So what is the definition of volunteering?

It turns out I don’t really know. The definition of volunteering is a widely discussed concept within the available literature; however there are many definitions, each of which varies at least slightly. With no agreed definition of volunteering, the task of analysing attitudes to volunteering, and volunteering behaviours, becomes a lot more difficult.

Some of the questions I have been grappling with are: Can you define something as volunteering if there is a financial incentive?  Are you engaged in voluntary work if your volunteering is not done through an organisation, but, for example, is time spent looking after a neighbour? This is something the Third Sector Research Centre refer to as informal volunteering (see John Mohan and Sarah Bulloch’s working paper no. 73  What if you have not chosen to volunteer, but have been coerced into doing it, for example as an expected addition to your paid employment or as a state benefit requirement? Without free will, or choice, is this still volunteering?

A colleague, Anjelica Finnegan pointed out the definition within New Labour’s Compact Code of Good Practice on Volunteering published in 2005, which was adopted by organisations, such as Volunteering England and Reach:

‘An activity that involves spending time, unpaid, doing something that aims to benefit the environment or individuals or groups other than (or in addition to) close relatives’ (Home Office, 2005)

This gives a broad, inclusive definition of volunteering. However I found the exclusion of close relatives from this definition interesting.

Is there an expectation that close relatives should be looked after by family members?  Is this a duty rather than a voluntary act?  Will all people be equally willing/likely to do this?  Looking after a close relative tends to be defined as ‘caring’ rather than volunteering.  But if relatives feel they have no choice but to ‘care’ for a family member, care does not seem the most appropriate term.

If you ‘care’ for a close friend that you’ve known for many years, can this be defined as an act of volunteering? Or is this ‘caring’? Does the definition depend on the motivation of the volunteer? How do recipients conceptualise the ‘care’ that they receive? Would they rather pay for, and have control over that ‘care’?  At a time of contraction in public services these feel like very pertinent questions.  These emerging issues would be really interesting to explore.  Your views on how I might approach this would be most welcome 🙂

Liz Metcalfe


Home Office (2005). ‘Volunteering: Compact Code of Good Practice’. London: Home Office

Mohan, J and Bulloch, S. (2012). John Mohan and Sarah Bulloch’s working paper no. 73: The idea of a ‘civic core’: what are the overlaps between charitable giving, volunteering, and civic participation in England and Wales? Working paper no. 73:


The history of The Compact

The compact code of good practice:

Volunteering England:

Reach skilled volunteers:


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