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The Contribution of Volunteering

Volunteering must adapt now if it’s to be fit for the future, according to a major new report by Volunteer Scotland and the Scottish Volunteering Forum launched recently.

‘The Contribution of Volunteering to Scotland’s Health and Wellbeing is an in-depth study that looks as far ahead as 2040. It reveals how volunteering can help Scottish society face some of its biggest challenges: an ageing population, labour market skills shortages, mental and physical ill-health, social isolation and loneliness, and poor community engagement.

Author of the report, Matthew Linning of Volunteer Scotland said:

“These are long-term problems with no quick fixes, but the evidence shows that volunteering has an important role to play in helping to make Scotland a healthier and more inclusive society. We know that volunteering is a powerful remedy with the potential to boost the health and wellbeing of volunteers. Regular volunteering, more than once a month, is often just ‘what the doctor ordered’, making the volunteer and those they support feel better. However, to help address the complex social and economic trends facing Scotland over the next 20 years, we must challenge the status quo for volunteering and its contribution to society. Volunteering in 2040 will need to have a very different focus to 2020.”

The scale and demographic structure of volunteering in Scotland is also predicted to undergo a radical transformation. According to the study the number of volunteers aged 65+ is projected to increase by 102,000 over the next 20 years, but the number aged 16 – 64 is projected to decline by 41,000.

Matthew added: “The good news is that this would result in a net increase in 8 million volunteer hours per annum by 2041.”

The study recommends that volunteering policy makers and practitioners focus on four key areas over the next two decades:

1. Health and Wellbeing

The report emphasises the vital importance of volunteering to Scotland’s health and wellbeing – a benefit that the researchers say we must capitalise on over the next 20 years.

Matthew said: “As volunteers get older, they are more likely to suffer from ill health and we’ll need to adapt volunteering roles to suit this ageing population. The good news is that the research also shows that volunteering can keep people active and well for longer. Younger volunteers, who are more likely to experience poor mental health, can also reap the rewards of getting involved with volunteering helping boost their confidence and self-esteem.”

2. Sport and Physical Activity

Sport also has a major role to play in the future of Scottish volunteering. There are currently 280,000 volunteers across 13,000 clubs helping to improve the health and wellbeing of the 2.3 million adults involved in sport and physical activity in Scotland. Sport will be key to helping achieve the Scottish Government’s National Outcome ‘We are healthy and active’.

3. Health and Social Care

NHS and health charities are also an important growth area for volunteering, with over 200,000 people currently volunteering in the health and social care sector in Scotland. Volunteers help to listen, inform, educate, manage and support the population on a wide range of health and wellbeing conditions.

4. Inclusion and Engaged Communities

How society fosters associational life, neighbourliness and stronger communities is also central to the future role of volunteering. Research shows that social connectedness through volunteering aids personal health and wellbeing, as well as community wellbeing.

Matthew said: “The strongest message which stands out from all this research is that the more disadvantaged a person is, the more important the contribution of volunteering is likely to be to their health and wellbeing. However, the irony is that those who can benefit most from volunteering are the people least likely to be volunteering. This is not just a key challenge but also a key opportunity. If we want to achieve a fairer and more equal society in Scotland, then volunteering has a crucially important role to play. Volunteering must reach out to and support those experiencing disadvantage and this should be a top strategic priority in the roll-out of the Volunteering for All: National Framework.”

Welcoming the publication of the new study, Communities Secretary Aileen Campbell said: 

“Volunteering can make a vital contribution to the health and wellbeing of our nation, both for the people who volunteer and those who gain from that support. It brings even greater benefits for volunteers who experience disadvantage and exclusion.  Making new friends, having fun and helping others can help improve volunteers’ mental health and build their confidence. While their activity also helps to create stronger, more engaged and inclusive communities.
As policy makers there’s much to learn from this study for the future and we welcome the opportunity to share learnings across Scottish Government, local authorities and Health and Social Care Partnerships to champion the health and wellbeing benefits of volunteering.”

To share the main report’s findings, Volunteer Scotland and the Scottish Volunteering Forum have created two supporting documents designed to guide volunteering policy and practice.

The first is targeted at policy makers and stakeholders, where the over-riding message is that volunteering needs to be integrated into a wide range of policy areas: The contribution of volunteering to a healthier and happier Scotland: How organisations can help to influence policy and practice in Scotland.The second is focused on good practice, to help volunteer managers and other practitioners optimise the health and wellbeing benefits from volunteering and help achieve a more inclusive society: Optimising Health and Wellbeing Benefits from Volunteering: Good Practice for Engaging and Supporting Volunteers.

Marion Findlay, Director of Services at Volunteer Edinburgh, said:

“We know that people who have the most to gain through volunteering, can be the most difficult to engage or the easiest to ignore.  This guidance gives simple hints and tips on how to create, develop and sustain opportunities which will appeal to people who have never volunteered before or do not see themselves as volunteers.”