Volunteering for All: national framework

Our national outcomes framework for volunteering.

Volunteering Context

What do we mean by volunteering?

Volunteering is a choice. A choice to give time or energy, a choice undertaken of one’s own free will and a choice not motivated for financial gain or for a wage or salary.

In developing this Framework, the term volunteering is used to describe the wide range of ways in which people help out, get involved, volunteer and participate in their communities (both communities of interest and communities of place). 

These contributions range from the very formal such as volunteering with public sector bodies and community councils, through engaging with local clubs and charitable/community organisations, or getting involved with local activism or helping out with community activity, to very informal participation such as helping a neighbour with their bins or bringing shopping in from the car.[14]


Evidence and experience tells us that the term ‘volunteering’ has particular connotations for some people. Some of these connotations are positive but some are less so: suggesting a degree of ‘do-gooding’ and perpetuating the idea that contributing to society is the preserve of a few.

In addition, some people are reluctant to define some types of informal contribution, particularly more spontaneous forms of help, as volunteering, as it is seen as ‘just what people do.’


And in describing all of the ways in which people participate in public life, we must continue to ensure that the role of volunteers is to support and not to replace the paid providers of public services.[15]

Our conclusion is that the language of volunteering definition should support our vision, principles and values; should celebrate and promote volunteering in all its forms; and seek to avoid reinforcing or perpetuating perceived divisions and stereotypes.  

Our use of the term volunteering to describe all of the ways in which people make a contribution is deliberate, reflecting our view that the action required to drive change will be most successful if taken forward in the context of wider social policy and intervention. 

The evidence base is clear. We know that volunteering matters. We know that volunteering can improve individual physical and mental health and well-being.[16] We know that volunteering strengthens social networks and bonds within and between communities and can help to create experiences and connections that lead to better lives.[17]

It is important to acknowledge that benefits vary with both activity and context, and that benefits are not evenly distributed across all volunteering activities.

Volunteering can benefit volunteers in lots of ways. Different opportunities will lead to different benefits.

Physical health benefits
Evidence suggests that volunteering can promote healthy lifestyle and improve self-rated health

Social benefits
Research finds that volunteering can improve companionship, tackle social isolation and increase social capital

Mental wellbeing
Evidence shows that volunteering can improve confidence, purpose and life satisfaction

Instrumental benefits
Volunteering can help people to develop new skills, gain knowledge, develop attitudes and increase employability

Most informal volunteering takes place within communities – of geography or of interest – and among who have similar backgrounds

Social Capital
Our understanding of informal volunteering is more limited than that of formal volunteering but the available evidence points to this being an important form of participation for traditionally excluded or marginalised groups.  

Most informal volunteering takes place within communities – of geography or of interest – and among people who have similar backgrounds, experiences and characteristics. As such, informal volunteering relies and builds on bonding social capital within groups but is less likely to lead to new connections.

This is not necessarily negative – the evidence shows that engaging in this type of activity can provide a sense of purpose and in some cases is important in filling gaps in service provision.  However, as there are typically fewer opportunities available in more disadvantaged communities, the lack of ‘bridges’ to other communities and groups may further perpetuate inequalities.[18]

The importance of the volunteer experience
Evidence suggests that precisely how people make a contribution, the quality of support they receive and the individual experience of taking part can make all the difference when it comes to benefits. Risks include volunteer ‘burn out’ as well as feeling forced into volunteering.  Poor experiences, either of feeling excluded from roles or of feeling undervalued as volunteers, can be damaging to self-esteem and wellbeing.[19]

The importance of Place[20]

Place is important in understanding volunteering in Scotland, with higher levels of participation in rural areas than urban areas.  We need to understand more about the positive and negative drivers for these differences as well as whether there are lessons to be learned from particular communities with higher levels of participation. 

The Place Principle[21]

We recognise that: Place is where people, location and resources combine to create a sense of identity and purpose, and are at the heart of addressing the needs and realising the full potential of communities. Places are shaped by the way resources, services and assets are directed and used by the people who live in and invest in them. A more joined-up, collaborative, and participative approach to services, land and buildings, across all sectors within a place, enables better outcomes for everyone and increased opportunities for people and communities to shape their own lives.

The principle requests that: All those responsible for providing services and looking after assets in a place need to work and plan together, and with local communities, to improve the lives of people, support inclusive growth and create more successful places.

We commit to taking: A collaborative, place based approach with a shared purpose to support a clear way forward for all services, assets and investments which will maximise the impact of their combined resources.

Volunteering can also play an important role in the process of ‘place-making’ – helping to tackle environmental, social or economic challenges – for example by improving the quality of open greenspace or working collectively to bring new life into under-used assets. Volunteer arts groups can contribute significantly to the cultural life of communities and help to instil a sense of identity and connection to place. Civic participation is a significant factor in promoting the common good in an area and getting people involved in the decisions that affect them is vital. Community Councils across Scotland play a valuable role in the Planning system and the Place Standard tool[22] provides a means to support structured conversations which can identify areas of action and improvement.

Case Study

PAS, a charity and social enterprise, provides impartial advice, training and support for community groups, planners, elected members and public bodies, as well as to seldom-heard groups who often cannot readily engage in the planning system. It has an office in Edinburgh staffed by a small, paid team, but its work is largely delivered through over 400 specialist volunteers, including professionals from across the built environment sector, from planners and architects to students, artists and facilitators.

Over 20% of planning professionals in Scotland are PAS volunteers – an almost unheard figure in other sectors. PAS volunteers give not just their time, but importantly their professional expertise, skills and empathy to enable individuals and community groups to feel confident and equipped to participate in the place making.

Bridging the Gap The planning system is a public service for all and young people will live the longest with the decisions we make today. Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child asks for stronger participation by young people in decisions that will affect them.

Bridging the Gap project was conceived as a way to involve young people in those decisions about their place over the long term, through sustained intergenerational exchange. Originally piloted with Galashiels Academy, the project has now been expanded to include five additional local authorities throughout Scotland. The project is free of charge to schools and is designed around the outcomes in the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence.

Bridging the Gap is structured in two phases, first introducing students to concepts of placemaking and decision-making, then involving students in local projects and live issues relating to place, to put their skills and knowledge into action in meaningful contexts. Older generations share knowledge of local culture and history, while young participants pass on digital skills to older generations, achieving greater inclusion and intergenerational cooperation and understanding.

The role of volunteers has been significant in the delivery of this project. PAS volunteers have delivered all the workshops and engagement activities in the project, contributing not just their time but also their professional expertise.

Gypsy/Travellers: seldom-heard voices in the planning system
For Gypsy/Travellers, like the settled population, adequate accommodation is fundamental to health, education and access to employment. Without a secure place to stop or settle the fundamental human rights of Gypsy/Travellers can be severely compromised. PAS Volunteers has been working to strengthen the participation of Gypsy/Travellers in the planning system for over ten years.

In 2015, PAS produced a series of guides on Gypsy/Traveller issues in the planning system in a project funded by the Equality, Human Rights and Third Sector Division of the Scottish Government. In 2019, PAS is working with NHS Health Scotland to explore the impact of planning and place on the health and wellbeing of Gypsy/Travellers.

We need to focus on making sure that people can continue to make contributions as their lives change, and on making activities right across the spectrum of participation more inclusive so that those who are excluded have wider opportunities to get involved.

Who volunteers?

The majority of people make some contribution at some stage in their life.  But there are still stark inequalities in participation – particularly in formal volunteering.  

The Scottish Household Survey provides the most authoritative national source of participation data in Scotland on adult volunteering. It suggests that volunteers in Scotland are more likely to be

  • female
  • self-employed/part-time employed or in education
  • from higher socio-economic and income groups
  • from rural areas
  • from less deprived areas
  • healthy and non-disabled

Rates of participation for adults in Scotland has remained the same for the past 5 years: around 3 in 10 adults have provided unpaid help to an organisation or group in the last year.  Younger adults have tended to work with children and with sporting activities, whilst older adults have preferred to volunteer for religious organisations, community groups and groups working specifically with the elderly.

There is ongoing evidence of the under-representation of disadvantaged groups in volunteering, particularly those living in deprived areas and those with longer term health problems or a disability.

People may face barriers to getting involved in the first place, or are forced to drop out due to changes in their own circumstances such as the onset of ill-health or disability, the arrival of a child or moving home.

Volunteering, sickness and disability: the volunteering rate for those with a longterm health condition of 12 months+ and/or a disability was only 13% in 2017, compared to a national volunteering rate of 28%.[23]

Volunteering and deprivation: there is a clear correlation between deprivation and formal volunteering. Only 19% of the population volunteered in the 20% most deprived areas in Scotland in 2017, compared to 37% in the 20% least deprived.[24] However, the publications reviewed on informal volunteering often noted its importance for participation of underrepresented groups.[25]

Volunteering and income: linked to the problem of deprivation, we know that in 2017 those earning above £40,000 have the highest volunteering rate at 39%, which is nearly double the rate (20%) for those earning £6,000-£10,000.[26]

Volunteering and educational qualification: the higher one’s educational attainment the higher the likelihood that one will volunteer. In 2016, the volunteering rate for those with degree or professional qualifications was 42%, compared to a volunteering rate of only 11% for those with no qualifications.[27]

Volunteering and gender:

  • Women are more likely to volunteer than men. In 2017, 30% of women had volunteered in the last 12 months compared to 26% of men.
  • Women were more likely to volunteer with children and young people (26% children’s activities associated with schools and 22% youth/ children), with ‘health, disability and social welfare’ organisations (18%) and ‘religious groups’ (17%).[28]
  • Men were more likely to volunteer with ‘sport/exercise’ organisations (23%), with ‘hobbies/recreation/arts/social clubs’ (20%) and with their local community (20%).[29]

Volunteering and age:

  • Those in the age group 35-44 had the highest level of Adult volunteering participation rate in 2017 at 33%. The lowest adult participation rate was for those aged 25-34 at 23%.
  • Younger adults were more likely to volunteer with children and young people and help with sporting activities, whilst older adults were more likely to volunteer for religious organisations, community groups, and groups working with the elderly.[30]
  • The volunteering rate for young people aged 11-18 was 52% in 2016, nearly double the adult volunteering rate of 28% in 2017. Sport or exercise was by far the most popular volunteering activity for young people at 49%, followed by children and youth groups.[31]

Volunteering and ethnicity: there is a marginal variation in formal volunteering participation rates between those of white ethnicity at 27% and those of minority ethnicity at 25% in 2016. Furthermore, this gap has been narrowing over the last 10 years.[32]

Volunteering and rurality: historically, rural areas of Scotland have had significantly higher adult volunteering rates compared to urban areas. Over the period 2007-2016 rural rates have been between 7%-11% higher than urban rates. However, this gap narrowed to only 2% in 2017.[33]

People volunteer because they want to, because they can and because there is something for them to do.

Volunteering throughout life 

Our motivations and capabilities to get involved will change in response to changes in our own health, our family and other responsibilities, our work situations, our financial position and a whole range of factors. In some cases these changes may be a spur to getting involved in volunteering, but these transitions can equally be trigger points that lead people to withdraw from their existing social networks. 

We know the importance of cementing habits as early as possible in life and sustaining those habits as we go through life.  

It is also important to remember that volunteering is a cultural activity and the motivations and factors predicting participation will vary across ethnic groups and communities.  Improving our understanding of cultural differences in volunteering participation is important, particularly in the context of migration, identity and integration.

Yet these realities are not always reflected in the way in which opportunities are constructed and supported, particularly within formal volunteering settings.

We need to do more to develop opportunities to support more people to continue to volunteer throughout their lives and to stay connected to opportunities.

People volunteer for lots of reasons. Understanding motivations can help us see what people hope to achieve from their volunteering.

Reasons for volunteering infographic

Barriers to volunteering

Time, Physical Access, Lack of information, Transport, Costs, Language barriers.

Decline of places and spaces, Technological developments, Bureaucracy, Inflexibility of offer, Undesirable tasks, Lack of access to equipment, Lack of support and organisation.

Emotional Lack of confidence, Not knowing what to expect, Not feeling welcomed or valued, Lack of welcome, Stigma, Stereotypes, Fear.

Barriers more prominent for certain groups

Barriers to starting volunteering

Barriers to continuing to engage with volunteering

Key findings

The majority of people make some contribution at some point in their life – but those who sustain this over their lifetime are in the minority.[34] And yet these are the people organisations rely on most.

There are stark inequalities in participation – particularly in formal volunteering.

People participate in different ways and at different times and all volunteer journeys are unique.

Place is important.

Volunteer experience matters.

Barriers reflect wider structures of inequality, and so change is linked to wider social policy.

Values play an important role in motivating and sustaining engagement.

There is no single lever that will result in increased and improved volunteering participation – action is required across sectors and by multiple partners.


Email: helen.webster@gov.scot

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