Why do we volunteer?

Hannah Blake is a PhD student at Cardiff University and recently contributed to the WISERD Cardiff lunchtime seminar series with a presentation on her master’s degree research into volunteer accounts of participation.


Research in the volunteering phenomena is increasing. Having been a volunteer for six years, the decision to undertake my own research in this area was of high personal interest. Volunteering has traditionally been seen as an altruistic act – a decision to do something to benefit others and not yourself. However, I was keen to understand what other factors influence the decision to volunteer.

My research, which was undertaken in the East Riding of Yorkshire in 2014, took an empirical qualitative approach to understanding volunteers’ accounts of their participation. Interviews were carried out with 14 formal volunteers from seven different volunteer organisations and I found four key themes as a result of analysing the data; religion, family, age and employment.

Religion was by far the biggest influence on voluntary behaviour, particularly in relation to reasons for volunteering. For two of the nine religious participants, religious belief was engrained in their lives and they saw their volunteering as ‘put[ting] the gospel into action’ prompted by ‘a belief related to my religion that something should be done’. The remaining seven participants with religious beliefs did not feel that beliefs influenced their decision to volunteer.

Six of the volunteers interviewed noted family as being a major influence on their volunteering behaviour. One volunteer explained how ‘my mother worked in social welfare and I worked in the same field so I think being prosocial appears to run in the blood’. Another volunteer stated that she felt the need to ‘carry on family tradition of helping those in need’. One participant from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), explained how two generations before him had also volunteered as lifeboat men and he felt ‘a sense of importance that I follow in their footsteps’.

The final two themes, age and employment, were merged when analysing the data. This was because the age of the volunteers not only affected the type of volunteering that was carried out but also why. The research found that younger volunteers were more interested in carrying out active volunteer work such as with the RNLI, the police and the St John Ambulance, and stated reasons such as, ‘it’s a bit more exciting than a charity shop’ and ‘it beats the plain day to day routine of work’. In addition, younger volunteers also expressed their hope that voluntary work would contribute to increased employment prospects in the future. In comparison, the older generations of volunteers stated their reasons for volunteering were based on a need to ‘keep active’ and ‘socialise’. Many of the older volunteers explained that they volunteered to keep their minds active after retirement and that it got them out of the house on a near daily basis.

Therefore, there are various reasons as to why people volunteer and the benefits they gain from it. There was, however, an overall majority of volunteers in the research who, when asked about the consequences of volunteering, noted the commitment that it takes. Regardless of religiosity, age or gender, the fact that volunteering often negatively impinged on their lives was a shared attitude. The volunteers explained that ‘it gets in the way of your social life’, ‘I do more work now than when I was still employed and paid’ and ‘I feel like I’m always needed and that I always need to make myself available’.

I found this piece of research particularly interesting when it came to understanding the challenges of volunteering. Whilst I understood the commitment of volunteering from a personal perspective, I had not expected to find that all the participants in my research also shared the same views. Further research in this area could be important in understanding more about how volunteers see their participation and would need to be carried out on a larger scale with a wider demographic of volunteer.