Volunteering for All: national framework - literature review

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

Outcomes and benefits of volunteering

The majority of publications report benefits and positive aspects of volunteering. It should be noted that there is an underlying assumption in the literature that frames volunteering in a positive light. Research looking critically at the role of volunteering is much rarer. This section breaks down and reviews some of the benefits of volunteering offered in the literature and goes on to consider evidence around the negative effects of voluntary participation.

Volunteering can benefit volunteers in lots of ways

Benefits of volunteering

A number of studies have identified the benefits of volunteering to individual volunteers. Based on their study on environmental volunteers in northern England and southern Scotland, O’Brien and colleagues (2010) reported that environmental volunteering had benefits in physical health. Similarly, it was reported that volunteering is related to positive self-rated health (Detollenaere, Willems, & Baert, 2017). Moreover, Ayalon (2008) reported that volunteering was associated with a reduced mortality risk even after adjusting for potential confounders.

In another study on mental well-being, volunteers that were providing services for homeless people reported that volunteering provided companionship, camaraderie, sociability, a boost for self-esteem, and for some individual volunteers, formed part of a process of personal rehabilitation (Cloke, Johnsen, & May, 2007). Connolly and O'Shea (2015) reported that volunteering conferred various positive outcomes for volunteers aged 55 or over, particularly in relation to feelings of self-worth and socialisation. A qualitative study by Currie et al. (2016) investigated the influence of engagement with greenspace among conservation volunteers from deprived areas in a Scottish city. They found that interacting with greenspace has multiple health and well-being benefits; and the benefits differ for men and women, which is possibly related to the purpose of their engagement to start with.

Nichols and Ralston (2012) argued volunteering gave the same benefits as paid work except for financial remuneration, including: structured time, shared social experiences outside of family, providing individuals with goals and a purpose, personal status and identity, undertaking regular activity and skills development. 

Connolly and O'Shea (2015) undertook a breakdown of volunteer activities among older people, comparing characteristics. The aim of this article was to examine the perceived benefits of volunteering among older people and to determine whether the benefits differ by volunteer characteristics. Their research linked volunteering with a catalogue of well-being indicators but it was unclear whether all volunteers derive the same benefit. Older volunteers perceived a wide range of benefits arising from their voluntary activities both to themselves and service recipients. In particular, volunteering seemed to confer positive outcomes for participants in relation to feelings of self-worth and socialisation. Evidence suggested that benefits vary by volunteer characteristics, with the older-old (in this particular study, it refers to people aged 75+), the less educated, and the retired reporting the greatest benefit.

Table 10 summarises the benefits of volunteering to volunteers that are prominent in the research literature. There are a large number of papers on a range of different benefits.  The highest quality evidence is on the physical health benefits that participation can have. The weakest evidence is on the instrumental benefits (e.g. skills development and employability).

Table 10: A summary benefits of volunteering to individual volunteers

Kay and Bradbury (2009) focused on youth sport volunteering, finding that volunteering could develop social capital by fostering personal and skill development for individuals and contributing to the development of social connectedness. Another qualitative study in a disadvantaged community in England also saw volunteering as an avenue for reinforcing social capital, in particular for people who were not in paid work (Baines & Hardill, 2008).

Based on qualitative research, Nichols and Ralston (2011) reported that volunteering could provide social inclusion benefits in addition to employability by enriching volunteers’ life and empowering them to make choices over a work-life balance. Benefits reported by volunteers in a university community garden included: connecting with others and gaining a sense of belonging, gaining skills and knowledge, and emotional benefits, such as pleasure and satisfaction (Anderson et al., 2018). Curran, Taheri, MacIntosh, and O'Gorman (2016) conducted a survey of active Scouts volunteers to explore the impact of non-profit brand heritage on the experience of volunteers. Brand heritage is defined as a brand’s identity in its track record, longevity, core values, history and the use of symbols. They found that brand heritage had a positive direct effect on volunteers' satisfaction. It also influenced volunteers' satisfaction indirectly through volunteer engagement. Using panel data from the Americans' Changing Lives survey, Tang (2009) found strong evidence that volunteering engagement among older people was associated with improved self-rated health and decreased functional dependency.

Although not included for evaluation due to concerns that the activities described were remunerated for some participants and thus did not meet the definition of volunteering used in this review, it may be of interest to note the findings of a recent research study on NHS staff who had taken time away from their normal work setting to teach on training courses in sub-Saharan Africa (Yeomans et al., 2017). Responses to a survey sent to staff six months after their return to the UK suggested that the experience of delivering the courses in partnership with local health services had positive impacts on respondents’ personal and professional development, for example by giving an opportunity for them to develop their teaching and leadership skills and to reflect on their practices.

The benefits of volunteering may be moderated by other factors. For example, it was found that volunteers in a management organisation reported fewer benefits and more drawbacks compared with volunteers in a cultural or social organisation (Celdran & Villar, 2007). A study on older volunteers suggested that benefits varied by volunteer characteristics, with the older-old, the less educated, and the retired reporting the greatest benefits (Connolly & O'Shea, 2015).

Most of the findings on the benefits of volunteering mentioned above were drawn from cross-sectional research designs. Therefore, the direction of the relationships could sometimes be ambiguous. However, the evidence from longitudinal studies does seem to confirm the benefits of volunteering in some aspects. For example, it was found that informal volunteering and volunteering frequency were positively associated with positive outcomes and life satisfaction in later life among older people (Kahana et al., 2013). Binder and Freytag (2013) reported that volunteering regularly significantly increased volunteers’ subjective well-being using data from the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS). Based on a repeated-measures design, Bailey and Russell (2012) reported that volunteer tourism contributed to a growing gap between participants and non-participants in openness, affection, reflection and civic attitude. 

In summary, the benefits of volunteering to individual volunteers which have been identified in the literatuTable 10: A summary benefits of volunteering to individual volunteersre can be grouped into the following categories: (a) physical health benefits, (b) mental well-being benefits, (c) social benefits, and (d) instrumental benefits (see Table 10 and infographic at the beginning of this section). 

Negative effects of volunteering

Very few studies have touched on the topic of the potential negative effects of volunteering. Some of the risks of volunteering identified were volunteer burnout  (Celdran & Villar, 2007) and being forced in to volunteering (Warburton & Winterton, 2017). Table 11 summarises the strength of evidence on the negative effects of volunteering. While there is some coverage of these issues, there is a lack of breadth or high quality research in this area.

Table 11: A summary of negative effects of volunteering 

Table 11: A summary of negative effects of volunteering

Celdrán and Villar (2007) examined the influence of the type of volunteer organisations on volunteers’ perceptions of drawbacks, finding that volunteering in a management organisation is associated with the feelings of being tied-up and investing too much effort; and volunteering in a cultural organisation is related to feeling lack of recognition. 

On a different note, Chareka et al. (2010) looking at volunteering amongst African immigrants in Canada, examined the broadly positive role of volunteering in cultural integration, but with a cautionary note as participants could also be coerced into volunteering.  

It was rarer for publications to consider the structural barriers and negative effects of volunteering, but when this was done it was particularly insightful. For example, in a qualitative study on education, Dean (2016) discusses the structural limitations in recruiting young volunteers. The paper concludes that there are inequalities in targeting volunteering opportunities, leading to unequal policy outcomes. This is linked to social class and school type as a sociological analysis suggests that class habitus (with the paper taking its framework from Bourdieu[4]) favours grammar schools over comprehensive schools (in the English context). Grammar schools provide a structure that supports volunteering over other structures, giving those students a favourable chance to take part in volunteering activities that benefits their future (such as through employment opportunities). Grammar schools become 'volunteering brokerage workers' that benefits their students and provides routes to volunteering not available through other schools. Volunteering organisations also (consciously and unconsciously) reinforce barriers to volunteering among potentially more disadvantaged students.

Overall, when publications considered wider structural implications this was useful learning for policy and practice. The negative aspects of current volunteering processes remain a gap in the literature. 

Broader outcomes of volunteering: community and beyond

This section builds on the evidence linked to motivations, benefits and barriers to look in detail at the level of impact of volunteer activities. The section investigates in more depth the insights that are focused on wider community and international impact. 

In addition to benefits to individual volunteers and beneficiaries, volunteering could also provide benefits to the broader community and society as a whole. A small number of studies directly looked at benefits beyond individuals. Kay and Bradbury (2009) reported increased service capacity and quality, increased sense of citizenship, enhanced inter-generational relationships and extended connection to the community due to the presence of volunteers in youth sport volunteering. A study on volunteering of rural older Australians reported that volunteering contributed to the sense of community solidarity and the provision of mutual support (Warburton & Winterton, 2017). Another study of Arab and Jewish women volunteers also highlighted the importance of volunteering in increasing solidarity across ethnic groups, as well as improving women’s status and roles in the community (Daoud et al., 2010). 

Studies focusing on volunteering of university staff and students found that volunteering could make a significant contribution to promoting public engagement and improving university relations with local communities (Bussell & Forbes, 2008; Darwen & Rannard, 2011). In addition, Bussell and Forbes (2008) also argued that participation by universities in employer supported volunteering could benefit the local community in offering new skills and energies, supporting under resourced schools, extending cultural outreach and breaking down the barriers between different sections of society.  

It is important to note that all of the evidence aforementioned was drawn from qualitative enquiries with volunteers or stakeholders. The lack of quantitative evidence could be due to the difficulty to quantify benefits at community or societal levels.

Recommendations and research gaps for consideration

The review shows the focus in the volunteering literature on various benefits of volunteer activity. The outcomes and benefits of volunteering were wide and varied but generally positive. There are still assumptions in the literature regarding the positive foundations and impact of volunteering. However, it is worth noting that even in studies that offered critical analysis, there were always positive outcomes reported relating to volunteering.

The different levels of impact that were reported were mainly focused on individual impact. This is likely to be indicative of the difficulty of measuring wider outcomes at community or society level reliably. However, individual outcomes in this area have potential to link to broader National Outcomes in the Scottish policy context, such as people being able to contribute to society, to grow up loved, safe and respected (see Appendix One).   

There was some evidence to show community, organisational and international impact, but these still remain a gap in the literature. This area has potential for development in light of the National Outcomes where ‘we live in communities that are inclusive, empowered, resilient and safe’ (see Appendix One).    

Research gaps that we identified include:

  • Measurement of broader organisational and community-level impacts of volunteering. In particular, there is a gap in evidence quantifying these benefits, although this is a challenging area.
  • The potential negative consequences of volunteering, particularly in perpetuating social inequalities, is not well understood. More exploration into the negative effects of volunteering would help to give more steer for improvements in policy and practice for volunteering.

Reflections on the Scottish Context:

Volunteering in Scotland is highest in rural areas, where it is a significant feature of communities. This is an interesting opportunity for Scotland, as wider research in housing suggests that rural residents have added challenges around areas such as transport, adaptations and fuel poverty (McCall et al., 2019). The same research outlines the invaluable work of volunteers in rural communities offering such services as community transport. Different contexts and patterns of service provision play a role, but can urban communities learn from rural communities?

The literature evidence suggests that there are wider community benefits, albeit difficult to measure. We would expect these benefits to apply to volunteering in Scottish communities. If attempts are made to measure outcomes, then we should acknowledge that these outcomes are likely to vary across both forms of participation and communities in Scotland.

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.

Recommendations for the Volunteering Outcomes Framework:

5. It should be acknowledged that the benefits of volunteering 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.

6. 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.

7. The evidence on broader organisational and community outcomes suggests potential, 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.

8. 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 having positive support structures for volunteering participation, encouragement of good volunteering management practices, and a focus on increasing accessibility for currently under-represented groups within the volunteering sector.



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