Volunteering and its Effects on Social Capital and Wellbeing in the UK: Insights from the United Kingdom Household Longitudinal Study

Year of publication
Stuart Fox, Cardiff University

This report uses data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study (UKHLS) to examine three important elements of contemporary research and policy interest in volunteering in the UK: the rates of volunteering across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland; the benefits of volunteering for mental health and wellbeing; and the benefits of volunteering for social capital. The report was designed in collaboration between the author and colleagues from Volunteer Scotland, the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, and the Welsh Government. The research was funded by the UK Household Longitudinal Study and the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research, Data and Methods (WISERD) as part of the Social Action as a Route to the Ballot Box project (https://wiserd.ac.uk/research/research-projects/social-action-route-ballot-box-volunteering-and-turnout).


  • The analyses repeatedly show that there are few differences between the four nations of the UK in terms of volunteering rates, the frequencies with which people typically volunteer, or the relationship between volunteering and other characteristics (such as age, gender, social status, wellbeing or social capital).

  • Being asked to volunteer is often the most important determinant of whether someone actually volunteers, more than socio-economic status.

  • Volunteering correlates strongly with a number of factors, but causation is complex to interpret and often appears to work in both directions, and reinforce effects.

  • People who are members of at least one community association (including sports clubs, parents’ associations, religious organisations, environmental organisations, trade unions and women’s organisations) are significantly more likely to volunteer than those who are not, although this could work in both directions.

  • The data suggests that volunteering increases neighbourhood cohesion, but only by a small amount.

  • The analyses of the relationship between volunteering and social capital (measured in terms of membership of community associations, neighbourhood cohesion and neighbourhood connection) showed that volunteering can increase social capital - while there is clear evidence that those who chose to volunteer are more likely to have higher levels of social capital to begin with, it is however also clear that those who volunteered (regardless of their social capital to begin with) were likely to generate more social capital as a result.

  • The downside is that people with little social capital are less likely to volunteer in the first place.

  • Consequences of volunteering for wellbeing: the report explores the longitudinal data, and finds that wellbeing scores are indeed higher for those who volunteered in the previous year than those who did not, and that while there are differences in WEMWS score depending on the frequency of volunteering, these are generally smaller than the difference between those who volunteered and those who did not. However, the author also notes that the data cannot tell us anything about respondents’ WEMWS scores before they chose to volunteer, and it may be that those people with better mental wellbeing in general are perhaps more likely to volunteer. The UKLHS suggests that this may in fact be the case, as comparison of volunteer versus non-volunteer WEMSW scores show that while volunteers have consistently higher scores, these do not change over time - the data does not suggest a positive effect from volunteering on wellbeing. Subjective Wellbeing Scale data also shows this pattern - volunteering was positively associated with wellbeing, but though volunteering can result in a small increase in wellbeing, those who regularly volunteered typically had better wellbeing to start with than those who did not. There is no evidence that volunteering had a sustained, positive impact on the wellbeing of volunteers, regardless of their wellbeing before they decided to volunteer.

  • The report also explores young people's volunteering and political engagement. The report highlights a number of 'causality conundrums': "Does volunteering make people more interested in politics, is it being interested in politics that makes people more likely to volunteer, is there no causal link between the two and are they instead the result of being raised by politically active parents, or is the reality some combination of the three? This ‘causality conundrum’ applies to many of the
    characteristics that are associated with volunteering, such as social capital (does volunteering lead to more social capital or do people with more social capital volunteer?), economic success (does volunteering make people more employable or does the fact that they were raised in a middle class household and did well at school make them more likely to both volunteer and get a good job?) and improved health (does volunteering improve mental wellbeing or are people prepared to donate their time and volunteer if they have good mental health?)".

Read online