Policy, campaigns & research

What’s going on with volunteering trends?

Jay Kennedy explores the current data on volunteering.

Volunteers are the lifeblood of the charity sector, worth by various estimates in the tens of billions of pounds annually to the economy. Imagine what would happen if that contribution suddenly wasn’t there? The charity sector and much of society as we know it would fall apart. 

Don’t forget that more than 700,000 charity trustees are mostly volunteers too – taking on responsibility and risk for hundreds of thousands of charities. Without them, our sector literally wouldn’t be able to function. The system of charity regulation and accountability just wouldn’t work and effective governance of thousands of charities would grind to a halt. 

But volunteering isn’t just about the economic metrics of course. It’s a big part of the glue that helps hold our society together and gives people meaning in their lives. Volunteering helps people to connect with one another in communities and contributes to what policy wonks call ‘social capital’. It’s an essential part of what you might call a good or healthy society. 

Which is why it’s concerning that the available data shows declining trends in both formal and informal volunteering. Formal volunteering is done through an organisation; for example with a charity, club or association. Informal volunteering means doing things for other individuals who aren’t a relative on an unpaid basis, where an organisation isn’t involved. 

Both formal and informal volunteering are declining 

An important resource which feeds into several other analyses of volunteering is the Community Life Survey (CLS) hosted by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The CLS has several sections, including ones on formal and informal volunteering. Based on a representative survey of adults aged 16+ in England, it shows a notable drop since the start of the pandemic. 

For the year in which the most recent data was available (2021/22), only 27% of those surveyed say they engaged in formal volunteering at least once in the past year, whereas 16% say they did so in the past month. This compares to a figure of 37% and 23% respectively before the onset of the pandemic, similar to the rates for a relatively stable period in the years before. Rates of informal volunteering are higher than for formal volunteering but have also dropped significantly recently. 

Many charities are finding it hard to recruit volunteers 

So what about charities experiencing these trends? Fresh research from the Nottingham Trent University VCSE barometer survey offers some insights. Using data gathered from charities in 2023 and 2024, the research finds that a majority of organisations surveyed are continuing to find volunteer recruitment difficult, with 4 in 10 not being able to recruit enough volunteers to meet their objectives. The public’s lack of time is given as the most common barrier. 

What’s going on here? Nobody has a definitive answer, but there are likely to be many different wider factors at play, from social and demographic shifts to changes in the economy and workforce. For example, many households now have two people working full-time, which leaves less time for volunteering. 

However, the impact of the pandemic and its aftermath is likely to be a significant factor in the latest data. Although the data indicates an increase in informal volunteering at the onset of the pandemic – as people helped out their neighbours or did more while furloughed – since that time the cost-of-living crisis and other time pressures have taken their toll. Hopefully, if the economic conditions improve and charities can adapt their volunteering offers to be flexible and relevant, participation rates might improve again. 

DSC has a wealth of volunteering resources that can help 

Charities can help recruit and retain volunteers by making sure they’re as flexible as possible, offering opportunities that match the interests of the person and give them a sense of achievement and value, and by properly inducting and training them. Make sure your volunteers feel valued and ‘part of the team’ and you’re more likely to attract them and to keep them on. Simple things like reimbursing volunteers for expenses are important too, particularly given the difficult economic conditions for many people. 

The available data might sound discouraging, but don’t get bogged down by it. There are still millions of people out there that are volunteering or want to, and there’s a lot that charities can do individually and collectively to find and keep volunteers. For example, The Big Help Out is 7-9 June. 

In conclusion, think about some tips from DSC’s recent Volunteering in 2024 Conference:  

  1. Find new ways of inspiring people 
  2. Build communities, don’t fill roles 
  3. Look to recruit friends into your organisation  
  4. Tailor opportunities to the person and what their needs are 
  5. Communicate clearly what you offer and how flexible you can be; don’t assume people know anything about how your organisation works. 

DSC has a huge range of resources that can help, including the Complete Volunteering Management Handbook, and free articles from our expert trainers and others, so do check out these resources especially during Volunteers Week! 

If you’d like to find out more about what DSC can do to help you with volunteering, whether it’s with training, publications, or research, contact us at [email protected]