Volunteering for All: national framework - literature review

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

A picture of volunteering

We begin our in-depth review by describing a picture of volunteering in the 21st Century. This section explores the papers and evidence that relate to the definition, activities and organisations related to volunteering.

Volunteering: Who, What and Where?

Groups and organisations

Figure 2: Groups, clubs or organisations

Figure 2: Groups, clubs or organisations

“Health, disability and wellbeing” and “local community or neighbourhood” were the most evidenced types of group, clubs or organisations included in the literature, followed by “youth or children’s activities outside school”, “religion and belief”, and “physical activity, sport and exercise”. This maps well to the common types of organisations where people volunteer in Scotland (Scottish Household Survey, 2017), which included ‘children’s activities associated with schools’, ‘youth or children’ organisations, and ‘local community or neighbourhood groups’. This indicated a large interest in physical and mental health in community based settings (Charlesworth et al., 2017; Daniels, Sanders, Daviaud, & Doherty, 2015; Warburton & Winterton, 2017; Whittall, Lee, & O'Connor, 2016).  Sport clubs volunteering was also a popular area for examination (Bradford, Hills, & Johnston, 2016; Taylor, Panagouleas, & Nichols, 2012; Yeomans, Le, Pandit, & Lavy, 2017). Groups, clubs and organisations relating to animal welfare, trade unions, justice and human rights were covered by only one publication each included in the review.

Publications that explored multiple volunteering groups, clubs or organisations included Ertas (2016) looking at sector differences and implications with Millennials and volunteering. Akintola (2011) noted many groups and organisations involved in motivations behind volunteering with AIDS caregivers in faith-based organisations in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. 

Interestingly, some of the research challenged traditional types of groups, clubs and organisations. Amichai-Hamburger (2008) explored the potential and promise of online volunteering. This study presents a narrative literature review into online volunteering in a variety of situations, arguing for its potential in ‘harnessing of the Internet to increase social justice and human well-being through unpaid volunteer work’. However, the depth and quality of the paper is limited, and this type of volunteering and evidence of its expansion into traditional volunteering domains remains restricted.

Volunteering activities

Insights from publications that examined groups, clubs or organisations are also interlinked to volunteer activities. From those reviewed, 75 papers did not specifically mention activities related to volunteering.  38 publications did identify specific volunteering activities. Activities such as providing advice, support or advocacy, education, training or coaching to develop people’s skills were most represented in the publications (note that 1 paper can mention multiple groups), shown in Figure 3.  Activities around campaigning, counselling and “acting as a committee member or as a trustee” were less represented in the review. These differed somewhat from the most common volunteering activities reported in the Scottish Household Survey (Scottish Government, 2017b), which were generally helping out; raising money; doing whatever is required; helping to organise or run events or activities; and committee work.

Figure 3: Volunteering Activities

Figure 3: Volunteering Activities

Activities related to working with charities and faith-based organisations were a common theme in the publications (Body & Hogg, 2018; Caputo, 2009; Darley, 2018; Flores, 2014; Kay & Bradbury, 2009). 

Similarly to volunteering groups, clubs and organisations, specific activities within the publications are often not outlined in detail and are implicit in the analysis that is usually more focused on volunteer characteristics, participation, outcomes and motivations behind volunteering. 

Volunteering location and setting

There were limited publications that identified where the volunteering activities took place (other than country). From our full text reviews we noted 85 of the papers did not indicate the location in which volunteering took place, and only 29 publications explicitly described the setting. From these (shown in Table 7), we found a dominance of research based in non-administrative organisational / institutional premises and other indoor community settings (public or semi-public). 

Table 7: Volunteering locations

Volunteering locations No. of papers
Service-user’s own home 4
Volunteer’s own home 1
Administrative organisational / institutional settings, e.g. local or head offices 3
Exclusively outdoor community-based settings, e.g. gardens, parks 6
Exclusively outdoor non-community settings, e.g. National Parks, Sites of Special Scientific Interest, etc. 5
Other not listed above 3

The publications specifically examining locations give interesting insight to the role of place in supporting and challenging volunteer activities. Flores (2014) explored charity shop settings, noting that certain locations and settings such as these can be linked to the development and receipt of compassion in the practice of care. The article analyses charity shop volunteering in the UK as an instance of individual commitment towards organisations devoted to combating suffering, as ‘some respondents found in volunteer work a way of regaining meaning, structure and belonging after experiences of social dislocation such as retirement and bereavement’. A setting or organisation can facilitate relational processes, exchanges and support. 

Davies, Lockstone-Binney, and Holmes (2018) take a rarer look at volunteering in rural places and why people volunteer by presenting over 6,000 survey responses from the non-retired population in Australia. The survey highlighted a high rate of volunteering in rural communities but also a high rate of out-migration. Crouch et al. (2017) also look at rural-urban differences in unpaid care-giving. Outlining an analysis of the 'Caregiving in the U.S. 2015', survey in a national examination of rural caregivers, they ‘indicate differing cultural values in rural and urban respondents, rather than better health among rural caregivers’. 

In the international comparative studies that were reviewed, place and location was an important comparitor in volunteering activities and motivations. Gronlund et al. (2011) in a high quality, comprehensive quantitative study comparing student motivation to volunteering across 13 countries noted that structural and cultural factors influence volunteerism, as do values and norms linked to the differences between North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia Pacific regions.

The conclusion from the review is that the setting and environment where volunteer activity is taking place is important. Studies that considered and examined this show community, regional and international variations in volunteering. However, many publications do not take place and setting into consideration within their analysis, and this remains a gap in the literature. Specifically, evidence based in service-users own homes, and volunteer’s homes remains a gap in the literature. 

Factors associated with volunteering participation

The review indicates a dynamic and complex variety of factors that are inter-related to volunteering. These are mainly focused on gender, employment, wealth, education and social capital. For comparison, the Scottish Household Survey (Scottish Government, 2017b) suggests that in Scotland volunteers are more likely to be women; from higher socio-economic and income groups; from rural areas; and from less deprived areas.

A study using cross-national data from the European Value Survey (including the UK) found that gender, civil status, household composition, educational level, working status and income were significantly related to volunteering (Gil-Lacruz, Marcuello, & Saz-Gil, 2017). More specifically, regarding the gender difference, men were more likely to volunteer in professional and political, as well as education and leisure activities; whereas women were more likely to be involved in social justice activities. Further, this study highlighted the importance of social factors at national level, finding that the size of community, social attitudes, values, social capital and reciprocity were associated with individuals’ decisions to engage in voluntary work. 

Also using data from the European Value Survey but focusing exclusively on Denmark, Frederiksen, Henriksen, and Qvist (2014) found that socio-economic variables, including education, employment status, health and urbanisation, were associated with volunteering. More specifically, people with low education, unemployed, with poor health and living in urban areas were less likely to volunteer compared with their more privileged counterparts. Further, it was found the gaps in the likelihood of volunteering between groups tend to be decreasing over time between 1990 and 2008, which the authors attributed to the changes in the structural preconditions, expanding educational achievement and economic prosperity in particular. The same study also found that perceived importance of politics and post-materialist values were positively associated with volunteering, but these relationships remained stable over time. This study also confirmed that men were more likely to volunteer in Denmark.

Drawing data from the General Social Survey 2000, Warburton and Stirling (2007) found that social capital variables and health were significantly associated with volunteering among older people. However, they did not find any evidence that gender, employment status, marital status or income were related to volunteering. 

Another study using cross-national data from 17 countries, including Great Britain, found that people with low education were less likely to volunteer consistently, but the educational differences varied significantly across countries (Gesthuizen & Scheepers, 2012). The authors argued the observed educational effect could be explained partially by differences in cognitive competence, job status and worldview. Moreover, it was found that the educational differences depended on country level variables. For example, in countries with a larger cognitive gap between the lower and intermediated educated, the educational difference in volunteering was also larger. Their findings highlighted the importance of national policies in influencing volunteering. Interestingly, a study of volunteering among Spanish children and young people found that the most influential factors were parental volunteering and paternal educational level (Garcia Mainar, Marcuello Servos, & Saz Gil, 2015). 

Using English data, Dawson and Downward (2013) focused on sport volunteering, finding that increasing age, being single, having children under the age of 6 years old, keeping house, being in full-time work, having recently moved into the area, general watching TV reduced the likelihood of sport volunteering and the time spent volunteering; whereas being a man, having a higher educational level and income, good health, and watching sport were associated with a higher likelihood of sport volunteering and longer volunteering time. Moreover, their findings suggested that participation in sports and sport volunteering were complementary rather than substitutes for each other, which were both linked to factors such as sporting tastes. Thus, it was important to acknowledge the interdependence of these two activities. 

Again focusing on sport volunteering, Taylor et al. (2012) found that people most likely to volunteer in sports and to spend more time volunteering in sports were people with more than one car in the household; people with higher levels of dissatisfaction with local sports provision; men; people with children in the household (but the youngest older than 5 years). People who had higher rates of volunteering in sports (but no effect of volunteering time was found) were those of white British ethnicity, higher levels of education qualifications, on higher income, and those who owned their houses. People who were less likely to volunteer and volunteered less time were women, those with children 0–5 years old in the household and people of Asian ethnicity. 

A study of Japanese older adults found that female older people who had lived in the community longer, those residing in a single household, actively participating in hobbies or adult education, not working and reporting better self-rated health were more likely to participate in volunteer activities (Lee, Saito, Takahashi, & Kai, 2008). There were no specific correlations for men.

In looking at a set of slightly different factors, British female hospice volunteers scored significantly lower on neuroticism, and significantly higher on agreeableness and conscientiousness compared with both American and British adult females (Claxton-Oldfield, Claxton-Oldfield, & Paulovic, 2013). Another study which also looked at personality traits found that two facets of personality, extraversion and emotional stability, could be central in determining if people do or do not volunteer and, if they did, extraversion might predict how many different groups they participate in (Village & Francis, 2010).

Looking at volunteer tourism, Bailey and Russell (2012) reported that volunteer participants had unique characteristics compared with non-participants. They reported higher levels of civic engagement, civic attitude, openness, compassion, cognitive drive and reflectivity. 

In summary, most studies take into consideration gender in their analysis of volunteering but they give a mixed picture. Assumptions around the characteristics of volunteers (such as the likelihood of them being female, older and wealthier) are challenged by the international literature that breaks down categorisations to show that in some countries (such as Denmark) men are more likely to volunteer. There are clearly differentiations between gender and where people volunteer (studies showing women are more likely to be involved in health sectors and men more likely to be involved in sport and leisure orientated volunteering for example). An interesting thread through the above literature is the factors relating to community links and social capital. Education was also a very important theme, with formal volunteers more likely to have higher education levels. Therefore, the factors affecting volunteering are context specific and dependent on cultural context. Studies looking at wider factors, such as ‘conscientiousness’ and ‘compassion’ were rarer but interesting in creating a more in-depth picture of volunteering. 

Routes to volunteering

Understanding the routes into volunteering is of keen interest to both researchers and volunteer-involving organisations. Several papers touched on this topic. The examination of routes into volunteering was linked often with specific groups of volunteers. The differences in routes into volunteering between different groups were consistently highlighted. 

For example, Wilson, Mirchandani, and Shenouda (2017) noted that the main recruitment of older volunteers was by recommendation. However, they argued this approach might not be as effective to recruit younger volunteers as they were less likely to be embedded in a social network of current volunteers. 

Focusing on structural factors, Dean (2014) is critical of the policy focus on three main approaches to encouraging young people to volunteer, including: 

a) macro-level government policies that promote volunteering as a pathway to employment and which side-line citizenship and critical community engagement; 

b) specific volunteering programmes that reward short-term, instrumentalised commitments; 

c) operational volunteer brokerage strategies that see volunteering as an experience to be sold to young people in exchange for private benefits to them.

With regards to labour and work-related routes, the availability of community volunteering tended to both increase individual volunteering and also influence some labour force participation decisions, particularly those of working age women (Neymotin, 2016). A study of middle-aged and older Americans found that individuals transitioning between work and retirement were more likely to be involved in volunteering compared to the not-retired (Tang, 2016). It was also reported that partial and full retirees were more likely to start volunteering, but full retirees were also more likely to disengage from volunteering compared to the non-retired. The author advised that volunteer organisations could target older adults and the newly retired who have time and social connections with the workforce (the study sample was those aged 51-74). 

However, based on analyses of German longitudinal data, Erlinghagen (2010) argued that the impact of entering retirement is over-stated, which is not as important as past volunteering experience in promoting engagement in voluntary work among older people. Therefore, he questioned the effectiveness of activation programmes that were targeted directly at older people, suggesting it would be more appropriate first to win over young adults to engage in voluntary work, because that would greatly increase the chances that they would continue or resume such activities when they were much older.

A study of volunteers in a university community garden found that social connections played an important role in engaging and keeping individuals involved in volunteering activities; and regular communication through email and social media was also found as a key enabler to engagement (Anderson, Maher, & Wright, 2018).

A study of college students in India reported that the opportunity to volunteer for religious institutions and as mentors were positively associated with volunteering frequency; whereas volunteering that was required as part of study or religious practice appeared to suppress volunteering frequency (Ghose & Kassam, 2014).

In looking at some under-represented groups, more nuanced routes into volunteering were reported. For example, in the area of dementia care, experienced family carers of people who lived with dementia were a valuable source who were often willing to volunteer with other families in similar situations and should be used as such (Charlesworth et al., 2017). A small scale qualitative study by Whittaker and Holland-Smith (2016) examined the influence of social capital over parental sports volunteering. They found that social capital played an important role in recruitment and retention of parental sports volunteers, especially in coaching. However, social capital acted as a double-edged sword, on one side benefiting some and on the other side discriminating and excluding some in volunteer activities. Social capital could be used to maintain and benefit a particular group of individuals at personal and collective levels. As such, there was strong bonding social capital that acted against diversity and inclusiveness. The bridging social capital was sparse, making it difficult for outsiders to join in where people within the group capitalised on power to produce new power. These findings are counter to the general acceptance of social capital as ‘good’ and needs promoting.

In summary, publications that were focused on the routes into volunteering were dominated by either a focus on older people or younger people. Together they emphasise the dynamics of voluntary participation and the importance of taking a lifecourse view of routes into (and out of) volunteering. 

Recommendations and gaps for consideration

In connecting the factors relating to volunteering and the routes taken to volunteering, the publications are mostly dominated with a focus on either older people or younger people in relation to volunteering activities and recruitment. Considerations of gender, education and socio-economic status are well represented. Younger people (especially students) and older retirees dominate the focus in research publications reviewed.

Specific activities, locations and organisations and groups appear to be an integrated feature of most publications, varying in their importance within each study. The overall conclusions show that these elements do influence the extent, ability, routes and motivations of different groups to volunteer.

The Scottish Government’s National Outcomes and Indicators include a focus on education, skills and equal access to opportunities. The evidence suggests that volunteering and volunteering organisations have an integrated role within these priorities. 

Research gaps that we identified include:

  • The existing evidence focuses primarily on volunteering amongst younger people and older people. There has been less study of volunteering patterns in between.
  • There is relatively little longitudinal data on volunteering, which means that patterns of participation within the lifecourse are not that well studied at a population level.
  • Few papers explicitly consider the role of place in volunteering participation. Consideration of the impact of place - comparison of location and settings of volunteering would help us to understand the role that place has in participation.
  • The relatively light coverage of informal volunteering in the literature – driven by a lack of data on this form of participation – means that we would benefit from exploring more informal routes into volunteering, and focusing on the more nuanced routes to a wider range of volunteer activities. 

The publications offering these insights ranged in quality and type. They included quantitative studies that were able to provide international-level comparisons, showing that cultural context was an important element in volunteering. Smaller scale qualitative studies were able to break down more nuanced activities and outcomes and give insight to under-represented groups. Brought together, the picture of volunteering is a dynamic mixture of activity, routes, and groups in a variety of locations. The publications overall emphasise the positive impact of volunteering, which is given further insight in the next section focusing on motivations, benefits and barriers.

Reflections on the Scottish Context:

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.  In the Scottish context, place has been shown to be integrated with volunteering, class, perception of area and regeneration policy as shown by research conducted on the Glasgow Commonwealth Games 2014 (Paton, McCall and Mooney, 2017). The research indicated that those living in more deprived areas have strong identities and communities. Yet, the literature review highlights that people living in certain places also encounter extra barriers to volunteering. This increases the importance of place in consideration of enablers and barriers to volunteer participation. 

The Scottish Government has been clear that volunteering 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 important role of volunteers is highlighted in many connected policies, such as the Health and Social Care Delivery Plan (Scottish Government, 2016), which notes that ‘key stakeholders and volunteers is vital’. 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. Despite much literature focusing on older people, knowledge on the impact of volunteering for those experiencing ill-health is limited and could be explored in further statistical analysis of the Scottish Household Survey.

Changing lifecourses will also change participation: e.g. delaying starting families, longer working lives, increased informal care responsibilities. This can be both positive and negative in relation to volunteering. For example a study on the role of volunteers in dementia care in Scotland and England found that having an experience of dementia in the family was a key pathway into volunteering (McCall et al. 2017). These highlight the importance of lifecourse views of routes into (and out of) volunteering in the Scottish context.

Recommendations for the Volunteering Outcomes Framework:

1. 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. 

2. 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.


Email: socialresearch@gov.scot

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