Volunteering plays a critical role in UK society, and in the functioning of the charities, community groups, voluntary organisations and other non-profits which make up the UK’s social sector.

While the early months of the pandemic resulted in a surge of people supporting their neighbours and helping out in their community, it also resulted in formal volunteering – the kind of structured volunteering that takes place within organisations like registered charities – falling. A large proportion of volunteers in the social sector are elderly, and had to withdraw from volunteering to shield. Many volunteers dropping out of their usual shifts to focus their time on other pressing activities like shopping for someone on their street, or on home schooling or care. Social distancing made many usual volunteering opportunities difficult to offer, and so recruitment to offset even usual levels of attrition was difficult.

As this volunteering within the social sector has been in stagnation for some time, there has been significant concern that volunteering levels will not recover – with anecdotal evidence suggesting that many volunteers who paused their activities during the pandemic were not returning. That concern has been particularly pronounced in small social sector organisations, which are far more heavily reliant on volunteers for their survival than larger ones which can afford to pay for staff teams.

However, there are encouraging signs that this decline may now be in reverse, with volunteering in the sector finally recovering from its pandemic decline. In every part of the social sector, organisations big and small are reporting a rise in volunteering numbers over the last three months.

And there are great expectations that this rise is set to continue. Over half of social sector organisations expect volunteer numbers to hold steady in the months ahead, but a net balance of 20% of social sector organisations anticipate that their volunteer numbers will grow over the winter.

Reassuringly, the expectations in the sector are matched by public opinion. Almost a quarter of adults in the UK intend to formally volunteer in 2023, with young people particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of helping groups in the sector. If that intention to volunteer translated into actual volunteering, it would mean an additional 5.7 million people volunteering next year who are not volunteering today – including an additional 2.5 million younger people.

Such an influx of support would be an incredible boon for the social sector, at a time when demand and costs have risen worryingly high and financial resources are stretched.

Volunteers are by no means cost-free: some require training, many require due diligence, and all require good leadership and management to get the most out of them. All of this requires resource, which is in short supply in the sector at present – and creates challenges for seizing the opportunity that a rise in volunteer numbers presents. However, where social sector organisations do have the capacity and the means, they should look to grasp this exciting chance to turn 2023 into the ‘Year of the Volunteer’.

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