Seven insights into volunteering in Scotland and designing an effective volunteer programme

By Marcus Coetzee, 23 November 2022.

There are over a million volunteers in Scotland and this is evident around me. 

Over the past year, I have tried to understand this phenomenon as I have worked with several charities and social enterprises that use volunteers.

Fortunately, some colleagues at Community Enterprise are very experienced in designing and managing volunteer programmes. They have taught me many of the basics and improved my thinking about this topic.

Here are seven things that I have learned so far about volunteering in Scotland.

1. Volunteering is widespread in Scotland

I regularly meet people who volunteer wherever I go.

For example, my car broke down several weeks ago, and I got a lift home with a gruff tow truck driver. On the journey home, we started chatting and he revealed passionate stories about his volunteering activities in Scotland, Africa and Eastern Europe. Such stories are often shared by the people I meet.

Both my wife and I volunteer – her with the Sma’ Shot Cottages (a heritage centre) and me with the Cranfield Trust. We also do some ad-hoc volunteering around our community and this seems to be commonplace.

The 2019 Scottish Household Survey, with a sample of 10,580 respondents, found that 26% of those aged 16 and older had engaged in formal volunteering over the past year. Rates of formal volunteering were slightly higher in rural than urban areas and by women rather than men. Formal volunteering tended to focus on activities that involved children, youth and local neighbourhoods. The proportion of the population involved in informal or ad-hoc volunteering is almost double that of formal volunteering but it is notoriously difficult to measure. While the level of formal volunteering is impressive, it has sadly declined from a high of 31% in 2010. This decline is evident throughout the UK.

Unfortunately, the methodology for measuring volunteering is slightly different across the UK which makes the results incomparable. Nevertheless, the results do suggest that volunteering in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is also high.

2. Volunteering is rooted in culture

Formal volunteering in Britain stems back to the Middle Ages when churches ran volunteer hospitals. The Victorian Era in the 19th century witnessed a massive growth in philanthropy and the establishment of charities such as the YMCA (1844), The Salvation Army (1865), Bernado’s (1886) and the British Red Cross (1870). This was because activists and philanthropists took steps to create organisations to reduce poverty and the abuse of human rights that were emerging with urbanisation, industrialisation and conflict. Volunteering was closely linked with religion and supported by churches during these times as it embodied Christian virtues.

Volunteering further increased as people got involved in the two world wars and the Great Depression which hit the UK in the 1930s. Then by the 1950s, volunteering had started expanding into other causes and areas of society, much as it is today. The government also endorsed the value of volunteering as well as the contribution of charities, social enterprises and other voluntary organisations.

In addition to this historical foundation, I have heard three additional sets of explanations for why volunteering is so common here. The first is that people have sufficient financial stability and surplus time to enable them to donate extra time to charitable causes. While this might be under threat in the current economy, my article on the cost of living crisis found that philanthropy tended to increase during a crisis. The second reason for the high rate of volunteering is people’s acute awareness of social issues combined with a sense of agency and a belief that one can make a difference. Finally, there is the historical view that communities in Scotland (and other cold countries) had to cooperate to survive the harsh and desolate winters, and this survival trait has become embedded in their cultures.

3. Volunteering is not ‘free’ labour

It is a false yet common assumption that volunteers are ‘free’ or inexpensive labour that can easily be plugged into the organisation to save money. I have heard my colleagues admonish people who hold this incorrect belief.

The truth is that it costs time, money and attention to recruit and work with volunteers.

For example, a charity will need to pay the salaries of staff to recruit, supervise and support its volunteers. It will also need to reimburse volunteers for their out-of-pocket expenses and pay for equipment, training and background checks. Furthermore, it must regularly put aside some funds to celebrate with volunteers and thank them for their good work.

Therefore organisations must have the funds to run a volunteer programme and be able to ring-fence this funding. If they don’t have the resources to work with volunteers, then they should rather postpone their efforts until they do, lest they damage their brand and ruin their future chances.

I have learned that volunteers are never free. It can be expensive to find the right volunteers, use them effectively, and ensure that their needs are also met.

4. There is intense competition for volunteers

Everyone wants to attract capable and engaged volunteers as they are worth their weight in gold.

This makes it a very competitive process.

Organisations should aim to provide a positive, flexible and seamless application process, but this also has to be balanced with attracting the quality and skill set they require. It is unwise to categorically accept everyone who applies.

I have learned that volunteers are wise and likely to do their own due diligence before they volunteer for a charity, social enterprise or government service. They may check out websites and social media accounts and do Google searches. They will also speak to people who might know the organisation. Then if they detect even one scandal or hint of an unfriendly culture, they will look elsewhere.

It is useful to consider the experience that a volunteer will have in responding to an advert or call for volunteers, and going through all the stages of selection, appointment and induction. An organisation might interview volunteers who have already gone through this process to identify things to improve. I have a close friend who is a user-experience designer and I imagine that her skill set would be useful in this context.

5. Volunteers are the second area of impact

This is one of the most profound things that I have learned about volunteering so far. It drastically shifted my paradigm on volunteering.

Charities should explicitly seek to have a positive impact on their volunteers (as opposed to focusing exclusively on their existing beneficiaries, customers or cause). This creates an additional area of impact which is equally important.

A successful volunteer programme will help volunteers to:

  • feel valued for their contribution
  • learn and improve their skills
  • gain confidence through their work
  • feel a sense of belonging and being part of something greater than themselves, whether it be a team, organisation or cause
  • feel that they are making a genuine difference to someone or something.

Organisations that can reliably achieve these outcomes will have a more impactful volunteer programme.

Furthermore, volunteering will improve people’s abilities to understand and cooperate with those who they might never normally have met through their everyday lives. This helps to foster social cohesion and create a sense of shared identity in communities.

6. Volunteers inevitably leave

Regardless of how much money and effort you put into your volunteer strategy, it is inevitable that volunteers will move on someday.

There are three main reasons for this.

Volunteers might leave (or be forced out) if they are unable to fulfil their expected duties, can’t acquire the required skills or are a poor fit with the organisation’s culture. Such problems indicate a failure of the recruitment processes.

Volunteers might leave because of problems they encounter with the organisation. They might be unhappy with how the organisation is running or how it dealt with an ethical situation. They might have directly experienced, heard or read something they don’t like. Such problems contaminate an organisation’s brand and must be urgently addressed before they cause further problems.

The final reason for leaving is that volunteers have served their ‘term’ of service. This is something which I have only recently learned. Elderly volunteers might choose to retire and hand their roles over to their younger counterparts. Volunteers might have also gained sufficiently from the experience that they are able to move on in their own lives to better opportunities. Such would be the case for an unemployed volunteer who has gained the skills and confidence to get a job. This is a success problem that the organisation should celebrate rather than bemoan.

There is a ‘sweet spot’ that organisations should aim for when recruiting volunteers. They need someone sufficiently capable to contribute to their objectives while having personal needs that the organisation is able to meet. This value exchange will ensure that the volunteer is nicely aligned with the organisation. One colleague consistently reminds me that value exchange is the DNA of successful volunteer programmes.

7. Charities must design a volunteer strategy with a suitable value proposition

I have learned that successful volunteer programmes don’t happen by accident; they are explicitly designed and fine-tuned over the years. It requires substantial planning to find, work with, and retain volunteers who are skilled and engaged.

Charities and social enterprises must design a ‘unique value proposition’ which is a statement of the benefits that they will provide to their volunteers. It describes ‘what’s in it for them.’ This value proposition must be unique and not copied from a document template or another organisation. It must also be believable, achievable and competitive.

A model like the Circle of Courage is useful for thinking about the needs of volunteers and their intrinsic motivation to volunteer. This model is based on tribal wisdom and is often used by organisations that work with youth at risk. In our context, it would suggest that volunteers must feel a sense of belonging, mastery, independence and generosity in order to feel like a whole person. Ultimately, the volunteers must be enabled to flourish – something which is magical to observe and makes it all worthwhile.

The strategy must clearly explain the types of volunteers that an organisation is looking for, the work that they will do and the volunteer experience. Some organisations even put up a webpage with testimonials and case studies to highlight this opportunity. The volunteer strategy must also explain how they will be recruited, managed, supported and rewarded. A budget should also be provided. Overall, the volunteer strategy should achieve a clear and seamless experience for the volunteers from when they first hear about the organisation through to when they leave with a smile and sense of achievement.


A good volunteer programme enhances the impact of charities and social enterprises as volunteers bring new ideas, skills and energy to how things are done. Sometimes, volunteers can also achieve things that professional staff cannot, as would be the case for someone who fills the role of a peer mentor or befriender.

Volunteer programmes must be guided by a coherent volunteer strategy rather than a general idea that some volunteers are needed. This strategy must enable a reciprocal relationship where both parties give and receive something that is important to them. When this reciprocal relationship is mismatched or mismanaged, organisations will struggle to attract and retain volunteers, and even if they did, then they would struggle to use them effectively.

Formal volunteering is sadly on the decline at a time when it is urgently needed – both for the impact they enable and for the benefits to the volunteers themselves. I believe that volunteering should complement government services rather than replace their shortfall or extend their reach. The insights in this article will help your organisation to reinvigorate volunteering.

In pursuit of strategic clarity

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