4. Motivations

This section looks at the motivations of public sector volunteers. It explores why they get involved to start with, factors influencing motivations and whether their motivations differ from other volunteers.

4.1. Why do volunteers get involved in the first place?

Wanting to make a difference is the most common reason for getting involved

In our Time Well Spent survey, volunteers were asked for the most important reasons why they had first started volunteering. The most common motivation for public sector volunteers was wanting to improve things or help people (46%). This is the case across all sectors.

Wanting to give time to a cause of personal importance (36%) ranked next, followed by having spare time to do it (34%).

But motivations are wide-ranging

While these reflect the most common motivations, the reality is that people’s reasons for getting involved are wide-ranging – reflecting their different values, priorities and interests. The range of motivations can be seen in chart 3. It was also present among our focus group participants, whose motivations varied from their volunteering being linked to an existing hobby or interest, to wanting to do something different from work.

Participants also often cited more than one reason for volunteering. Where multiple reasons were given, they were typically altruistic reasons, paired with more practical ones, or motivations of personal benefit. For example, one participant talked about having always wanted to do something to help others, but acting on it when they were made redundant. Another was a student who started volunteering in a hospital to help others but also saw it as a way to ‘have a social life’ as her friends were already volunteering there. These types of mixed motivations reflect wider evidence on this subject.[1]

For many, the local nature of their volunteering is important

As seen in chart 3, among the most common reasons for volunteering was ‘feeling there was a need in their local community’, with a third of public sector volunteers choosing this. This reflects the local nature of activities which, as seen in section 3.5, was common: 79% of public sector volunteers’ activities took place in their own neighbourhood.

The importance of being involved locally also emerged among focus group participants. In some cases, this was driven by wanting to address a local need, but for others it was more practical – they wanted their volunteering to be close to home or work for convenience, especially if they were in full-time work.

4.2. Are public sector volunteers’ motivations different?

The primary reason for volunteering is common across all volunteers

As seen in chart 3 and highlighted previously, across all volunteers – whether public sector or not – the most common reason for getting involved was to make a difference. This was also reflected among focus group participants, including among those who volunteered for multiple organisations.

Most do not actively look to volunteer for a public sector organisation

Participants from the focus groups were asked about the extent to which being a public sector organisation was important in motivating them to volunteer. The majority did not specifically look to volunteer for a public sector organisation.

This seemed to relate to a number of factors. Many did not think of their volunteering in this way, as expressed by this focus group participant:

I actually didn’t think of it as public sector. To me it’s a local primary school, it’s not a big nontangible entity, I thought it was a local school in the local community and about making a difference.

Volunteer, education, north

We also know from our Time Well Spent research, and previous national surveys (such as the Helping Out survey[2]) that people can find it difficult to identify the sector of their volunteering organisation. This can be made harder because some civil society organisations are involved in the delivery of public services as mentioned earlier.

Finally, some volunteering in the public sector may be more a choice ‘by default’. For example, among focus group participants, where volunteers were motivated by career reasons or by a particular role, such as a special constable, motivations were more about wanting to volunteer for a particular organisation or role which happens to be in the public sector, than choosing to volunteer for a public sector organisation specifically.

While not an active part of the decision making process, the focus groups also revealed that participants had different perceptions of the different sectors. Most commonly, participants associated public sector volunteering with being more structured (and charities less so). Public sector organisations were also perceived by some as being more accountable, compared with other types of organisation – whether charities or private sector organisations – towards whom there was more scepticism about ‘where your money goes’. These perceptions may be influencing their choices.

Among public sector volunteers, volunteering for a particular organisation seems to be less important than volunteering for a cause

While motivations for volunteering were generally similar across all sectors, one notable difference was that the importance of the organisation was perceived to be lower among public sector volunteers than civil society volunteers (31% public sector vs 40% civil society volunteers). Volunteering because a cause was personally important to them was ranked higher among public sector volunteers compared with civil society volunteers – and was the second most commonly selected motivation.

In the focus groups, the importance of volunteering for a cause was also highlighted by some, in a few cases going as far as wanting to save a local service (a local library for example).

The prominence of cause as a motivator may link in part with the younger age profile of public sector volunteers. In the recent impact report of the #iwill campaign, they highlighted that although older people perceive a lack of participation in social action among young people, most young people want to make a difference, eg 81% agreed that they ‘care about contributing to make the world a better place for everyone.’[3]

Where the organisation is of importance, reasons for choosing it varies

While cause seems to be of more importance than the organisation itself for public sector volunteers, this is not to say that volunteering for a particular organisation was not important for some of them.

Focus group participants who actively chose the organisation they volunteered for did so for a variety of reasons. For example, one participant travelled to the other side of the city to volunteer specifically for a hospital which had a good reputation. This is reflected in other evidence from the health sector as well as in the education sector with some governors wanting to be associated with successful schools.[4]

It’s the Premier League as against my local hospital which might be second division. Thinking about volunteering, you want to work with what’s most attractive and the best.

Volunteer, health, north

On the other hand, others talked about wanting to volunteer for an organisation where they could make the most difference and actively looked for organisations where they could do this, for example a struggling school.

Volunteering to improve career prospects is more common among public sector volunteers

As seen in chart 3, our Time Well Spent data shows a relatively small proportion of volunteers getting involved because they thought it would help them ‘get on in their career’ (9%). However, this was more common than among civil society volunteers (5%). Those who cited this as a reason among the focus group participants tended to be younger (18-24) – typically in the police and health sectors. This confirms wider research findings both about the greater prominence of career-related reasons for young people and also evidence from police and health sectors:

  • A national survey of special constables[5] found that those who have recently joined (within the past two years) and were aged under 25 were more likely to be motivated by ambitions to be a paid police officer. On the other hand, those who had a longer service indicated they were more motivated by making a difference to the community.
  • Research into volunteering in acute hospitals showed that some of the perceived reasons for an increasingly younger age profile (see section 3.4) was that some universities now expect those aspiring to a health care professional to have volunteered in a hospital.[6]

This research into volunteers in acute hospitals cited above, suggests that career-related motivations may be driven in part by expectation of work experience among employers. This is likely not to be limited to the health sector or indeed public sector itself. The Museums Association (covering museums generally, not just local authority owned ones) highlighted that for most entry level jobs relevant job experience would be needed, which people usually get via volunteering.[7] A separate report on the heritage sector indicated a ‘culture of unpaid work experience as a prerequisite to getting a job in the sector.’[8]

Further differences include a higher proportion volunteering because it was connected to the needs of family or friends

A number of further differences between the motivations of public sector volunteers and civil society volunteers were observed:

  • Public sector volunteers were more likely to volunteer because it was connected to the needs of their family or friends (18% vs 11%). Where this was raised among focus group participants it tended to be in the context of a school attended by their child or a hospital. Other evidence shows that parents’ vested interest in schools leads to their increased participation.[9]
  • Being motivated to make friends or to meet people was lower among public sector than civil society volunteers (13% vs 23%). In the focus groups, those who mentioned wanting to meet people were younger.


  1. Brodie, E. et al.: NCVO/IVR/Involve (2011); Pathways through Participation: What creates and sustains active citizenship?

  2. Low, N., Butt, S., Ellis, P. and Davis Smith, J. (2007)

  3. Step Up to Serve / #iwill (2019): The Power of Youth Social Action:#iwill campaign Impact Report

  4. Naylor, C., Mundle, C., Weaks, L., and Buck, D.: The Kings Fund: (2013), Volunteering in health and care, securing a sustainable future

  5. Callender, M., Cahalin, K., Cole, S., Hubbard, L. and Britton, I.: Citizens in Policing and Institute for Public Safety, Crime and Justice (2018), Understanding the Motivations, Morale, and Retention of Special Constables: Findings from a National Survey. Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice, pay058, pp. 1-16

  6. Galea, A., Naylor, C et al: The Kings Fund (2013)

  7. Museums Association, ‘Getting a first job’

  8. Creative and Cultural Skills (2008), The Cultural Heritage Blueprint: A workforce development plan for cultural heritage in the UK

  9. Body, A., Holman, K. and Hogg, E (2016), To bridge the gap? Voluntary action in primary education