Public Release: 

Doing one's duty: Why people volunteer in a deprived community

Economic & Social Research Council

In recent years the government has been pushing volunteering as a way of reconnecting people with the labour market. However, in a recent study published today and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, researchers argue that this understanding is too narrow. Most people volunteer to make a difference in the community rather than for career development.

While many volunteers may describe what they do as work, there are some key distinctions. Not least the fact that many volunteers are beyond the labour market - for reasons of age, disability or care responsibilities. Policy focused on volunteering as training for the labour market risks excluding and discouraging those who can't work.

The study found that volunteering plays a valuable role in developing social capital within communities. Volunteering enhances the levels of active citizenship and community spirit in an area and helps people build up a sense of belonging to a place.

On a personal level volunteering also develops an individual's self-confidence and provides a structure for their lives - getting them out of the house and interacting within the community. While being driven by different motivations, volunteering provides the sense of meaning and identity that many people find in a satisfying job.

The study was carried out by Professor Irene Hardill from Nottingham Trent University and Dr Susan Baines from Newcastle University. They employed an innovative and detailed methodology to spend extended periods of time interviewing and working alongside four different groups of volunteers and programme organisers in one of the most deprived areas of the English Midlands.

The researchers identified four main motivations for volunteering:

  1. Mutual aid - people volunteered to help those within their own community. They want to put something back;
  2. Philanthropy - people from outside the community volunteered out of a sense of altruism. They felt fortunate and wanted to make a difference;
  3. 'Getting by' - people volunteered in reaction to a personal need or as a result of an individual life event like retirement or bereavement. This is volunteering as a form of self-help;
  4. 'Getting on' - people who volunteer as a way of developing new skills and experiences that are valued in the labour market. This is volunteering to get a job or for career development.

In successive government policy initiatives like the New Deal and Sure Start New Labour have been steadily pushing volunteering as a way of 'getting on' in the labour market. The government believes that volunteering offers opportunities to develop skills and credentials, and to foster a work ethic.

However, this study found that this type of motivation was the least common amongst those they interviewed and worked with. Instead, most volunteers want to make a difference out of an ethic of care - expressed as mutual aid or philanthropy. Fewer people volunteer for career development than the government might expect.



Professor Irene Hardill at Nottingham Trent University, on 078 1607 0615/0115 848 5593 or Or Alexandra Saxon or Annika Howard at ESRC, on 01793 413032/413119 email,


  1. The research project, 'Doing one's duty: a case study of volunteering in a deprived community' was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Professor Irene Hardill is at Nottingham Trent University, in the College of Business, Law and the Social Sciences.
  2. This project gathered a great deal of interest from local government, the local MP, local businesses and the voluntary sector. Over forty people attended the end of project dissemination seminar.
  3. Methodology: Working in one of the most deprived regions in the country, the researchers carried out a series of life history interviews and focus groups with 27 volunteers and in-depth interviews with 13 local stakeholders. Thanks to the openness of the organisations they worked with they were able to systematically observe volunteering in action. Using an innovative methodology they also collected documentary and photographic evidence to record the places and events they witnessed. To preserve the anonymity of the research subjects and voluntary organisations the location of the study has not been revealed.
  4. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It provides independent, high quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC total expenditure in 2005-06 was £135 million. At any time, the ESRC supports more than 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and research policy institutes. More at .
  5. The ESRC confirms the quality of its funded research by evaluating research projects through a process of peer review. This research has been graded as 'good'.
  6. Nottingham Trent University is a large, diverse and vibrant modern university with around 25,500 students. Its mission is to deliver education and research that shapes lives and society and in doing so the university offers a strong course portfolio designed to meet the needs of both students and industry. The university has the third highest number of year-long placements out of all UK HEI's through its working partnerships with more than 6,000 businesses and private sector organisations (HESA Student Record 2003-04)

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