We all know that giving our time to support a good cause can make us feel pretty good about ourselves and foster social connection. But what makes some people more likely than others to volunteer and how can we encourage more people to explore voluntary opportunities in their lives?


What does it mean to volunteer?


The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) describes volunteering as "any activity that involves spending time, unpaid, doing something that aims to benefit the environment or someone (individuals or groups) other than, or in addition to, close relatives."


Some people have gone a step further and expanded this definition to distinguish between formal volunteering such as groups, clubs or organisations, and informal volunteering which could be helping friends or neighbours in need.


It has been estimated that over 1 billion people volunteer worldwide and that women are more likely to do so than men. In the UK, volunteering is more common in affluent and rural areas, with people aged 65-74 significantly more likely to volunteer than those aged 25-34. Ongoing research by Ipsos Mori that began in 2014, classified young people aged 10-20 years into three groups based on their past and current involvement in volunteering opportunities and future intent to engage in social action: committed; potential; and reluctant. The committed group had first experienced volunteering before the age of 11, suggesting that early exposure to and education about voluntary roles could be influential in predicting future volunteering behaviour.


Why do some people volunteer more than others?


So, we've got a rough idea of who is more or less likely to volunteer their time but what about the why? Within behavioural science, a simple, yet widely used model to identify key drivers of human behaviour and components to target for behaviour change is the COM-B model. It proposes that, for an individual to engage in a given behaviour, they need sufficient capability, opportunity and motivation to do so.


Capability considers whether an individual has the physical strength, skills and fitness, as well as the appropriate knowledge and education in order to perform a behaviour.  In the context of volunteering, some people may present with health or mobility access concerns that prevent them from engaging with volunteering opportunities. For others, psychological capability is more of a barrier, meaning that they aren't aware of opportunities to volunteer in their local area or that they don't know how to get involved.


Opportunity relates to whether a person or group’s physical environment or social environment affords them the tools and resources necessary to engage in the behaviour. A person who lives in an affluent but rural area that has plenty of volunteering opportunities might lack the appropriate transport to get involved, whereas somebody in a less affluent or urban area has no such transport issues, but fewer social opportunities available in their local area. Other barriers of opportunity might include a lack of time, or not having anybody else to do the volunteering activity with. Research has shown, for example, that people are more likely to volunteer if they have a friend with them.


Finally, motivation considers whether an individual is motivated to perform a particular behaviour, moreso than they are to engage in alternative behaviours. For some people, a gut feeling or desire, also known as automatic motivation, to volunteer to 'make a difference' could be very influential in determining future volunteering behaviour. Somebody else who is unable to see the personal benefits of volunteering or considers any such benefits to be outweighed by negative effects, such as time and potential financial input, is far less likely to volunteer. This is described as reflective motivation.


So, what are the benefits?


Volunteering can have a profound impact on the lives of both the volunteer and the recipient(s) of the volunteering work or activity, but in this case, we are particularly interested in exploring the behaviour of volunteers themselves.


In a study using eight years of data on each participant, researchers examined how volunteering in 2010 was related to subsequent health and well-being in 2014. During the study period, participants who volunteered at least two hours per week (compared to non-volunteers) demonstrated higher levels of happiness, optimism, and purpose as well as having more contact with friends. They also presented with fewer mental health concerns (lower levels of depressive symptoms, hopelessness and loneliness) higher levels of physical activity and fewer perceived physical discomforts and disabilities.


As well as providing people with feelings of satisfaction and even fulfilment, volunteering can also encourage people to reflect on the life that they lead, and the opportunities and support that they have access to, increasing gratitude.


How can we encourage more people to volunteer?


An understanding of behavioural science through frameworks such as MINDSPACE and EAST can be very useful in seeking to overcome barriers to volunteering. When advertising a volunteering opportunity, it is important for a prospective volunteer to feel that their time and effort would be valued and celebrated, and to clearly communicate its myriad benefits, including:

Values: volunteering may align with someone's personal values. This taps into the Ego component of MINDSPACE whereby we act in ways that are consistent with the outward image we want to uphold and values we live by.


Attachment: people are more attracted towards voluntary opportunities that benefit a particular community to which they feel attached or in some way personally connected to. Creating emotional connections (Affect - MINDSPACE) can be particularly powerful in increasing intentions to volunteer.


Self-esteem and personal development: volunteering can boost self-esteem and confidence (Ego - MINDSPACE) as a person can learn and develop practical, social and psychological skills.


Understanding: being a volunteer can help people to gain a better awareness of different ways of life, cultures, and environments.


Routine: making volunteering a part of somebody's normal routine will increase the likelihood they sustain such behaviour. Embedding something within a daily or weekly schedule means it is more likely to become 'default' behaviour (Defaults - MINDSPACE). 


The Sport and Recreational Alliance capture a number of these key principles in their fittingly-named acronym 'GIVERS' that provides six considerations to help organisations recruit and retain volunteers as well as realise their potential: Growth (provide opportunities that foster personal growth; Impact (demonstrate how volunteers are 'making a difference'; Voice (consider how messages are framed and who communicates them); Experiences (consider volunteer needs of easy enrolment and flexibility); Recognition (provide extrinsic motivators/rewards, such as gratitude); Social (highlight how the opportunity enables social connection). For instance, the UK Behavioural Insights team provide a simple, yet effective example of messaging to encourage volunteer sign-ups during the pandemic, which presents taking up one new volunteering behaviour as an easy, desirable and achievable behaviour.


Are you looking to give back to your local community? Maybe you want to meet new people whilst doing something you love, like the hundreds of people breaking up their weekly jogs by planting new trees or sorting cans for a foodbank at GoodGym. To explore volunteering opportunities near you, head to the 'Do it' directory for more information. Join our #socialchangechallenge by sharing your voluntary activity on social media to demonstrate the benefits and inspire others to volunteer too!