Volunteer wellbeing: what works and who benefits?
The big picture
Most people in Great Britain – around seven in ten – formally volunteer through a group, club or organisation at some point in their lives. Currently, one in five people volunteer at least once a month and most get involved locally in their own neighbourhoods. Many more give their time in more informal ways in communities, for example, shopping or caring for neighbours.1
Volunteers offer invaluable support. But how can volunteering help support the wellbeing of volunteers themselves?
There is a growing body of research on the links between volunteering and wellbeing, and our review brought the most relevant studies together in one place. We focused on the experience of adult formal volunteers, and looked at the key factors involved in improving wellbeing through volunteering.
You can also find a full list of resources to support you on our volunteering page
McGarvey, A., Jochum, V., Davies, J., Dobbs, J, and Hornung, L. (2019) Time Well Spent: a national survey on the volunteer experience https://www.ncvo.org.uk/policy-and-research/volunteering-policy/research, NCVO; NCVO (2020) UK Civil Society Almanac, https://data.ncvo.org.uk/ volunteering/
papers and reports
included in this review
How this evidence can help you
This information will help groups, clubs, and organisations to design and develop their volunteering programmes with wellbeing in mind. That’s why we have focussed solely on adults who formally volunteer. We know there are other less formal ways people give their time and skills to benefit others.
This briefing summarises the findings from a rapid evidence assessment (REA) exploring what we currently know
about the impacts of volunteering on the wellbeing of volunteers aged 16 and over.
We looked at the positive and negative effects of volunteering on volunteers’:
- life satisfaction
- quality of life
- feelings of depression and anxiety.
The Theory of Change developed from the evidence will help you understand how and why volunteering can lead to
changes in wellbeing for volunteers (figure 1).
Evidence into action: applying the findings
We’ve suggested some questions you can ask yourself to help you use the research to improve the wellbeing of your volunteers. You can find these throughout this summary with this icon:
This builds on research on the key features of a volunteer experience from NCVO’s national study Time Well Spent.
You can also find a full list of resources to support you on our volunteering page
What impact does volunteering have on volunteers?
Volunteering is associated with enhanced wellbeing, but context matters.
There is high quality evidence that volunteering is positively linked to enhanced wellbeing, including improved life
satisfaction, increased happiness and decreases in symptoms of depression.
We can’t, however, categorically state that volunteering causes improved wellbeing. Just because volunteering can
lead to positive changes in wellbeing it doesn’t mean it always does. Some studies also argue that happier and
healthier people are more likely to get involved in volunteering in the first place, with this making the difference rather
than volunteering itself.
The effect that volunteering has on a volunteer’s wellbeing is shaped by a number of factors, including the volunteer’s own circumstances and motivations, and what they experience as a volunteer. What’s clear is that volunteering fits into the wellbeing cycle of communities. Either because volunteering leads to wellbeing for volunteers, or because when people feel well they are more likely to get involved. Increasing wellbeing – through volunteering or other means – is good for individuals and the communities they are part of.
Wellbeing at the heart of the volunteer experience
For those designing, delivering and managing volunteer programmes and activities, the evidence highlights the importance of the volunteer experience to increased wellbeing. We can’t take for granted that volunteering will necessarily lead to enhanced wellbeing. The way volunteers are involved and engaged can enhance or hinder the positive wellbeing effects of volunteering.
How are different people affected?
Some groups gain more from volunteering than others
The evidence points to stronger wellbeing benefits of volunteering for some groups compared to others, including:
- people in later years of life
- people from lower socio-economic groups
- the unemployed
- people living with chronic physical health conditions
- people with lower levels of wellbeing.
The studies we looked at found that volunteering can play a protective role for individuals’ wellbeing. For example, people with lower wellbeing report a bigger increase in their life satisfaction when they regularly volunteer. For people with higher wellbeing, the effects are not as strong. But these benefits can be short lived if volunteers do not continue with their volunteering.
Evidence gaps on impacts for different groups
Our review found that there is a lack of evidence on the wellbeing impacts of volunteering specifically on:
- different ethnic groups
- young people
- disabled people
- people experiencing serious mental health issues.
We need research which focuses on these populations so we can better understand their experiences and how volunteering could benefit their wellbeing.
Those with the most to gain face barriers to getting involved
Some groups are missing out on the benefits of volunteering due to barriers they face and inequalities in access to opportunities. For example, research shows that gains in life satisfaction are greater for those on low incomes compared to higher income groups. Yet they are also less likely to get involved. Ill health and disability are cited as particular barriers for low income groups.
EVIDENCE INTO ACTION: making volunteering more inclusive
- What are the potential barriers for people who might really benefit from volunteering with you, and what could you do to remove them?
- Is it easy for your service users to get involved as volunteers? What extra support do they need?
- When recruiting volunteers, how can you use targeted messaging that emphasises the wellbeing benefits of volunteering?
- Is the culture and environment inclusive and welcoming to volunteers? What could you do to make your organisation more inclusive? What could you do to address potential discrimination and bias?
- Do volunteers have opportunities to move between roles, reduce their commitments or step back from volunteering when their personal circumstances change?
Wellbeing and older volunteers
A large number of studies look at the effects of volunteering on those in later years of life. The evidence points to stronger effects of volunteering on the wellbeing of older volunteers compared to younger adult volunteers. Changes in wellbeing include improved life satisfaction and decline in symptoms of depression for volunteers.
Evidence suggests that volunteering may play a ‘compensatory’ or buffering role for those who have experienced life transitions such as retirement or bereavement. Studies have also found that volunteering can bring a new sense of purpose, identity and sense of belonging.
What are the pathways that lead to changes in wellbeing?
There are a number of different steps or pathways that link volunteering to wellbeing. Evidence points to:
- self-efficacy – a person’s belief in their abilities
- social connectedness
- sense of purpose
as some of the steps along the pathway from volunteering to wellbeing.
Volunteering can help people, for example, feel more socially connected to others and this in turn drives positive changes in wellbeing. Research suggests that social connectedness is the ‘strongest first step in the path from volunteering to increased wellbeing’. Volunteering can also act as a buffer against stress or loss for some people, such as those who are unemployed.
EVIDENCE INTO ACTION: increasing connectedness in volunteering
- Do your volunteers have opportunities to connect with other people through their volunteering if they want to, including other volunteers, staff and beneficiaries?
- Do they feel a sense of community or belonging through their volunteering and what could you do to encourage this?
- If volunteers are engaging remotely or virtually how can you promote a sense of connection with the organisation and other volunteers?
The following Theory of Change shows how and why volunteering might lead to changes in the subjective
wellbeing of volunteers. A key focus of the theory of change is what volunteers experience and feel through their
volunteering. Drivers and barriers, such as personal motivations and family relationships, are also identified and these
How is the way people volunteer linked to changes in wellbeing?
More frequent volunteering, and staying involved, is linked to higher volunteer wellbeing – but context matters
Overall, the evidence tells us that more frequent and regular volunteering – such as weekly – is better for volunteers than being involved just a few times a year.
However, if the volunteering becomes too intense for the volunteer the benefits start to wane. There is no agreed threshold of how much volunteering is too much – this is likely to depend on the person, their personal circumstances, the volunteering activities, and the management and support they receive.
The evidence doesn’t show whether particular volunteering roles and fields bring more wellbeing benefits compared to others. Doing something purposeful and meaningful is identified as important, whatever the role. When it comes to whether there is a higher physical or emotional toll on volunteers, the type of role makes a difference.
The research points to the potential negative effects of involvement in some high intensity, high demand or high-risk roles on stress, anxiety and burnout. However, we need more research exploring the possible negative impacts of volunteering activities on wellbeing.
EVIDENCE INTO ACTION: creating more balanced volunteering
- Are you considering how much volunteers are juggling volunteering alongside other roles and responsibilities in their lives?
- Do you give opportunities for volunteers to reflect on their volunteering commitment and step back if they want to, including volunteers who are leading other volunteers?
- How do you monitor the responsibilities and workloads of volunteers to make sure they are not taking on too much? What are the warning signs of volunteers being overburdened?
How does the volunteering experience affect the wellbeing of volunteers?
A volunteer experience that maximises wellbeing
We can’t take for granted that volunteering will necessarily lead to enhanced wellbeing. The way volunteers are involved and engaged can enhance or hinder the positive wellbeing effects of volunteering.
The review identified some of the key ingredients in the volunteer experience that make a difference to volunteer
wellbeing. They highlight organisational practices that can maximise the wellbeing benefits, as well as the barriers
that might limit them (see the Theory of Change).
The key aspects of a volunteer’s experience include connecting with others through volunteering, feeling appreciated by others for their efforts, and feeling like they are doing something purposeful and meaningful. Sharing and using skills, personal experience and knowledge is another ingredient linked to increased wellbeing.
It is one way that volunteers report their roles as having meaning or purpose – allowing them to ‘give something back’. Developing new skills and knowledge is also important, for older as well as younger volunteers.
EVIDENCE INTO ACTION: making volunteering meaningful
- Are your volunteers supported to get involved in roles that are purposeful and meaningful to them?
- How do you find out what is important to individual volunteers: how and why do they want to volunteer and what do they want from the experience?
- Do you co-produce roles and activities with volunteers?
- Do volunteers have opportunities to share their knowledge or develop new skills?
- Do volunteers have opportunities to see the impacts of their work and the difference it makes?
- Do you provide opportunities for volunteers to take up more diverse responsibilities if they want to or to step back if their circumstances change?
- How can you include volunteers in conversations about future plans and changes?
Supporting volunteers is key
Volunteer management and support as well as peer support are key factors in creating a volunteer experience that
fosters wellbeing. Evidence suggests that support which:
- helps volunteers accomplish their tasks
- is emotionally oriented – such as encouragement and appreciation are both key to volunteer engagement and in turn are associated with volunteer wellbeing.
- Peer support is highlighted as important in helping volunteers manage the challenges and demands of their volunteer role.
Looking for more support?
We’ve gathered together further resources to help you in your efforts to promote wellbeing through volunteering. Look at our volunteering page for more information.
Our online guide on How to Measure your Impact on Wellbeing can help you design an evaluation of your volunteering programme, including a bank of recommended measures.
If you have any questions about this research, or would like to share your knowledge and tips for improving volunteer wellbeing, get in touch with Ingrid at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Five recommendations for policy, commissioners, and funders
The comprehensive review looked at over 17,000 published reports, and included evidence from 158 studies evidence from the UK and internationally.
1. A major focus needs to be placed on widening participation and reducing barriers for more marginalised groups:
- This includes supporting volunteer-involving organisations to target populations who could benefit from volunteering, helping reduce barriers and develop inclusive volunteering cultures
- Inequalities in volunteering reflect wider inequalities in civic participation, which requires addressing structural socio-economic inequalities in society to promote volunteer and reduce entrenched barriers to getting involved.
2. Wellbeing as an outcome for volunteers should be at the heart of funded and commissioned projects, in order to create the maximum benefit for both volunteers and wider beneficiaries. This could include:
- encouraging engagement in formal volunteering by giving additional support to groups currently identified as facing barriers
- funding and capacity building to help organisations involve more diverse and marginalised groups.
- supporting projects that engage service users as volunteers
- encouraging projects to measure their wellbeing impact on volunteers
- more research on the wellbeing benefits of volunteering through social prescribing
3. The way that volunteers are involved and engaged in organisations and groups makes a difference to their wellbeing outcomes. This means:
- Good volunteer management is necessary to make sure volunteers have a positive experience.
- Recognising – and costing in – good volunteer management into volunteer projects and programmes.
4. Roles that place high levels of demand on volunteers can negatively affect their wellbeing through stress, anxiety and burnout. Policy makers and commissioners need to:
Consider the potential effects of high demand roles on the wellbeing of volunteers.
Make sure the needs of the volunteer – as well as the organisation – are met through the co-production of roles and activities.
5. The effects of formal volunteering on subjective wellbeing need to be considered within a wider context. People get involved in multiple ways in their communities. Different mechanisms will play a role in shaping how and why volunteering makes a difference to the wellbeing of volunteers.
Recommendations for research
Research that is question driven and empirical in design
A shift towards research studies that are question driven rather than data driven would help to advance knowledge and understanding within the field. A large body of existing research on volunteering and subjective wellbeing draws on analysis of secondary datasets. These have been valuable but can only take the field so far. More complex empirical studies that explore the inter-relationships between individuals, their volunteering activities and wider personal and social context could help to create new and useful knowledge on volunteering and the impacts on subjective wellbeing. Recognising there is always more than one way to address single questions, research may include in-depth qualitative studies, test and learn studies and/or experimental studies.
Research that reflects the complexity of volunteering and subjective wellbeing
More research is needed that examines the ways volunteering interacts with other roles and responsibilities in people’s lives and how this interaction affects wellbeing outcomes. Further research is also needed which explores the context of volunteer engagement – what kinds of volunteering roles and activities, under what conditions and for whom does participation bring wellbeing benefits? Further studies looking at volunteering in general terms without examining the context in which volunteering takes place are unlikely to add much to our knowledge or understanding in the field. More complex measurements and conceptualisations of subjective wellbeing are also needed within volunteering research. These include using multiple measures of wellbeing and going beyond defining and measuring wellbeing solely through a single indicator such as reduced depression symptoms.
Research that fills the evidence gaps on different groups
The REA found gaps in evidence on the effects of formal volunteering on the wellbeing of particular groups including those with physical disabilities. There was also a lack of evidence that explored volunteering and impacts on subjective wellbeing in relation to ethnicity and gender.
Research that focuses on how formal volunteering affects subjective wellbeing
Considering the large body of evidence on volunteering and wellbeing, few studies have explained fully the processes involved in driving changes in subjective wellbeing through volunteering. How and which intermediate outcomes does volunteering lead to and which of these in turn result in enhanced wellbeing and how do these inter-relate?
Research on the organisational approaches and practices that can maximise the wellbeing benefits of volunteering
Further research is needed to examine the effects of organisational context and conditions on wellbeing to help identify the essential ingredients of volunteer management that can help to promote volunteers’ subjective wellbeing. This could include practical examples from organisations that have been able to enhance wellbeing through volunteering. Research exploring these issues would need to look across different organisational types and sizes including those which are volunteer led.
Research that is balanced, examining the negative as well as the positive impacts of volunteering
There appears to be a bias within the literature towards a focus on the positive effects of volunteering and few studies examine the darker side of participation. Further research exploring the potential negative impacts of volunteering on subjective wellbeing is needed, specifically identifying the particular contexts and conditions of participation.
Research that looks beyond formal volunteering to other forms of participation
This REA has focused on volunteering through groups, clubs and organisations but this is only one of many ways that individuals can contribute to others and their communities. A rapid review of evidence on the impacts of other forms of community contribution including informal volunteering would provide a fuller picture of the wellbeing effects of volunteering.
- The big picture
- How this evidence can help you
- Evidence into action: applying the findings
- What impact does volunteering have on volunteers?
- Wellbeing at the heart of the volunteer experience
- How are different people affected?
- What are the pathways that lead to changes in wellbeing?
- How is the way people volunteer linked to changes in wellbeing?
- How does the volunteering experience affect the wellbeing of volunteers?
- Looking for more support?
- Five recommendations for policy, commissioners, and funders
- Recommendations for research
You may also wish to read the blog article on this document.
You may also wish to read the blog article on this document.
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