By Beth Kitson, Research and Policy Analyst

Volunteering is at an all-time low, hitting small charities hardest

Volunteering makes a multi-billion pound contribution to the economy, while making volunteers happier, healthier, and more productive in the process. From acting as mentors for young people, answering helpline phone calls, to driving delivery vans, volunteers are crucial to the way charities, community groups, voluntary organisations, and other non-profits that make up the social sector function.

But people across the country are no longer volunteering in the numbers they used to. The rates of formal volunteering have reached an all-time low. Only 16% of people in England volunteered at least once a month in 2021/22, down from 27% in 2013/14.

Low volunteering rates are not just bad news for the economy and for individuals but for charities across the country. The most recent VCSE Sector Barometer, a survey of over 500 organisations working in the voluntary sector conducted in early May 2024, shows that four in 10 (40%) of charities say their number of volunteers has been insufficient to meet their main objectives in the last 12 months.

It is small charities, which make up 80% of the charity sector and are more likely to be reliant on volunteers, which are struggling the most as a result of this decline in volunteering. And the volunteer recruitment challenge is worsening for small charities, not improving. Almost two-thirds (65%) of small charities have reported recruitment difficulties over the last 12 months, compared with 58% last year.

Large charities are struggling with volunteer recruitment too, but there are some signs that they are overcoming the challenge faster. Four in 10 (42%) large charities reported volunteer recruitment difficulties in May 2024 compared with over half (51%) this time last year, suggesting signs of improvement.

This is just one part of a tale of two sectors, with distinct differences between how large and small charities are equipped to grapple with high demand and continual financial challenges.

Work and care commitments are key barriers to recruiting and retaining volunteers, while age also plays a big role for small charities ability to retain their volunteer force

A range of reasons have been put forward to explain the decline in volunteering, including changes in how people spend their time, the presence of more women in work, retirement coming later in life, and a lack of innovation within the social sector. As well as changes in how people choose to spend their time, there are suggestions that people simply do not have the time to spare. In 2021/22, almost half (49%) of people who did not volunteer said the main reason was their work commitments. Charities recognise and experience this intensely: over half (53%) of charities surveyed reported that a lack of time is a key barrier to their volunteer recruitment efforts.

Importantly, time pressures at work, family and caring responsibilities have also been highlighted as key barriers to people continuing to volunteer once they’ve begun. Small charities surveyed in particular have suggested that people are giving up volunteering with them in order to care for others, with almost two-thirds (64%) reporting it as a barrier to volunteer retention, compared with 52% of large charities.

There is a clear sentiment among small charities that work and family responsibilities are increasingly entangled in the context of continuing financial challenges, with one volunteer at a volunteer-only charity reporting many “people [are] needing to work longer to support their families” so they have “less time to volunteer”.

Despite volunteering often being an important part of life for many people post-retirement, there is a considerable concern among smaller charities that elderly people are faced with barriers, from ill health, to a lack of transport facilities, to “caring for grandchildren to save their children money”. Volunteering is not immune from labour market concerns surrounding infrastructure, cost of care, and long-term sickness impacting economic inactivity. And with few signs of the UK population becoming healthier or younger any time soon, the 53% of small charities which are experiencing volunteers leaving because of age, and the 32% of small charities losing their volunteer force due to health issues, are not likely to see that flow stemmed any time soon.

Scarce resources and funding issues are particularly felt among small charities, and further sharpen the barriers to volunteering

Internal barriers faced by small charities, such as short-term funding and a lack of internal capacity and resources, are likely adding to external pressures pulling away volunteers.

Although unpaid, volunteers are not cost-free, and using volunteers effectively takes resources to manage, oversee, and support those that are giving up their time. Notably, just 8% of small charities responding to the Barometer reported having a dedicated volunteer manager, compared with almost four in 10 (39%) of large charities and over one-quarter (27%) of medium-sized charities. With volunteer coordinators devoted to recruiting and managing volunteers, including ensuring a fair and even rota, discussing roles and responsibilities, this might be important to ensuring volunteer wellbeing and avoiding burnout.

There is clear sentiment among charities that experienced and thoughtful volunteer coordination is important. But while a large charity may be able to take a strategic approach to volunteers, to invest in its volunteer management system, and to have robust processes and training offerings in order to overcome the draining away of volunteering spirit, smaller charities instead report missing out on funding for volunteer coordination and the loss of council support draining their capacity. These differences seem set to continue, with small charities bearing the brunt as volunteers drift away and aren’t replaced.

Flexibility and infrastructure support are part of the solution to the decay in volunteering

In a changing world, where people are constantly being pulled in so many different directions, the sector needs to harness its flexible and adaptable nature in its approach to volunteer recruitment and retention – because that’s what volunteers are seeking. Potential volunteers want to see flexible opportunities and assurances that they can give back to their communities in small ways at first, which don’t overwhelm their already stretched time. 

Post-pandemic, there are already interesting initiatives springing up to attract and retain volunteers seeking out flexible volunteering opportunities For example, one medium-sized charity responding to the Barometer introduced a “bitesized volunteering” approach which uses social media, videos, and e-newsletters to allow volunteers to respond to what it calls “often last-minute calls to action” which have been increasing in demand. Notably, the charity has said that “people who have never considered volunteering before are attracted by these calls for community action”. Yet with only one-quarter (25%) of small charities currently offering flexible volunteering, more could be done to build flexibility into volunteer opportunities.

Small charities need support with that adaptation. Many charities described the positive and “proactive” approach of local volunteering bodies and infrastructure organisations, where volunteering coordination is outsourced, allowing small charities to focus on delivering their main objectives, serving local communities and groups. But only a fifth (20%) of small charities had used local volunteering centres to attract volunteers, which raises a question about those infrastructure organisations’ reach and capacity, particularly in the context of a 25% decline in the number of local infrastructure organisations since 2011.

As with so many challenges in the charity sector, long-term, sustainable financial support for infrastructure organisations is crucial. Thoughtful investment in local civil society infrastructure should be seen as a fundamental part of the solutions to local economic regeneration, the contribution of an ageing population, inactivity, and much more.

Image by Centre for Ageing Better