"Volunteering for All” An achievable goal?

5 October 2017

Only 11% of Scotland’s sick and disabled volunteered in 2016, a shockingly low figure compared to the adult participation rate of 27%. What does this mean for an inclusive and fairer Scotland? 

MLMatthew Linning, head of research at Volunteer Scotland, discusses some key findings from the recent publication of the Scottish Household Survey, 2016

In autumn each year we wait with bated breath for the latest volunteering statistics from the Scottish Household Survey (SHS).  So on 26th September we pounced on the latest data from Scotland’s ‘Gold Standard’ for research into formal volunteering.  On first glance it looked very much ‘business as usual’: a flat-lining of the overall adult participation rate at 27% for the last three years; a modest gender imbalance; volunteering participation increasing by income; and the usual rural/urban variance.

However, a closer inspection of the data brings into stark relief the significant disparities in access to volunteering. The most eye-catching statistic was the paltry 11% volunteering rate for adults who are ‘permanently sick or short-term ill-health or disabled’ (down from 17% in 2015). Now we can try to explain away such ‘inconvenient truths’ with explanations such as those who are sick are not fit enough to volunteer; but this is not good enough.

Matthew Blog _graph

Margin of error at 95% confidence level is between: +/- 1.0% and +/- 1.2% for overall volunteering rate, +/- 4.1% and +/- 5.4% for sickness / disability rate

We know that the majority of individuals suffering disability and mental and physical health issues could volunteer, but they often can’t due to the barriers they face. They are not self-excluding themselves; rather it is society which is failing to take the measures required to engage them as valued members of the volunteering community.

At the recent Heritage Volunteer Managers’ Conference I attended a workshop on ‘Access to Volunteering’. It was really uplifting to hear delegates’ stories of how their organisations had made the extra effort to support those suffering from visual impairment, hearing loss and physical disability. They demonstrated what can be achieved by informed organisations which have the belief and commitment to support all volunteers, irrespective of their disability.

However, Scotland’s ‘access to volunteering’ problem is much wider than sickness and disability. We know from the SHS survey that volunteering participation by those in other disadvantaged groups is also low.

For example, those living in the 20% most deprived areas of Scotland the volunteering rate is 18%, compared to 30% in the rest of Scotland. For those who are unemployed it is 21%, and so on.

The typical volunteer in Scotland is middle class, economically active, fit and with strong social capital. But what about the old-aged pensioner suffering isolation and loneliness; what about the ex-offender struggling to re-engage with society; the immigrant wanting to make friends and feel part of their new community; etc. etc.

The irony is that the marginal benefit from volunteering for those excluded from society is so much greater. The challenge is therefore how we turn the goal of “Volunteering for All” into a reality on the ground.

The good news is that the SHS provides evidence of what can be achieved through concerted action. Youth volunteering by the ‘millennials plus’ (16 – 24 year olds) has now risen to 32%, the highest volunteering participation rate for any age group in Scotland.

Furthermore, there is emerging evidence of ‘flow-through’ from volunteering by secondary school pupils (11 – 18 year olds), which has risen from 33% in 2009 to 52% in 2016. This transformation has been achieved through a concerted effort by Scottish Government, the Saltire Award Scheme, the Third Sector Interfaces, Project Scotland, Young Scot, #iwill, Youth Link Scotland, Education Scotland, Voluntary Action Scotland, the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme and ourselves amongst many other organisations.

The challenge is how this type of concerted action could be developed to engage those who are most excluded from society but who have so much to gain from volunteering. If the success in the growth in youth volunteering could be replicated then we may be a step nearer to achieving our goal of “Volunteering for All”.

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