Mapping the Third Sector in Rural Scotland: An Initial Review of the Literature

The report is a review of the literature on the nature and extent of third sector activity and volunteering in rural areas of Scotland.

1 Executive Summary


1.1 This review has been undertaken in response to recent Scottish Government research which found that there is a pronounced knowledge gap surrounding the nature and extent of the third sector in rural Scotland.

1.2 This gap is particularly significant given ongoing public service reform which sees an ever greater role for individuals, communities and the third sector. It is therefore important to understand the contribution that the third sector (often supported by volunteers) are already making to the delivery of public services and the wellbeing of communities, to ensure that initiatives requiring further involvement are realistic and sustainable. It is also important to understand the likely impact of social and economic pressures on the third sector, and the activities that it undertakes.

1.3 This review is undertaken as an initial scoping of the extent of existing research on the nature and extent of the third sector in rural Scotland.

1.4 Specifically, the review aims to:

  • Identify and review existing qualitative and quantitative research undertaken which can help inform our understanding of the nature and extent of volunteering and the third sector in rural Scotland, in particular with reference to public service delivery.
  • Identify how far research suggests a distinct nature of volunteering and the third sector in rural Scotland, as distinct to more urban areas.
  • Identify key research gaps in our understanding of volunteering and the third sector in rural Scotland.


1.5 This review employs a large scale literature review in conjunction with the direct contact of key informants across Scotland and the UK more widely to ensure a comprehensive coverage of available research.

1.6 This review has been undertaken in the course of a three month internship with the Scottish Government. Given these constraints of time and resources it is intended as an initial scoping of key themes emerging from available literature and acts as a starting point for further research.

Summary of findings

Scotland’s rural population: volunteering

1.7 Whilst a great deal of volunteering is undertaken through and for other sectors, the reliance upon volunteers is a particularly significant characteristic of the third sector.

1.8 ‘Formal volunteering’ generally refers to unpaid work undertaken through an organisation, group or club to help other people or to help a cause (such as improving the environment). In contrast,‘informal volunteering’ refers to unpaid help given as an individual directly to people who are not relatives.

1.9 Scotland-wide surveys suggest that rates of formal volunteering generally increase with degree of rurality, and have done so consistently over time. This appears true even when controlling for individual factors such as income and education levels. However it is more challenging to identify how far what is done by volunteers in urban compared to rural areas is distinct, owing to low sample sizes.

1.10 Whilst it has been suggested on the basis of these surveys that there is no significant difference in terms of either the number of hours volunteered or the frequency of volunteering between urban and rural areas, it is not possible to assess whether there is variation in the number of organisations individuals volunteer for.

1.11 Smaller-scale research suggests that the formal volunteering of those in rural Scotland may be particularly ‘broad’ in nature, across a large number of organisations but for less time in each organisation compared to those in urban areas, whose profile of volunteering may be particularly ‘deep’: volunteering with fewer organisations but devoting a greater amount of time to each one.

1.12 Research suggests that those volunteers in rural areas may often be engaged in activity which may substitute the delivery of services, rather than or as well as activity which is ‘additional’.

Comparing the urban and rural third sector in Scotland

1.13 Definition of the third sector is contested. It is often characterised as being composed of organisations that are formally organised, non-profit distributing, constitutionally independent from the state, self-governing and benefitting from some form of voluntarism.

1.14 Literature tends to argue there may be a distinct role for the third sector in rural areas in the provision of services given the distinct socio-economic and spatial characteristics of more rural areas.

1.15 In Scotland, it appears there are a higher number, per head, of charities in a number of rural LAs compared to urban areas.

1.16 Whilst this may begin to suggest a distinct character to the third sector in rural Scotland, further analysis of this data is required to identify more systematically what is done by charities in rural compared to urban areas. This would help identify, for example, how far the activities of charities in rural Scotland are additional or substitutional, and the implications this may have for public service delivery.

The Scottish rural third sector: key areas of evidence

1.17 There appear to be imbalances in rural third sector research quantity and quality. Particular foci include certain components (for example the ‘regulated’ sector, social enterprises) and certain geographical areas within Scotland (the Highlands and Islands). There also appear to be pronounced gaps in research regarding certain aspects of the third sector, for example direct urban/rural comparisons are very rarely made, and most research appears to focus on smaller scale case studies, generally at the local level. Information at larger scales appears lacking.

1.18 Thematically, there are several areas which appear to have drawn the most attention in terms of literature:

1.19 Infrastructure – including housing, fuel, health and communications – has been highlighted as a particular challenge for the population of rural Scotland. Case studies across rural Scotland have shown the third sector to have a strong role in addressing these concerns, in particular with regards to populations at a greater risk of social exclusion, such as older people.

1.20 Rural community facilities – such as village halls - have been shown to play a particularly strong role in rural areas, and in the overwhelming number of cases to be owned by the local community. They provide sites of social capital development, employment, voluntary activity and existing (and potential) sites of multi-service delivery.

1.21 It is impossible within the remit of this study to establish the extent to which there is a commonality of third sector activity in rural areas in comparison with more urban areas. It is also challenging to draw a causal link directly between rurality and the nature and extent of activity undertaken. There are however a wealth of case studies demonstrating the role of third sector activity in the fields of community energy projects, the provision of community owned and run services (including shops/post offices, gyms, transport, care homes), community land purchase and community woodlands delivered by organisations identifying themselves variously as development trusts, community interest companies, social enterprises, charities and/or voluntary organisations.

The third sector in rural Scotland: the economic downturn

1.22 Literature discussing the impact of the economic downturn on the third sector generally appears to suggest that the effects are likely to be unevenly felt across the sector.

1.23 Research suggests likely consequences of the economic downturn may include an increased demand for the services of third sector organisations, subsequent increasing demands on resources (financial, paid workers and volunteers) and an increased amount of competition for resources.

1.24 However the ways in which the organisations which compose the third sector have been influenced appears to vary by size and sphere of activity, with conflicting evidence regarding both of these components. Both the proportion of adults giving and the overall value of donations appear to be recovering in the UK post 2008/9.

1.25 The implications of reduced public sector budgets within Scotland and across the UK more widely have also been forecast to impact upon the third sector.

1.26 Research undertaken in the Scottish context presents a similarly mixed picture of challenges, uncertainty and opportunity.

1.27 Research assessing the impact of the economic downturn on the rural third sector - within or outwith Scotland – is lacking. However it has been suggested that the added resource requirements of operating in rural areas may exacerbate the impact of the economic downturn on the third sector in rural areas.


1.28 This review should be treated as a starting point in the exploration of the third sector landscape in rural Scotland.

1.29 The research reviewed suggests that higher rates of volunteering are undertaken in more rural areas of Scotland, and that this volunteering may be particularly distinct in nature given the challenging service delivery landscape. Therefore, whilst high rates of formal volunteering in rural areas of Scotland may be a positive social indicator, attention may also need to be given to the motivations and nature of such activity to ensure any additional participation as a result of public service reform is sustainable.

1.30 The research shows that the number of registered charities would appear to be higher – per head of population – in a number of rural local authorities compared to urban local authorities. Whilst this may suggest that there is a greater presence of the third sector in more rural areas, little work has been undertaken to identify the roles of these charities, and whether there may also be a substitutional/additional distinction between urban and rural areas to better inform understandings of their role in the delivery of services (or more generally).

1.31 This review also suggests that there is very limited existing research on which to draw conclusions regarding the impact of the economic downturn on the Scottish rural third sector.

1.32 It also identifies many gaps in research which need to be addressed if we are to more fully depict the current landscape of volunteering and third sector activity in rural Scotland, and the implications of pubic service reform for this.

Research gaps and future agendas.

1.33 Research differentiating between urban and rural areas in Scotland in terms of the function of rural third sector organisations appears lacking. In addition, little research appears to exist regarding the number and value of third sector contracts and service delivery agreements with Local Government by rurality.

1.34 Therefore there appears a need for further work, sensitive to potential spatial variations in the volunteering and third sector landscape, to be carried out. This has the potential to include comparison between accessible rural and remote rural contexts, a more in-depth exploration of the nature and extent of volunteering and third sector activity specifically within rural areas, and between urban and rural contexts. This may allow the identification of how far spatially sensitive volunteering, third sector and public service reform governance may be appropriate.

1.35 Whilst rurality appears to increase the rates of voluntary activity reported, it is more difficult to robustly gauge how the activities of volunteers may vary. This could be beneficial as it would allow for the validation of a small body of work which suggests that the drivers for such activity may be more substitutional than additional in rural areas, which in turn may have implications for the sustainability of such participation in service delivery.

1.36 Research and literature with regard to rural Scotland appears particularly focussed on the Highlands and Islands. Case study evidence suggests that there is a great deal of third sector and rural community development activity undertaken elsewhere in rural Scotland and in order to obtain a well rounded picture of the rural third sector a greater amount of attention might be given to these areas.

1.37 Overall, in order to move beyond a case study approach to identifying the contribution of the third sector in rural areas of Scotland, a more comparable (in terms of data), coherent (in terms of scale) and joined up (in terms of subsectors) approach to researching the voluntary sector might be helpful.


I am extremely grateful to all those who supported me during my time undertaking the 3 month internship at the Scottish Government at the beginning of 2010, which was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

I would like to thank the many individuals and organisations who responded to my requests for help and information in the writing of this report, and those who shared their thoughts with me on the character of the third sector and voluntary activity in rural Scotland. I am extremely grateful for their time and willingness to help.

Thank you to the members of staff within Third Sector Division, the Local Governance and Reform Analytical Unit, and Rural Analytical Unit who hosted me and have given tireless feedback and encouragement. In particular, I would like to thank Dr Kay Barclay, Geoff Pope and Angela Hallam.

Thank you also to the members of the informal panel of reviewers, who found time to provide helpful and insightful feedback on earlier drafts of this report.

Finally I would like to thank colleagues at SAC for their feedback, and in particular Dr Sarah Skerratt - Team Leader of Rural Society Research – for her support in the publication of this report.


Email: Kay Barclay

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