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Adaptive, inclusive volunteering - what we’ve learned from our volunteering funds

As part of Volunteers' Week, our head of volunteering blogs about what we've learned from the latest evaluation report on our 2017 volunteering funding streams - the potentials and opportunities funds.

04th June 2021

by Kristen Natale
Head of volunteering, Sport England

Since November 2017 projects from our Volunteering Fund projects have recruited more than 7,000 volunteers, who have given an amazing 169,463 hours of their time to help people and communities be more active.

Our new interim report published today tells the story of the impact the 36 investments have on volunteers and the wider community. A huge contribution to celebrate this Volunteers’ Week!

The report, in partnership with CFE Research, highlights the importance of being able to adapt volunteering opportunities and the value of this in making volunteering more inclusive. This flexibility also helped projects to adapt in response to the significant challenges posed by the pandemic.

Here we share some of the insights, with key points highlighted in bold.

Adapting and responding to coronavirus

Social distancing and lockdowns had a huge impact on project delivery and on the volunteers involved.

They posed many logistical challenges and often the type of volunteering and physical activity that could take place was limited.

But projects were creative in their approach to adapting their delivery to meet these challenges. This willingness to be flexible ensured they were able to continue to support volunteers and that activity could continue where it was safe to do so. For some this meant smaller groups of volunteers or changing setting where volunteering could take place.

Running activities remotely, using online technology, was an important way for many projects to maintain contact with volunteers and provide extra support where needed – it also helped mitigate the negative impact of the pandemic on mental health and wellbeing. Some volunteers even found taking part online less intimidating and were more willing to try out new things. 

Projects engaging young people described how they’d made the most of social media, sharing activity challenges and inspiring others to get active in their homes or gardens.

Some young people who didn’t usually have the confidence to lead activity sessions face-to-face were more comfortable doing this online and this, in some cases, allowed projects to be successful in engaging young people who hadn’t volunteered before.

Projects were also mindful that access to online activities and using technology could also present barriers to others who lacked digital skills or equipment and offered alternatives like a phone call.   Paper versions of resources or activity packs were delivered to houses in some cases, so that people without access to a computer could still take part.

With their organisations at the heart of the community, projects were well placed to redirect their efforts to help support local people during the pandemic. Some volunteers supported the distribution of PPE – making deliveries to those self-isolating – and helped with opening foodbanks.

Since November 2017 projects from our Volunteering Fund projects have recruited more than 7,000 volunteers, who have given an amazing 169,463 hours of their time.

The legacy of coronavirus

Now restrictions are easing, most projects are planning to return to in-person delivery but the value of using online platforms to improve connectivity between staff, partners and volunteers is something many are looking to continue, or to introduce a blended offer because of its potential to reach more people. 

Prior to the pandemic, some groups hadn’t used tools like Zoom or Teams before but have now realised the benefits of using them regularly for volunteer chats and want to continue to use this as an effective way of engaging and connecting with volunteers across a larger geographical area.

Designing inclusive Volunteering opportunities

Many projects are focused on engaging volunteers that face additional barriers to volunteering, including people with mental health issues, a disability or impairment – or just those who hadn’t volunteered before and lacked confidence.

Consultation and co-design with volunteers were critical to ensure inclusivity was at the heart of what was being done – be that project design, recruitment or delivery.

As well as consulting with volunteers, projects also worked with partner organisations to gain further knowledge and guidance to influence their approach.

The full report provides practical examples of the inclusive approaches applied by projects that were nuanced to their specific target audiences. 


The ‘ADAPT’ inclusion framework brings together the good practice that can make a difference.


Ask the target audience facing barriers to volunteering how they can be supported.


Design volunteering opportunities with these barriers in mind.


Alter existing volunteering opportunities with these barriers in mind.


Partner with other organisations to gain additional insight or to support them to develop their own practice e.g. community groups and charities.


Train staff and volunteers with the skills they need.

The framework highlights the importance of adapting the approach depending on the target audience and designing opportunities to address the barriers to volunteering people might face.

We’ve learned that this needs to be a continuous process throughout the life of a volunteering project and this was especially apparent when faced with the challenges and uncertainty of a pandemic.

The new report provides more practical examples of how projects working with different target audiences applied these approaches.

We hope the practical examples and the inclusion framework will be useful to help inform how we and our partners embed incisive approaches to volunteering in the future, and to help tackle inequalities in sport and physical activity – which is a key focus of our new strategy.

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