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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

TFN is published by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh, EH3 6BB. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) is a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation. Registration number SC003558.

Youth Volunteering During Times of Crisis

This opinion piece is about 1 year old

Matthew Linning, Head of Research and Evaluation at Volunteer Scotland, discusses new evidence on the impact of the ‘perma-crisis’ on youth volunteering in Scotland.

The adverse impacts of COVID-19 on the health and wellbeing of Scotland’s young people are well known, with increased social isolation and loneliness, and deterioration in their mental health.

The war in Ukraine and now the cost of living crisis have also taken their toll.

However, we know much less about how young people’s engagement with volunteering has been affected by these crises over the period 2020 – 2022.

To help address this gap Volunteer Scotland commissioned Ipsos to include a series of volunteering questions in their omnibus survey of 1,533 secondary school pupils aged 11-18 across Scotland – you can read the results here.

The research was conducted between September – December 2022 and gives an excellent up-to-date insight on young people’s volunteering engagement.

Contraction in youth volunteering 2019 - 2022

Unsurprisingly, both formal and informal youth volunteering participation rates have declined since the last survey in 2019:

  • Formal volunteering – down 12 percentage points from 49% to 37%
  • Informal volunteering – down 7 percentage points from 25% to 18%.

COVID-19 and now the cost of living crisis are likely explanatory factors for these declines due to possible impacts such as:

  • Volunteering tasks being less suited to young people during crises.
  • COVID-19 and the cost of living crisis restricting the spaces in which formal youth volunteering takes place.
  • The closure of schools during COVID-19 which removed the positive influence of teachers in supporting young people’s participation in volunteering.
  • The adverse mental health and wellbeing impacts of the crises on young people which may have undermined their engagement in societal activities.

The big question is how long youth volunteering participation will be adversely impacted and will it return to pre-crisis levels?

Demographic variations

Our analysis has also shown that despite this decline in volunteering participation there are some really striking variations by demographic groups:

  • Age – the formal volunteering participation rate for young people aged 17-18 was a remarkable 68%, which is much higher than those aged 11-16. This shows how resilient formal volunteering has been for those of school-leaving age.
  • Gender – girls and boys were equally likely to volunteer, both formally and informally, in 2022. Historically, girls’ participation has been higher than boys.
  • Deprivation – young people living in the 20% most deprived areas of Scotland (quintile 1) were less likely to volunteer formally than those in quintiles 2-5. For informal volunteering there was no significant variation across quintiles.
  • Long-term Health Conditions (LHCs) – young people with LHCs had higher volunteering participation rates, both formally and informally, compared to those without LHCs. This is counter-intuitive and is the reverse of volunteering engagement by disabled adults.
  • Faith groups – volunteering by young people of Christian faith has declined dramatically – formal volunteering down 17 percentage points and informal volunteering down 15 percentage points.

Other key findings

The greatest contraction in formal volunteering by sector was the 12 percentage points decline in ‘physical activity, sport and exercise’ from 37% in 2019 to 27% in 2022. Interestingly, the major contributory factor was the much larger decline in boys’ volunteering participation in this sector compared to girls. The result is that girls’ participation is now 32% compared to only 22% for boys. This is a complete reversal of the historic gender stereo-type of higher boys’ participation.

A worrying finding has been the major decline in health and wellbeing, and career/skills benefits which young people derive from volunteering.

The most important ‘influencer’ in encouraging young people to start volunteering or do more volunteering is the ability to volunteer with a friend.  This may reflect the greater insecurity amongst young people and the comfort of engaging in volunteering with friends rather than on their own.

Contribution of formal volunteering

Finally, a positive note to finish on. Despite the overall decline in youth formal volunteering participation, the frequency (number of occasions) and intensity (number of hours) of those young people who do volunteer remains unchanged from 2019. Young people still provide a major contribution to Scotland’s volunteering effort. For example, they contributed 9.7 million hours of formal volunteering in 2022 and delivered a hugely valuable input across a wide range of charitable causes, which is all the more creditable given the impact of world crises over the last three years. Lastly, youth formal volunteering participation rate is still 10% higher than adults’ participation. One could therefore argue that formal youth volunteering has actually been very resilient given all the challenges it has faced.

Volunteer Scotland would welcome your views to help inform our ongoing research and the rollout of Scotland’s Volunteering Action Plan.  

Matthew Linning is head of research and evaluation at Volunteer Scotland



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