Promoting and managing volunteers in sports

Research impact case study by Dr Geoff Nichols.

Referee on football field

Dr Nichols’ main research interests are volunteers in sports clubs and events, the management of sports clubs run by volunteers and the volunteering legacy of sports events. Recent research has included the volunteering legacy of the 2002 Commonwealth Games, a national survey of sports clubs in the UK for the Sports and Recreation Alliance, research into how sports clubs recruit new members for Sport England, and the experience of volunteers at the London Olympic Games 2012.

Since 2009 Dr Nichols has chaired the Sports Volunteering Research Network. The network aims to facilitate the interchange of information, ideas and practice in the research of sport volunteers; especially between researchers and practitioners.

Underpinning research

In 2011, Dr Nichols completed work on a European Year of Volunteering (EYV) funded project to identify, develop and promote guidelines for good practice for sports clubs in the process by which new volunteers from outside sport can be matched to sport volunteering opportunities in the club. This revised the previous view of the balance between a ‘programme management’ and ‘membership management’ approach and applied the concept of the psychological contract to understanding volunteers’ expectations. This research was conducted with a team from the Sport Industry Research Centre at Sheffield Hallam University.

He was also a member of the teams conducting national surveys of sports volunteers for Sport England in 1996 and 2002, and a national survey of sports clubs for the Sports and Recreation Alliance in 2009. These surveys provided a clear and significant picture of the scale of sports volunteering in England, and the challenges faced by volunteers. One of Dr Nichols’ research projects looked closely at the volunteering legacy from the 2002 Commonwealth Games, Manchester, through a case-study of an organisation called the Manchester Event Volunteers (MEV) – probably the longest running ‘mega-event volunteer legacy programme’ in the world. The report which emerged from this study was directed towards policy makers in local and national government, volunteer development projects, event managers and academics.

Since 2002, MEV has directed volunteers towards over 1,000 events with their associated contribution to tourism and the region’s economy. Volunteers commit to an average of 5.7 events per year, and the ability to choose which and how many events they volunteer for allows MEV to meet the needs of volunteers in a wide set of circumstances. MEV makes it easy for event managers to recruit a trained and reliable workforce, and has contributed to the attraction of Manchester for such events.

For volunteers seeking work, MEV offers valued experience – extending to assistance with providing information on job opportunities, advice on CV writing and interviews, and providing a sense of purpose, encouragement and confidence through periods of unemployment.


Dr Nichols’ work with MEV led to a comprehensive report, ‘Manchester Event Volunteers: A legacy and a Role Model’ written with Rita Ralston at Manchester Metropolitan University. It has been used by the legacy manager for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games 2014, as well as by staff at Manchester City Council to make a case for a continued volunteer development and coordination service at a time of significant financial cuts.

Kristian Dodsworth, MEV manager (2012), said: “Things have changed that much in the last year or so within the city council that MEV is probably the only thing that has stayed constant. Due to the change in the economic climate volunteering is high on the agenda and with the formation of the new volunteer centre this has now taken priority within my new role.

“MEV has been instrumental in this process as one of the partners who sat on the Volunteering Task Group to create and develop a good quality service for Manchester. Probably one of the fundamental impacts the research has shown is the real need for such a project and the benefit it can have not only on the volunteers, but organisations and the economy.”

Dr Nichols’ work with MEV identified a number of wide-ranging benefits for people associated with the organisation, including: Events managers valuing volunteers’ experience and training; developing employability in volunteers; contributing to society – an overall rewarding feeling and a broader contribution to social inclusion.

Further research

More recently Dr Nichols has studied the experience of volunteers at the 2012 Olympic Games; the provision of volunteers by local Ambassador programmes to support visitors away from the main 2012 Olympic venues; the impact of Sport England’s Clubmark accreditation scheme on sports clubs and the impact on mountain rescue teams of increased demand from the police to assist in searches in non-mountainous areas. His present work is examining the practice of transferring the delivery of local government leisure services to volunteers.

Academic collaborators: Rita Ralston (formerly Manchester Metropolitan University), Peter Taylor (Sport Industry Research Centre at Sheffield Hallam University)
Business/Organisation involvement and collaboration: Coachwise, Glasgow City Council, Manchester City Council, Manchester Event Volunteers (MEV), Sport England, the Sports and Recreation Alliance (SARA), Sport Volunteer Research Network
Funding: European Year of Volunteering (EYV), Knowledge Transfer Grant, Sport England, the Sports and Recreation Alliance (SARA)

Relevant publications:

Management of sports volunteers:

Nichols, G., Tacon, R. and Muir, A. (2013) Sports Clubs’ Volunteers: Bonding In or Bridging Out? Sociology 47: 350-367.

Nichols, G. (2012) The psychological contract of volunteers – a new research agenda, Voluntas. []

Taylor, P, Nichols, G, and Sport Industry Research Centre, Sheffield Hallam University. (2011) Recruiting volunteers from outside your club.

Schulz, J., Nichols, G. and Auld, C. (2011) Issues in the management of voluntary sports organisations and volunteers. In B. Houlihan and M. Green eds. 432-445. Handbook of Sports Development. Routledge: London.

Nichols, G and Ojala, E. (2009) Understanding the management of sports events volunteers through psychological contract theory. Voluntas International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations 20 (4) 369 – 387.

The volunteering legacy of mega-sports events:

Nichols, G. and Ralston, R. (2012) The rewards of individual engagement in volunteering – a missing dimension of the Big Society. Environment and Planning A. 44 (12). 2974 – 2987

Nichols, G. and Ralston R. (2011) Social inclusion through volunteering – a potential legacy of the 2012 Olympic Games. Sociology. 45 (5) 900-914.

Nichols, G. and Ralston R. (2011) Lessons from the Volunteering Legacy of the 2002 Commonwealth Games. Urban Studies. Volume 49 Issue 1 January 2012 pp. 165 - 180. doi: 10.1177/0042098010397400]

Nichols, G. and Ralston, R. (2011) Manchester Event Volunteers: a role model and a legacy. University of Sheffield Management School []

The scope of volunteers in sport and the challenges they face:

Nichols, G., Taylor, P., Barrett, D. and Jeanes, R. (2013) Youth sport volunteers in England: a paradox between reducing the state and promoting a Big Society. Sport Management Review.
Published online at:

Nichols, G., Padmore, J., Taylor, P. and Barrett, D. (2012 ) The relationship between types of sports club and English government policy to grow participation, International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics 4 (2) 187 – 200.

Taylor, P, Panagouleas, T. and Nichols, G. (2012) Determinants of sports volunteering and sports volunteer time in England, International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics 4 (2) 201 – 220

Taylor, P., Barrett, D. and Nichols, G. (2009) Survey of sports clubs 2009. London: CCPR.

Nichols, G., Taylor, P., James, M., Holmes, K., King, L., and Garrett, R. (2005) Pressures on the UK sports sector. Voluntas, 16 (1) 33 - 50.

Nichols, G., Taylor, P., James, M., King, L., Holmes, K. and Garrett, R. (2003) Pressures on sports volunteers arising from partnerships with central government. Loisir et societe / Society and Leisure 26 (2) 419-430.

Taylor, P., Nichols, G., Holmes, K., James, M., Gratton, C., Garrett, R., Kokolakakis, T., Mulder, C. and King, L. (2003) Sports Volunteering in England London: Sport England.

Shibli, S., Nichols, G., Taylor, P., Gratton, C. and Kokolakakis, T. The characteristics of volunteers in UK sports clubs. European Journal of Sports Management, special issue, 10-27, (1999).

Nichols, G., Gratton, C., Shibli, S., and Taylor, P. Local authority support to volunteers in sports clubs. Managing Leisure: an International Journal, 3 (3), 119-127, (1998).

Gratton, C. Nichols, G. Shibli, S and Taylor, P. Valuing volunteers in UK sport. London: Sports Council. pp. 160, (1997).

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