Volunteering for All: national framework - literature review

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

Informal volunteering, participation and equality

This section explores the themes of informal volunteering, participation and equality that emerged from the papers reviewed. Informal volunteering is less visible than formal volunteering, and this was reflected in the coverage of informal volunteering in the literature reviewed. Discussions of the definition and visibility of informal volunteering raise issues of participation and equality, and so we have drawn these discussions together in this section.

Formal and Informal volunteering

The Scottish Government’s definition of volunteering, discussed in the introduction, described volunteering as the giving of time and […] undertaken of one's own free will, and [is] not motivated primarily for financial gain or for a wage or salary.” Formal volunteering is participation that takes place within the context of an organisation or group, such as volunteering in a charity shop. Informal volunteering is participation outside of an organised group, such as clearing paths for neighbours in bad weather. This binary distinction is useful as a tool to contrast two broad forms of participation, but in practice we acknowledge that there are significant grey areas that blur the boundaries between different forms of participation. It may be useful to think instead of a spectrum of participation, ranging from the most formal, ‘traditional’ volunteering roles to the most informal of helping and neighbourly activities, allowing for a wide variety of forms of participation of different formality in-between. For Scotland, we know more about formal participation at the population level as there has been a consistent suite of questions in the Scottish Household Survey on formal volunteering for more than a decade. From 2018, there will also be data on informal volunteering collected biennially through a new suite of questions, with the first set of results released in 2019.

The vast majority of the papers reviewed examine formal volunteering and 14 were unspecified and / or unclear. No publications focussed solely on informal volunteering, but 20 publications looked at more than one type of volunteering and gave insight to both formal and informal volunteering. This section looks in more detail at the insight given in these papers around the relationship between formal and informal volunteering. Martinez et al. (2011) examine informal volunteering termed as ‘invisible civic engagement’ among older adults in America. They conclude that current definitions of volunteering and the concept of civic engagement are currently too narrow and exclude important informal contributions. Not only this, defining volunteering so narrowly can exclude certain groups (such as those living in poverty) and increase inequalities. 

Brewis and Holdsworth (2011) in a major study of student volunteering based on case studies of six Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in England found that formal and informal volunteering contribute significantly to university life and to the wider community. Organisational support for formal volunteers was important to enable this, yet, student volunteers felt less well managed than volunteers in the general population. They identify a need for more consistent approaches to promoting and supporting volunteers across universities and university departments.

Windebank (2008) conducted a cross-national analysis of the gender division of labour and argues that formal and informal voluntary work should be included in such analyses. They show that men spend more time on formal volunteering in France than women, but there was minimal gender differentiation in the UK. Participants in France spent more time doing informal volunteering, compared to the UK which was focused more on formal volunteering (although in the UK women spent more time volunteering informally than men). The evidence suggests that ‘formal volunteering is both horizontally and vertically segregated by gender and informal volunteering is also horizontally segregated’ (Windebank, 2008). 

Cramm and Nieboer (2015) examined informal and formal volunteering in older adults in a longitudinal study in the Netherlands. The association regarding certain characteristics were slightly different for each type of volunteering. For formal volunteering, significant associations were found with being born in the Netherlands; higher educational levels; social capital; and social functioning. Informal volunteering activities were significantly associated with age; being born in the Netherlands; marital status; educational level; and social capital.

Research on formal and informal volunteering in Denmark (Henriksen, Koch-Nielsen, & Rosdahl, 2008) was one of the first to explore informal volunteering as practical informal help and economic assistance. The paper offers a continuum of civic engagement going from the most public to the most private and concludes that there are three sets of factors that are particularly relevant for explaining volunteering: personal or ‘human capital’ factors; social network resources; and civic values. Formal volunteering is different from informal volunteering but education, social resources and networks and number of years in the community affect both. Informal volunteering is especially dependent on social network resources over 'human capital’ (individual) resources. Interestingly, attachment to community and church attendance are strongest indicators of informal volunteering.

Adams and Deane (2009) explore conceptualisations of formal and informal volunteering in sports activity. They note that the perspectives of volunteers can be more useful than formal criteria in understanding volunteering in this area. This could overcome the limited scope of current studies on sports volunteering, which can include a much wider range of activity.

Moen and Flood (2013) found that health, education, disability, income, family relations were related to formal and informal volunteering and the time of volunteering, but the relationships could be different for men and women. For example, being married limited the time women apportioned to formal volunteering but not for men.

Martinez et al. (2011) specifically examines the contribution of informal volunteering for older adults. They argue that the motivation of older adults to participate has been under-recognised, in part due to its taking place through informal activities. Barriers for this age group included health and medical problems, inadequate personal resources, concerns about structured activities or schedules, and transportation issues. Also significant for this age group are the contexts of caregiving, poverty, housing and transportation in which participation takes place. This is important when looking at volunteering through the lens of productive ageing activity as highlighted by Warburton (2010) in investigating volunteering in Australia. Warburton (2010) noted that there is an increasing role for both formal and informal volunteering within families, with peers, and in communities. However, there is a lack of programmes that support formal and informal volunteering. Evidence that shows how to support informal volunteering remains a gap in the literature.  

Looking to a different generation, Ertas (2016) looks at Millennials and volunteering, noting that there were consistently higher levels of participation for public-sector workers in formal and informal ways. Higher participation in both formal and informal venues implies that Public Service Motivation (PSM) is the rationale underlying participation behaviour across individuals working in different sectors. Utilising Public Service Motivation (PSM) theory, the research found that individuals working in public and non-profit sectors were more likely to participate in most formal and informal volunteering activities, suggesting that PSM is the rationale underlying participation behaviour across individuals working in different sectors (Ertas, 2016). The same study also compared Millennials with older generations, but the results should be interpreted with caution as it did not disentangle age effects from generational effects. 

As an example of this in practice, Shandra (2017) outlines formal and informal volunteering with a focus on disability and social participation. The use of social participation is a useful lens and context in which to understand the difference between formal and informal volunteering. It helps to challenge assumptions around people living with disabilities as not just being recipients of help. Examining the dynamics of informal volunteering re-positions those living with a disability as volunteers themselves. This highlights the contributions of those who volunteer in a positive light and challenges negative assumptions. 

Inclusiveness, diversity and under-representation in volunteering

It is important to note that publications that examined informal volunteering often noted its importance with wider non-white and excluded groups. For example, S. Ahn, Phillips, Smith, and Ory (2011) did a study of volunteering in Texas and found that Hispanic participants were not only less likely to volunteer than their non-Hispanic white counterparts but bivariate analyses indicated that the non-Hispanic whites tend to participate in formal volunteering, whereas those of Hispanic origin were more often informal volunteers. Another study found that people of Asian ethnicity were less likely to volunteer and volunteered less time in England (Taylor et al., 2012). Among current volunteers, it was reported ethnic minority volunteer groups generally reported a lower level of inclusion (Bortree & Waters, 2014). 

Brown and Ferris (2007) argued that the ethnic differences in volunteering could be explained by social capital. After controlling for social capital, they found that black and Hispanic individuals were more likely than were whites to volunteer. Without controlling for social capital, it was the other way around, suggesting that the observed negative relationship between belonging to a minority group and volunteering was driven by lower stocks of norm-based social capital (e.g. trust in others). 

Shandra (2017) looked at disability and volunteering, finding that people with physical disabilities were less likely to formally volunteer, but they were no less likely to volunteer informally. Moreover, if they do volunteer, disabled people gave no fewer hours than other volunteer groups. Wicki and Meier (2016) in their research on ‘Supporting Volunteering Activities by Adults with Intellectual Disabilities’ note that those living with intellectual disabilities (sic) are less likely to volunteer in general. However, with the right support they can and do volunteer on the same terms as those not living with a disability. 

Based on the high-quality qualitative study on youth volunteers mentioned earlier, Dean (2016) gives insights to key structural barriers to volunteering. He argued that young people from advantaged middle-class backgrounds inhabited behaviours and possessed capitals marking them more likely to take volunteering opportunities; whereas those from working-class backgrounds did not possess the knowledge of "how to play the game" and for whom, volunteering was not part of their necessary habitus. There was a role within the school system and volunteer organisations for reinforcing barriers and assumptions about working-class children. The pressure to meet targets forced volunteering workers to recruit middle-class young people who were more likely to respond favourably to the call. As a consequence, they were built on existing advantages, rather than challenging them. Dean (2015) uses Pierre Bourdieu’s theories of habitus and cultural capital to highlight that class and class behaviours are part of the policy process (even when this is in specific opposition to what policy-makers want). Volunteer organisations can make generalised assumptions about working-class communities, schools and less privileged groups that can reinforce cycles of inequality.  

In the study on volunteering as productive ageing mentioned earlier, Warburton (2010) also argued older people from more diverse backgrounds were excluded from volunteering due to individual and organisational barriers.

These themes are similar in different types of volunteering, with a study focusing on volunteer board members in America, found that females, ethnic minority, and young people aged 20 to 35 were under-represented in board membership (Dougherty & Easton, 2011). 

Recommendations and gaps for consideration

The literature reviewed points to an interconnection between the “formality” of volunteering, and inequality and exclusion. Informal volunteering was linked to more social outcomes such as building social capital, and community connectedness. 

The findings support the wider understanding of volunteering that has been building in Scotland. For example, in the Scottish context, volunteering is seen as a wider holistic activity to mean ‘all people who give their time freely by choice’ (Scottish Volunteering Forum, 2015). Working from a more inclusive understanding of volunteering will capture the wider activities that are often overlooked in research only focusing on formal volunteering.

The focus on tackling inequality is a key priority area that is integrated into the National Performance Framework through a variety of outcomes and indicators (Scottish Government, 2018 – Appendix One). The related indicators include wealth inequalities, poverty, gender, social capital – all issues that have been related to volunteering in this literature review.  However, understanding how volunteering can help tackle inequalities and develop more in-depth investigation into structural barriers for under-represented groups remains a key gap.

Studies that examined the connections between formal and informal volunteering report more informal volunteering often from non-white ethnic groups, more likely to be women or in a lower socio-economic grouping. Other studies suggest that this could reinforce structures of inequality, as formal volunteering mechanisms are significant routes to increased benefits around career and employability for example. It perhaps suggests that excluded groups are volunteering, just in different ways (just as valuable), and not benefiting from formal support mechanisms.

Research gaps that we identified include:

  • Exploring the connection between formal and informal volunteering within traditionally excluded groups.
  • Investigate how current volunteering support networks can diversify their support mechanisms to include informal volunteer activities.
  • Understanding the structural barriers that apply in Scotland to the participation of under-represented groups.

Reflections on the Scottish Context:

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 findings from Shandra (2017) for example show that for certain groups, such as those living with a disability, informal volunteering can be more significant. 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. As noted previously, tackling inequality is a priority within the 2017-18 Programme for Government, A Nation with Ambition (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.

The wider structural barriers and policy connections mean that volunteering policy in Scotland can only go so far. It cannot tackle these directly, and so strong links need to be made between the accessibility of volunteering and broader social policy in Scotland.

Recommendations for the Volunteering Outcomes Framework:

9. 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.

10. 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.

11. When successful, volunteering can build social capital 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.

12. 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.



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