Volunteering for All: national framework - literature review

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


Our review has described the complexity of volunteers and volunteering in the range of literature that we have considered for this review. Volunteering is a significant phenomenon across countries and cultures, with large benefits to volunteers, service users, communities and society.

In our review we have presented research evidence from across the world. This coverage provides significant insight; but it also highlights the importance of culture and context in understanding both the form and determinants of participation. This diversity makes specific policy recommendations challenging to identify.

However, government policy can have a significant impact on voluntary activity. In the past ten years volunteering policy-related research in the UK has explored the notion of the ‘Big Society’ and the role that government policy has on volunteering (Bartels, Cozzi, & Mantovan, 2013; Nichols & Ralston, 2012). Bartels et al. (2013) noted that the debate on volunteering in ‘The Big Society’ highlighted how public spending affects the decision to volunteer. Importantly, Bartel et al’s research shows that when government intervention declines, volunteering is likely to decline. This demonstrates that it is not only ‘volunteering policy’ that affects volunteering, but also broader government policy in relation to the provision and funding of services that involve volunteers, both within the public and voluntary sectors.

There is also critique (Dean, 2014) of volunteering policy which focuses too strongly on instrumental motivations to volunteer, at the expense of values-based motives. Dean’s (2015, 2016) explorations of class diversity and youth volunteering gives a particularly strong argument for 1) Focusing on the barriers created by structural inequalities and 2) Examining the current structures, activities and organisations that support volunteering in the UK and how they potentially enable and reinforce those inequalities.   

In the course of the review we have identified a number of recommendations that should be considered in the development of the Volunteering Outcomes Framework. These include both opportunities for the research evidence to inform the development of the Framework, and also areas where there are gaps in our understanding of volunteering that need further exploration.

Throughout the report we identify strong links to the Scottish Government’s (2018) National Performance Framework. It is clear that issues covered in the review cut across several areas (see Appendix One) but have the strongest links to the following outcomes:

  • ‘We live in communities that are inclusive, empowered, resilient and safe.’
  • ‘We are well educated, skilled and able to contribute to society.’ 

The National Outcome that could have the most potential, but is currently one of the key gaps in the volunteering literature review, would be:

  • ‘We tackle poverty by sharing opportunities, wealth and power more equally.’

The Volunteering Outcomes Framework provides an opportunity to support these outcomes through identifying the vibrancy and diversity of voluntary participation, and providing a focal point for considering the impact that policy can have on the participation of the Scottish population in civil society.

Developing a coherent and compelling narrative for volunteering

This literature review is one piece of work in the programme to develop the Volunteering Outcomes Framework for Scotland. One of the aims of that programme of work is to develop a coherent and compelling narrative for volunteering. Our review of the evidence on volunteering leads us to make some final observations to contribute to the development of that narrative.

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.

Volunteering can build social capital; but a lack of it can be a significant barrier to participation. There is an important differentiation between bonding and bridging social capital. Informal volunteering builds and relies on bonding social capital, whereas formal volunteering can provide opportunities to develop bridging social capital. There is no easy way to build social capital; it takes time. Volunteering is one piece in the bigger policy puzzle for building stronger communities.

There is a temptation to be drawn to emphasising the instrumental benefits of volunteering (e.g. skills / employability / personal development). But we don’t know the longer-term consequences of framing volunteering in this way. Neglecting values-based motivations, which evidence suggests are more important to the involvement of marginalised groups, risks undermining attempts to broaden volunteering participation.

The volunteering literature broadly underplays the role of place in volunteering participation, but this distinction is particularly significant for Scotland, specifically related to urban / rural differences. There are positive and negative drivers of these differences e.g. higher social capital in strong communities versus volunteering through necessity due to deficits in service provision. Understanding and acting on these will be essential in creating a narrative for volunteering that is inclusive across communities in Scotland.



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