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20th December 2023

The State of Volunteering in 2023: Trends and Challenges

Decline in Formal Volunteering

One notable trend is the decline in formal volunteering participation rates. Between 2019 and 2022, the percentage of adults engaged in formal volunteering decreased from 26% to 22%. This decline is concerning, especially considering the increased societal need during these challenging times. Factors including COVID-19 and the cost-of-living crisis have almost certainly contributed to this decrease in formal volunteering engagement.

On the other hand, there has been a rise in community and neighbourhood volunteering, with 27% of adult volunteers supporting their local communities. This shift may be attributed to the community-based volunteering efforts that emerged during COVID-19. Encouragingly, the variations in volunteer participation by demographic groups in community and neighbourhood volunteering are minimal, indicating a more inclusive nature of this type of volunteering.

Volunteer Recruitment Challenges

Volunteer recruitment has become a significant challenge for Volunteer Involving Organisations (VIOs). The shortage of volunteers is the top concern for 17% of organisations, and it ranks within the top three issues for 34% of them.* Additionally, in a survey conducted by the Volunteer Action Plan Cost of Living Task Group1, a staggering 76% of VIOs report difficulties in recruiting volunteers, while 61% face retention issues. This shortage can be attributed to various factors, including the increased demand for services, a reduction in resource to support volunteering, individual’s time, and the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on individuals’ ability to volunteer.

Furthermore, the Cost-of-Living Survey highlights the specific challenges in recruitment and retention. These include fewer people coming forward to volunteer (66%), volunteers having less time to dedicate (59%), and the adverse effects of the pervading sense of perma-crisis leading to volunteer fatigue and apathy (28% and 22% respectively).

Demographic Variations in Volunteering

The demographic landscape of volunteering in Scotland is diverse, reflecting variations across disability, age, gender, ethnic groups, and deprivation, as evidenced by data from the Scottish Household Survey 2022 and the Young People in Scotland Survey 2022.

Age: Despite a fall in participation rates from 2019, young people aged 17-18 exhibit a remarkable formal volunteering participation rate of 68%, indicating their resilience in engaging in volunteer activities compared with those 11-16. The Scottish Household Survey reveals that 31% of adults aged 16 and over volunteered formally at least once a month in 2022. Those aged 60+ are much more heavily engaged in ‘religion and belief’ volunteering compared to those aged 16-34 of which 34% support ‘youth/children’s activities outside school’. Both groups are equally involved in ‘Local community or neighbourhood’ volunteering.

Gender: Gender disparities in volunteering have diminished, with equal participation rates between boys and girls. Historically, girls have had higher participation rates in volunteering. Men and women were also equally likely to undertake formal volunteering, however women were more likely to report having participated in informal volunteering.

Ethnicity: Volunteering engagement also varies among different ethnic groups. Those identifying as ‘white – other British’ have the highest participation rate at 27%, while other ethnic groups, such as ‘white Scottish,’ ‘white – other,’ and ‘minority ethnic,’ exhibit slightly lower participation rates. Nonetheless, involvement in community and neighbourhood volunteering is fairly consistent across all groups.

Disability: Disability remains a key factor in participation rates. Disabled adults were less likely to volunteer than non-disabled adults (17% vs. 23%), which maintains this long-term disparity in engagement. Counterintuitively, young people with long-term health conditions (LHCs) had higher volunteering participation rates, both formally and informally, compared to those without LHCs.

Deprivation: Deprivation levels also play a role in volunteering participation rates. Individuals living in the most deprived areas exhibit lower formal volunteer participation rates compared to those in less deprived areas. However, community and neighbourhood volunteering rates remain relatively consistent across all deprivation levels. Formal volunteering participation rates also vary by geographic location. The usual higher volunteering participation rate for those living in rural areas (29%) compared to the rest of Scotland (20%) remains.

Challenges Faced by Volunteer Involving Organisations

Volunteer Involving Organisations (VIOs) face numerous challenges in the current volunteering landscape. Apart from volunteer recruitment and retention issues, VIOs also struggle with staffing shortages, lack of resources to manage and support volunteers, and for some a growing pressure to substitute paid roles with volunteers.

Financial challenges arising from the cost-of-living crisis further complicate the volunteering landscape. Volunteers may face difficulties affording travel costs but be reluctant to claim expenses or work with organisations that do not provide expenses. Additionally, the increased financial hardship and vulnerability in communities have led to increased service demand in places, putting additional pressure on ever tighter VIO budgets.


The state of volunteering in 2023 reflects the impacts of COVID-19 and the ongoing cost-of-living crisis. While formal volunteering has seen a decline, community and neighbourhood volunteering has gained prominence. Volunteer recruitment challenges, demographic variations, and the specific issues faced by VIOs highlight the need for strategic interventions and support.

To navigate the changing landscape of volunteering in Scotland, it is crucial to address the challenges and trends identified. Volunteer recruitment strategies must be adapted to attract individuals from diverse demographic groups, including those living in deprived communities and those in the global majority.

VIOs should prioritize inclusive volunteering, seeking out new audiences while understanding what works in their area of interest and sharing best practice. Collaborative efforts between organisations, government agencies, and community stakeholders can help mitigate the challenges faced by volunteers and VIOs. By working together, we can ensure that volunteering remains a vibrant and impactful force in Scotland’s communities.

Kelly Eagle

Research Officer

* Please note this survey has a snapshot of organisations in Scotland and is not weighted to be representative of the sector.