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EACEA National Policies Platform


2. Voluntary Activities

2.1 General context

Last update: 25 January 2021

LAST MODIFIED ON: 26/06/2020

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  1. Historical developments
  2. Main concepts


Historical developments

Voluntary action can be found throughout British history, associated with religious institutions as well as with philanthropic actions of the wealthy. As the sphere of state provision in the UK grew in the twentieth century, and particularly in the years following the second world war, the need for charitable and voluntary involvement in meeting basic social welfare needs was reduced. The consequent changes in the role played by voluntary action in society was outlined in areport by the then Scottish Executive in 2004:

We have come a long way from the roots of volunteering in the 19th century, when genteel middle-class ladies visited prisoners and impoverished waifs in workhouses. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, volunteering has evolved into a much more egalitarian activity whereby everyone has something to contribute and everyone has something to gain.

The introduction to the chapter on volunteering in the results of the 2015Scottish Household Survey, published in 2016, says:

The Scottish Government recognises that volunteers are of all ages form a valuable national resource, vital to the success of Scotland and that volunteering is a key component of strong communities. Volunteering is all about new experiences, feeling good and making a difference and it is important to recognise the benefits of volunteering, in terms of skills development, participation, community empowerment and strengthening public services.

Regarding young people, the then Scottish Executive's 2004Volunteering Strategy included 'Focusing on Project Scotland and young people' as one of its four strands. It stated:

            ….if volunteering is to truly become an integral part of Scotland’s culture, action must be prioritised on Scotland’s young people. It is known that young people are underrepresented in volunteering. It is also known that direct action targeted at young people, complemented by support to get them involved, works. Action for the younger age group will be important in facing the challenges of sustaining volunteering as Scotland enters a period of dramatic demographic change.

Note: Since 2007, the Scottish Executive has officially been known as the Scottish Government.

Main concepts

Volunteering is the giving of time and energy through a third party, which can bring measurable benefits to the volunteer, individual beneficiaries, groups and organisations, communities, the environment and society at large. It is a choice undertaken of one’s own free will, and is not motivated primarily for financial gain or for a wage or salary.


The definition of volunteering used by the Scottish Government was updated for the Volunteering for All: National Framework 2018. As discussed in the Scottish Household Survey 2018 annual report (p.220)

In developing the Framework, the term volunteering is used to describe the wide range of ways in which people help out, get involved, volunteer and participate in their communities (both communities of interest and communities of place). These contributions range from the very formal such as volunteering with public sector bodies and community councils, engaging with local clubs and charitable / community organisations, getting involved with local activism or helping out with community activity, to very informal participation such as helping a neighbour with their bins or bringing shopping in from the car.

Recognising the wide range of volunteering contributions, new biennial questions on informal volunteering were included for the first time in the Scottish Household Survey (SHS) 2018. 

In 2014, Voluntary Action Scotland (see sub-heading ‘Cross-sectoral cooperation’ in the article ‘Administration and Governance of Youth Volunteering’) issuedVolunteering Principles for Scotland:  Embedding Volunteering across Policy Agendas in Scotland,  which gave the six principles of volunteering as follows:

  1. Volunteering is a free will activity and the definition and application of volunteering will be respected.
  2. Volunteering represents a valuable contribution to society which helps deliver stronger, more resilient, communities.
  3. Volunteering is not job replacement.
  4. All public policy should consider its impact on volunteering.
  5. Public services should be planned in a way that is enabling of volunteering.
  6. Volunteer Involving Organisations are supported to build their capacity and support and manage volunteers effectively.

TheScottish Compact, first published in 1998 by the then Scottish Executive and revised in 2003, is one of four Compacts providing a framework for national Government-voluntary sector relationships across the UK. The shared values of the Compact include (but are not limited to):

  • a democratic society that acknowledges the value of voluntary sector activity and upholds the right of individuals to associate freely with one another in pursuit of a common purpose within the law
  • active citizenship involving the widest possible participation by people in the lives of their national and local communities
  • pluralism, which welcomes the diversity of identities and interests within Scotland
  • human rights to promote a sense of strong community and to encourage respect for each other as both individuals and as members of a community with common values
  • equality of opportunity, which maximises the opportunities for all people to contribute from their distinctive traditions, religions, cultures, values and abilities to the shared life of the wider community, as well as their own particular communities of need and interest.

The 2003 Compact reflects a shared intention to achieve an open and participative working relationship between the Government and the voluntary sector in Scotland.  An analysis of the two Compacts showed that the 2003 version had a more explicit emphasis on the role of intermediary organisations in areas such as implementation. Related to this was a realisation that some groups may have difficulty in making their voices heard and that the sector may not always be representative of all groups.