Volunteering for All: national framework - literature review

This report outlines a systematic review of the research literature on volunteering.



This report outlines a systematic review of the research literature on volunteering. The purpose of this review is to inform the development of a Volunteering Outcomes Framework to support the critical role that volunteering plays in Scotland for volunteers, beneficiaries and wider communities. 

This literature review is the first element in a programme of analytical and policy research in support of the development of the Volunteering Outcomes Framework by the Scottish Government. The scoping work for the literature review identified that there was a significant body of evidence on volunteering, but that this had not been brought together and applied to the Scottish context.

The review has a broad remit: to include evidence on volunteer characteristics; motivations; activities; benefits; outcomes; barriers; and policies in other countries. It considers research quality, and identifies areas where there are knowledge gaps.

In this review we first provide an overview of the coverage of the papers included in the review. We then describe the papers that were reviewed in more detail in a thematic structure that firstly examines literature that gives insight into the complexity of volunteering with specific attention to different groups, activities and organisations linked to volunteering. 

We have organised the review into four thematic sections:

  • a picture of volunteering; 
  • motivations and barriers; 
  • outcomes and benefits;
  • informal participation and inequalities.

The insights related to motivations, benefits and barriers to volunteering are explored followed by an examination of volunteering outcomes (individual, community and beyond). The literature review finishes with an overarching discussion around participation and equality, looking at inclusiveness, diversity and under-representation in volunteering.

Within each section we identify recommendations for consideration in shaping the Volunteering Outcomes Framework.

Volunteering within the Scottish context

The definition of volunteering held by the Scottish Government includes:

“the giving of time and energy through a third party, which can bring measurable benefits to the volunteer, individual beneficiaries, groups and organisations, communities, environment and society at large. It is a choice undertaken of one's own free will, and is not motivated primarily for financial gain or for a wage or salary.”

The main source of evidence for the scale and characteristics of volunteering in Scotland is drawn from the Scottish Household Survey, which for the past decade has included a robust suite of questions on formal volunteering participation. From this survey we know that levels of volunteering have remained relatively stable over the last nine years, with around three in ten adults providing unpaid help to organisations or groups. In 2017, 28 per cent of adults provided unpaid help to organisations or groups in the last 12 months. Volunteers in Scotland tend to be adults aged 35-44 (33%) and 60-74 (30%), more affluent and with relatively high levels of education (Scottish Government, 2017b). There is also a strong urban rural divide, with participation in some remote rural areas almost double that of large urban areas.

The Scottish Government’s newly reviewed National Performance Framework (NPF) has the overall purpose of building opportunities for all through increased wellbeing through sustainable and inclusive economic growth led by values such as kindness, dignity, compassion and transparency. The third sector in Scotland has a role in supporting the 11 National Outcomes, which include: ‘We live in communities that are inclusive, empowered resilient and safe’; ‘We are well educated, skilled and able to contribute to society’; and ‘We grow up loved, safe and respected so that we realise our full potential’ (see Appendix One for full visualisation). The National outcome focusing on inclusive communities specifically mentions volunteering within its vision:

“We live in friendly, vibrant and cohesive communities which value diversity and support those in need. We are encouraged to volunteer, take responsibility for our community and engage with decisions about it. Our communities are resilient, safe and have low levels of crime”

The Scottish Government recognises the numerous contributions that volunteers make, as carers, providers, mentors, leaders and in many other roles.  Ministers have been clear that they want to continue to support people to volunteer and contribute on the issues that matter to them.  They have also been clear that this is crucial to the wider aim of creating a fairer, smart, inclusive Scotland with genuine equality of opportunity for everyone.  Volunteering in Scotland is already making a crucial contribution to key strategic priorities including Community Empowerment and Public Service Reform - building social capital, fostering trust, binding people together and making our communities better places to live and to work.  

The 2017-18 Programme for Government, A Nation with Ambition (Scottish Government, 2017a), stated the following commitments:

“We will be bold in realising our vision for volunteering and the role volunteers can play in shaping the lives of their communities. Volunteering is transformational: for the volunteer, for the beneficiary and for communities.

We will do more to support groups currently facing barriers to engaging in their communities, including disabled people, older people and people out of work.

Building on positive trends for youth volunteering, we will work with young people throughout the Year of Young People 2018 to better understand opportunities and motivations and ensure young people can contribute on issues that matter to them.” (Scottish Government 2017a: 110)

The 2018-19 Programme for Government, Delivering for today, Investing for Tomorrow (Scottish Government, 2018) builds on these commitments, noting that:

“We have made progress on our drive to increase participation in volunteering across society, building on the growth of youth volunteering during the Year of Young People by investing in the establishment of a National Youth Volunteering Design Team who will make recommendations to the Scottish Government early next year on actions required to grow participation rates. 

We have also invested in the development of our volunteering evidence base and maintained our funding to support third sector organisations to engage with those facing barriers to participation, providing £3.8 million over the period 2017-20 through the Volunteering Support Fund. 

In the coming year we will publish a National Volunteering Outcomes Framework that will set out a coherent and compelling vision for volunteering and identify the key evidence and data to drive an increase in participation for all.” (Scottish Government 2018: 93)

The Scottish Government’s objective in developing the Volunteering Outcomes Framework is to:

  • Set out clearly and in one place a coherent and compelling narrative; 
  • Define the key outcomes desired for volunteering in Scotland;
  • Identify the key data and evidence that will inform, indicate and drive performance at national and local level; and 
  • Allow informed debate and decision about the optimal combination of programmes, investments and interventions. 

The Framework is being developed with the sector and is informed by evidence gathered by the Scottish Government and key delivery and strategic partners, and enriched by a series of internal and external engagements and by specific commissions, including:

  • This literature review
  • The recommendations from the National Youth Volunteering Design Team (now titled the Youth Volunteering Innovation Project [Youth VIP]).

The overall aim of this literature review is to give a comprehensive and robust collation, review and analysis of the available research literature evidence (both qualitative and quantitative) to more thoroughly synthesise and bring this together and evidence the impacts / outcomes brought about by volunteering on individuals, intended beneficiaries, organisations, communities and society.

Summary of Recommendations

Volunteering has clear, well-evidenced benefits to individuals, organisations and communities. But formal volunteering exhibits the social inequalities that we observe in broader society. Tackling these inequalities will require both specific volunteering policy, and recognition of the link between volunteering and broader social policy. Informal volunteering is a significant form of participation, particularly with minority and disadvantaged communities. The focus on formal volunteering (in research and in policy) risks playing down both the scale and significance of informal volunteering, and its role in inclusion. Both acknowledging and supporting the conditions for informal volunteering is likely to be critical in making volunteering more inclusive.

Through the course of the review we make a number of recommendations to inform the development of the Volunteering Outcomes Framework, and these are summarised below.

A Picture of Volunteering

Place is important for volunteering in Scotland, with much higher levels of participation in rural areas than urban areas. We need to understand the drivers behind this difference, as well as whether there are lessons to be learned from communities with high levels of participation. Scotland is experiencing population ageing, as well as significant health inequalities. Healthier older age may increase participation around retirement, but health inequalities could perpetuate differences in participation. Changing life courses will also change participation: e.g. delaying starting families, longer working lives, increased informal care responsibilities. 

Recommendation One: Volunteering is a cultural activity, and the motivations, meaning and factors predicting participation vary across both countries and contexts. Consideration should be given to how both the meaning and context of volunteering may change as the Scottish population changes.

Recommendation Two: Volunteering participation varies through time, and across the lifecourse, although it is often studied as a discrete activity at one point in time. Key transitions from the literature include starting a family, and retirement in older age. Evidence on the significance of other lifecourse transitions is more limited. Consideration should be given to how interventions to encourage participation at one point might also influence participation later in life.

Motivations and Barriers

In Scotland motivations to volunteer will vary by context e.g. urban / rural; community / education. The close links between motivations and place may explain some of the variation in participation across communities, but the research evidence on the role of place is limited.

Attempts to increase participation amongst young people in Scotland have included appealing to the individual benefits of volunteering. The 2017-18 Programme for Government (Scottish Government, 2017a) has a specific focus on younger people volunteering. In focussing on volunteering outcomes, it is tempting to prioritise these benefits, and the evidence suggests that this needs to be carefully considered. Focusing on only benefits may overlook structural barriers to volunteering.

Barriers to volunteering participation reflect wider structures of inequality, and so overcoming them in the Scottish context needs to be linked to wider policy. The National Performance Framework in Scotland has tackling inequality and poverty fully integrated across national outcomes and indicators, showing that it is a key priority. The evidence demonstrates the reliance that volunteering will have on other policy areas in Scotland.

Recommendation Three: There is a rich range of motivations for volunteering, and these are fairly well documented and understood in the literature. The most commonly considered motivations are altruism and personal development, but consideration should be given to the broader spectrum of motivations such as personal values and cultural norms when developing the Framework. We should resist the temptation to focus solely on instrumentalist motivations and routes into volunteering.

Recommendation Four: An important distinction is made between barriers to accessing volunteering, and barriers to continuing to volunteer, and a range of these barriers are well described. Consideration should be given to the ways in which these barriers can be tackled that is sensitive to the motivations and context and lifecourse events in which volunteering takes place.

Outcomes and Benefits

The literature evidence suggests that there are wide and significant benefits for individuals, organisations and communities from volunteering participation. We would expect these benefits to apply to volunteering in Scottish communities. Given the deprivation gradient in volunteering participation in Scotland, we know that the benefits of volunteering are not very equally distributed. We must be careful that support for volunteering in Scotland does not perpetuate these inequalities by only being accessible to those with existing privilege.

Recommendation Five:  It should be acknowledged that the benefits do vary with both activity and context, and benefits are not equally distributed across all volunteering activities. There is a broad evidence base for a wide range of benefits from volunteering, and this will be core to the Framework. 

Recommendation Six: The relatively limited evidence on community-level outcomes suggests that volunteering has potential to support the development of social networks, solidarity and mutual help within communities, and increasing both bonding and bridging social capital. These outcomes should be related to national outcomes around building resilient and inclusive communities.

Recommendation Seven: The evidence on broader organisational and community outcomes suggests potential for volunteering to have positive impacts, but is limited in its estimation of the scale of those benefits. The Framework needs to recognise that there are wider benefits, but that measuring or quantifying these is very challenging.

Recommendation Eight: An underlying assumption in the literature is that volunteering has positive outcomes. This means that there is relatively little study of potentially negative outcomes. Consideration should be given to how potential negative outcomes are incorporated and mitigated in the Framework. Potential negative outcomes can be challenged by including positive support structures for volunteering participation, encouragement of good volunteering management practices, and a focus on increasing the accessibility for currently under-represented groups within the volunteering sector.

Informal participation and inequalities

Given the focus to date on formal volunteering in both policy and measurement, there is a risk in privileging formal forms of participation. Informal volunteering may be seen as a route to formal volunteering in Scotland, but this could risk devaluing it as an important form of participation in its own right. The new Scottish Household Survey questions on informal volunteering, introduced in 2018, will provide valuable additional evidence on these patterns in Scotland. Exploring the contribution of informal volunteering can give more light to certain activities and groups that have been traditionally undervalued. 

Understanding the structural barriers to participation in Scotland for disadvantaged groups, and how these are influenced by both local and national policy, will be critical if volunteering is to play an effective role in decreasing social inequality. Tackling inequality is a priority in the 2017-18 Programme for Government (Scottish Government, 2017a) and is an essential component of creating sustainable and resilient communities. Informal volunteering has potential to play a significant role in widening voluntary participation in Scotland. Its lower reliance on human capital means that it can be an accessible form of participation for disadvantaged groups. But it still requires social capital, in the form of strong, connected communities in order to play this role.

Recommendation Nine: Informal volunteering is an important form of participation for traditionally excluded or disadvantaged groups. Its lower visibility means that participation amongst these groups is also less visible. The Framework needs to consider ways in which informal volunteering can be recognised and included, without implying a hierarchy in forms of participation.

Recommendation Ten: Informal volunteering is distinct from formal volunteering in its activities, participants, motivations, benefits and outcomes. Where there are evidence gaps, we should not assume that these are the same as for formal volunteering. Consideration should be given to taking these distinctions into account within the Framework.

Recommendation Eleven: When successful, volunteering can build social capital[1] and connections both within and between communities. The limited evidence on informal volunteering suggests that it has an important role in these outcomes, and the Framework should consider ways in which this can be supported.

Recommendation Twelve: There remain distinct barriers and challenges for disadvantaged groups in participating in volunteering. The importance of culture and context in participation accentuate these. Consideration should be given to the diversity of both volunteering and volunteers in the development of the Framework.


Email: socialresearch@gov.scot

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