from specific types of public sector organisations highlights a common theme when looking at participation over time, namely an increased need for volunteers within public sector organisations. This is largely attributed to reduced financial and human resources within these organisations. These have been highlighted especially in the media, for example:

  • Between 2010 and 2016, a quarter of all UK library jobs disappeared, balanced by recruitment of 15,500 volunteers in the same period, and closure of 343 libraries.[13]
  • The NHS was reported to be looking to double its volunteer ‘workforce’ to 150,000 by the end of 2021 with a recruitment drive to enlist people with professional skills.[14]
  • In a research report on voluntary action in primary education, 70% of the schools taking part in the study reported that they felt pressured to seek additional volunteer support.[15] Another report highlighted that the involvement of unpaid staff in schools rose by 6% in the five years following the 2008 recession.[16]

Focus group participants who had volunteered within public sector organisations also recognised this growing demand for volunteers based on their own experiences. This is explored further in section 5, including the impacts this has had on the volunteer experience.

Increased need does not necessarily mean higher numbers of volunteers

Despite the increased need for volunteers being a common theme, there appears to be limited data at a national level to gauge whether the numbers of public sector volunteers overall have increased over time. In fact, the proportion of public sector volunteers from Time Well Spent is lower than that reported in a previous national survey (Helping Out[17]) from 2007 (23%). However, caution should be taken in comparing these figures due to the differences in the age groups covered and the methodology of the two surveys.[18]

Evidence from sub-sectors presents a mixed picture of participation levels over time. Where lower numbers of volunteers have been reported, this has been attributed to a number of reasons, including challenges in recruitment of volunteers.

  • Within volunteering in policing, across England and Wales trends differed depending on the type of role. The number of police support volunteers have remained broadly stable between 2016 and 2018, whereas the number of special constables nationally has fallen consistently since 2012. This fall in numbers reflects both lower than historical-trend levels of recruitment into the Special Constabulary and higher than historical trend levels of resignation from the specials.[19]
  • A report highlighted a 36% reduction in the number of magistrates over a five-year period from 2012 to 2017. This was attributed to falling workload in the magistrates’ courts due to increased use of out of court disposals, and downturn in recruitment, combined with relatively consistent annual levels of resignations and retirements.[20]
  • A shortage of school governors was recently reported, with new figures showing vacancies on governing boards rising by almost 40% in two years.[21]

3.4. Who is more likely to get involved in public sector volunteering?

Public sector volunteers have a younger age profile than civil society volunteers – but this varies by sub-sector and role

As shown in chart 1, on the whole public sector volunteers have a younger age profile when compared with civil society volunteers overall, despite the largest group is that of older volunteers (65+) (22%).

However, this is likely to depend on the role and sub-sector.

For example,

  • Within the police, special constables have a skew towards younger age groups, with a peak in numbers in the early twenties reflecting patterns of recruitment of specials who are interested in volunteering as a pathway into paid careers as a regular officer. In contrast, police support volunteers and OPCC (Police and Crime Commissioners Office) volunteers engage a large number of people who are 50 and over.[22]
  • A recent report found that more than half of all magistrates are over the age of 60 and just 4% are under the age of 40.[23] A similar picture was found regarding school governors, with a total of 10% of those surveyed in an annual survey being under 40 (11% in 2016 and 12% in 2015).
  • A survey of senior NHS staff within acute trusts highlighted that there was a perception that volunteers were getting younger, with two-thirds of respondents saying that new volunteers now tend to be younger. This was attributed to universities expecting students to have hospital experience and unemployed people wanting to gain skills.[24]

The same diversity issues are reflected in public sector volunteers as in the overall volunteer population

The wider findings from Time Well Spent highlighted diversity issues in relation to who is and is not participating in volunteering, in particular showing that those from a higher socio-economic status were more likely to be involved. This confirms previous evidence on the profile of volunteers.

When looking specifically at public sector volunteers within the Time Well Spent dataset, it is clear that similar issues are present there too. For example, almost two-thirds (64%) of recent public sector volunteers were from a higher socio-economic group compared with just over a third (36%) from a lower socio-economic background. A similar proportion was found overall (66% higher socio-economic group compared with 34% lower socio-economic group for volunteers overall).

3.5 How do volunteers participate?

Public sector volunteers give time less frequently compared with civil society volunteers

Frequent volunteering was common among public sector volunteers but less so when compared with civil society volunteers (59% vs 73%), with the biggest difference being among those volunteering at least once a week: 30% of public sector volunteers vs 44% of civil society volunteers. It is likely that the frequency of volunteering is linked to the type of role, with some more formalised roles requiring set levels of commitment (eg specials in policing, or magistrates).

Volunteers are involved in a wide range of activities and causes

As seen in chart 2, the most common activities among public sector volunteers were organising or helping to run an activity or event (27%), providing practical help such as helping out at a school (26%) and raising money or taking part in sponsored events (24%). These activities mostly took place in volunteers’ own neighbourhood (79%).

As with the range of activities undertaken, public sector volunteers support a variety of causes: ‘children’s education/schools’ was the most common sub-sector or area (36%), followed by local community groups (17%) (such as parish councils and community councils), and health, disability and social care (16%).

While this data gives us a sense of some of the most common activities and areas or causes, the broad range of roles undertaken even with a particular setting or sub-sector shows that volunteer involvement is wide-ranging. For example, while being a single role, police support volunteers (PSVs) reflect a wide range of different activities, with 1,120 PSV role profiles across the 44 police forces, with an average of 26 different PSV role profiles per force.[25] Similarly, volunteering roles within the NHS cover a variety of different activities, as shown in the examples of roles listed in the NHS guidance for volunteer managers which include administrative support, shop volunteers and signposting.[26] It is also likely that some volunteer roles have changed over time. This is explored further in section 5.

3.6. How is public sector volunteering organised?

While organisations vary, there are a number of features that seem to be more common to public sector organisations:

Public sector volunteers tend to be managed through more formalised processes

Data from Time Well Spent indicates that the management of volunteering in public sector organisations is more formalised than in civil society organisations. For example, public sector volunteers were more likely to have gone through formalised processes during the recruitment journey: 30% carried out a criminal or other background check compared with 20% of civil society volunteers, and similar differences were seen for the provision of a written role description (18% vs 13%).

This may reflect the fact that in certain sub-sectors, having more formalised processes is the ‘norm’, especially for roles which may involve interaction with vulnerable individuals. NHS guidance for volunteer managers indicates a formal journey including formal application, interview and for successful candidates background check (ID, visa, address, DBS, occupational health questionnaire).[27] For school governors, enhanced DBS checks were made mandatory in 2016 in schools overseen by local authorities.

Public sector volunteers are more likely to be managed and coordinated by paid staff

Public sector volunteers who volunteered in the last 12 months were more likely to say that a paid member of staff managed and coordinated their volunteers compared with civil society volunteers (41% vs 26%). Again, this may relate to certain sub-sectors. For example, a survey of acute NHS trusts showed that 91% said that they employed a volunteer services manager.

Public sector organisations in recent years have operated in a difficult environment

Funding cuts in the public sector have been commonly reported over recent years. For example,

  • In 2018, a report on the museum sector highlighted that local authority-funded museums in particular were facing financial difficulties with almost 4 in 10 (39%) museums stating that that their overall funds had decreased in the past year.[28]
  • In the same year, the National Audit Office found there had been a 19% drop in funding for the police since 2010, and officers were struggling to maintain an effective service.[29]
  • A report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (also 2018) stated that total school spending per pupil has fallen by 8% in real terms between the financial years 2009/10 and 2017/18. This was mainly driven by a 55% cut to local authority spending on school services and cuts of over 20% to school sixth-form funding.[30]

These features may not be unique to public sector organisations

While the features outlined above have been highlighted as being more common to public sector organisations, this does not mean they are unique to them. It is likely, for example, that the tendency for more structured and formalised processes relates in part to organisational size. Previous research has made a distinction between ‘modern’ and ‘home-grown’ approaches to organising and managing volunteers. The ‘modern’ approach to volunteer management, which will often apply the processes already used for employees to volunteers tends to be adopted by bigger organisations with hierarchical structures, which are more likely to be led by paid staff. The ‘home-grown’ approach is more informal and participatory, more likely to be volunteer led.[31] While public sector organisations may be more likely to follow a ‘modern’ approach, the same may apply also to bigger civil society organisations.

It may also relate to sub-sector. For example, our wider Time Well Spent findings show that paid coordinators are more commonly found in health, disability and social welfare, children’s education or schools. While these are sub-sectors which commonly intersect with public services, it is likely that, for example, volunteers giving time to civil society organisations delivering similar services may also have similar setups.

The fact that these features are common – but not unique – to public sector organisations means that there may be wider learnings which organisations from all sectors can take away.


  1. NCVO (2005), Civil renewal and active citizenship: a guide to the debate

  2. Cabinet Office (2010), Building the Big Society

  3. Department for Digital, Culture, Media Sport, Office for Civil Society, Tracey Crouch MP and The Rt Hon Jeremy Wright MP (2018), Civil Society Strategy: building a future that works for everyone

  4. NHS (2019), The NHS Long Term Plan

  5. Local Government Association (2019), Local Government Association briefing: Debate on local government funding

  6. ONS (2016), Public sector employment, UK: March 2016

  7. Ellis Paine, A., and Hill, M. (2016) , ‘The engagement of volunteers in third sector organisations delivering public services’

  8. TUC (2009), A Charter for Strengthening Relationships between Paid Staff and Volunteers

  9. Such as Low, N., Butt, S., Ellis, P. and Davis Smith, J. (2007), Helping Out: A national survey of volunteering and charitable giving

  10. Balarin, M., Brammer, S., James, C and McCormack, M.: Business in the Community/ University of Bath (2014) The School Governance Study

  11. Britton, I. Knight, L. and Lugli, V.: Institute for Public Safety, Crime and Justice (2018), Citizens in Policing Benchmarking Report

  12. Ross, S., Fenney, D. et al: The Kings Fund (2018), The Role of volunteers in the NHS: views from the front line

  13. Wainwright, D. et al: BBC News (2016), ‘Libraries close a quarter of staff as hundreds close’

  14. Hellen, N.: The Times (2019), ‘The NHS wants you… to volunteer if you’re a professional’

  15. Body, A. and Hogg, E (2016): A bridge too far: the increasing role of voluntary action in primary education

  16. Staufenburg, J.: Schools Week (2018), ‘Reception staff increasingly unpaid and underqualified’ warns EPI’

  17. Low, N., Butt et al (2007)

  18. One of the surveys excludes ‘don’t know’ responses

  19. Britton, I. Knight, L. and Lugli, V, 2018

  20. Ministry of Justice (2017): Judiciary Diversity Statistics 2017

  21. Diver, T.: Telegraph, (2019), ‘School funding crisis due to lack of governors, says charity’

  22. Britton, I. Knight, L. and Lugli, V, 2018

  23. Ministry of Justice (2018): Judiciary Diversity Statistics 2018

  24. Galea, A., Naylor, C et al: Kings Fund (2013), Volunteering in acute trusts in England: understanding the scale and impact

  25. Britton, I. Knight, L. and Lugli, V, 2018

  26. NHS England (2017) Recruiting and managing volunteers in NHS providers, a practical guide

  27. NHS England, 2017

  28. Museums Association (2018), Museums in the UK 2018 Report

  29. National Audit Office (2018), Financial sustainability of police forces in England and Wales 2018

  30. Belfield, C., Farquharson, C. and Sibieta, L.: Institute for Fiscal Studies (2018), 2018 annual report on education spending in England

  31. Rochester, C., Paine, A.E., Howlett, S., Zimmeck, M. and Ellis Paine, A. (2010) Volunteering and Society in the 21st Century