Volunteering for All: national framework - research summary

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

4. Informal participation and inequalities

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 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. Tackling inequality is a priority in the 2017-18 Programme for Government 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.

Research Evidence Gaps

  • 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.

Recommendations for the Volunteering Outcomes Framework

Recommendation Nine: 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.

Recommendation Ten: 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.

Recommendation Eleven: 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.

Recommendation Twelve: 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.


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

In the course of the review we identify strong links to the Scottish Government’s (2018) National Performance Framework, such as building inclusive community and tackling 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.


Email: socialresearch@gov.scot

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