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May 15, 2019

Volunteers of the future

People volunteer for all manner of reasons and roughly half of the population do so at some point in their lives. While that might seem like a lot of people, equally it means there’s a lot of people choosing not to participate. Dig a little deeper into the numbers and it becomes apparent that around a fifth of those who volunteer do two thirds of all the volunteering work. Dig some more and you hit the problem of an aging population with its potential impact on volunteer numbers going forward. So it’s timely that Scottish Government has developed this framework.

Scottish Government

Volunteering For All

Volunteering in Scotland is already making a crucial contribution to building social capital, fostering trust, binding people together and making our communities better places to live and to work.

Action to increase volunteering participation for all and to address inequalities is vital to continue to expand opportunities for more people to volunteer and participate in society. Although an estimated 51% of the adult population in Scotland has volunteered at some point in their lives, 49% have not. An increase in volunteering will also make a considerable contribution towards our individual, community and national economic and social well-being, particularly in the face of demographic and societal change.

The annual value of volunteering in Scotland is estimated to be £2.26 billion.4 Volunteering is clearly of great social and economic importance to the people and communities of Scotland. Within these communities, there are often those who are more likely, or more able, to volunteer than others. Volunteers in Scotland are more likely to be:


             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

This demonstrates the under-representation of disadvantaged groups in volunteering due to their exclusion from formal volunteering opportunities. This matters because it is important that volunteers and volunteering represent the population of Scotland and all of the interests that their volunteering serves. Furthermore, we know that the health and wellbeing benefits from volunteering tend to be greater for those who are marginalised.

There is also a heavy reliance on a ‘civic core’ of highly engaged individuals who provide the majority of volunteering hours in Scotland. In 2016, 19% of all volunteers delivered 65% of all volunteer hours – that’s 225,000 adults contributing 102 million hours of the total 157 million hours volunteered in 2016.

But we cannot be complacent in our reliance on this core group of volunteers. Our population is changing. We are becoming more diverse, and more people are living for longer, often with longer term health conditions. By 2041 there will be 428,000 more people aged 65+, but 144,000 fewer people of working age.8 The proportion of adults with long-term health conditions is increasing too: from 41% in 2008 to 45% in 2017.

In addition, more people will be working for longer and may be caring for longer – either for elderly family or for their own dependants as older family members, who might have once been relied on to support childcare, are working for longer – suggesting those from the younger end of the ‘civic core’ may not feel able to contribute as much. Already there is evidence emerging from the pre-retiral age group (45 – 59 years) of a decline in formal volunteering participation rates over the period 2007 – 2017: from 34% to 30% for females and from 33% to 28% for males.

All this change comes at a time when new technology poses both huge opportunities and different challenges for volunteering practice. Digital volunteering is growing but many smaller organisations have neither the resources nor infrastructure to support new ways of working. And there will be an ongoing need to balance the benefits of digital help with the face-to-face engagement that is so critical to so much of volunteering practice.

So, we cannot only rely on the same ‘civic core’ of people, or on their contributions coming in the same ways. Without acting to attract and retain a more diverse pool of volunteers, volunteer involving organisations may well lose capacity. Without taking action to engage and support people of all ages and backgrounds to volunteer throughout their lives, communities will lose out on their talents. And without celebrating and promoting the benefits of volunteering to everyone, those individual benefits will not be enjoyed by those at most risk of missing out.