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A Research Snapshot: Volunteering and the Voluntary Sector

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A Research Snapshot: Volunteering and the Voluntary Sector

by Andrew Hanna, Research & Information Officer, Volunteer Now

Volunteer Now is currently undertaking a 9-month study designed to understand the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on volunteering.  This blog summarises the findings from the second set of interviews, completed in February 2023.  For a summary of interview 1 findings, click here:


Key and Persisting Themes

1. Recruitment

There is still appreciation of the high level of competition between organisations with more groups thinking outside the box to be successful. Geographical variation persists as a challenge, and it is important that organisations begin to understand the value of building a profile in these ‘harder-to-reach’ areas. Evidence from the first set of interviews highlighted that the most successful groups in terms of recruitment, tended to be viewed as a ‘community hub’ in their area.

However, while recruitment remains a key challenge, there are areas of improved as will be discussed later in this blog.

2. Cost of Living

The cost-of-living crisis has resulted in a challenging environment, presenting real difficulties for individuals and organisations alike. Organisations continue to struggle with increased running costs, decreased fundraising income and a reduction in donations.

3. Support for volunteers

Volunteer managers are spending a lot of time supporting their volunteers. If anything, there is greater emphasis and focus on support now, when compared to before Christmas. Organisations continue to monitor mental health and wellbeing of staff and volunteers, given the external pressures, and this continues to take much needed time away from wider delivery. One interviewee reported that many people coming forward to volunteer with [organisation] have more complex needs…and higher expectations which requires additional resource from ourselves.

4. Organisational support needs

When asked about support needs, a number of suggestions were the same as those mentioned during Interview 1. The need for longer-term, easily accessible funding persists. Furthermore, several interviewees touched on the need for more up to date and current research on volunteering, i.e. assessing attitudes and barriers. Again, interestingly, this was more commonly mentioned during interview 2 than previously.

Finally, networking opportunities and general volunteer management support (promotion, policy/procedural reviews) remain crucial for organisations. An additional benefit of networking is the fact that it allows staff members to ‘stop and reflect’ during hectic periods.

5. Opportunities

Similar to support needs, the same opportunities were identified during interview 2 when compared to interview 1. Volunteering has been extremely important for communities during the pandemic and more recently during the cost-of-living crisis. Organisations would love to see volunteers and volunteering recognised on a national scale by government for two reasons; to sufficiently show gratitude to those who selflessly helped others; and to act as a profile raiser for volunteering across society, possibly encouraging people to return to volunteering as a consequence.

New and Emerging Themes

1. Recruitment vs Retention

As already mentioned, there is great competition between organisations. This, coupled with the emphasis on supporting volunteers suggests that organisations are placing added value on retaining their existing volunteers, and this is what we heard from the majority of interviewees.

Furthermore, this shift has become possible because of the positive early signs of recruitment increases. Perhaps this much-needed boost is a result of reflection during Christmas, increased confidence to return, or the well-known ‘New Year’s resolution’ to volunteer…but only time will tell. It is important to caveat that this is taken from a relatively small sample of organisations, who have already experienced serious drops in volunteer involvement. These recruitment increases must always be put into context with what has come before.

2. Increased Face-to-Face Engagement

There were several interviewees who remarked on this very positive theme. Generally, there was collective optimism that we are beginning to step forward and move away from Covid-19. The covid lockdowns have had a long-lasting (maybe even an underappreciated) impact. This finding suggests that people have more confidence and are happier to engage and participate more on a face-to-face basis. This was a huge challenge in October, so is a really interesting development.

On the other hand, I also heard that many service users are more reluctant to come across the door and socialise face-to-face at the moment. This could be due to a range of factors, such as the treacherous weather, or even that they don’t know what opportunities are available! This leads onto the next theme. All of this means that volunteer-involving organisations are having to work even harder to ensure these isolated individuals are engaging with the community.

3. Communication Channels

Organisations are keen to have better communication tools, such as newsletters, to outline what is happening in particular areas. This would help in two ways: 1) to help isolated people find out what is happening in their area; and 2) to promote volunteering opportunities to the local area, where recruitment success is often highest.

In terms of communication and promotion of volunteering, the primary method being used is social media. However, it is crucial that other methods are explored and used to prevent those without Internet or social media from being digitally excluded.

4. Environmental aspects of volunteering

Interestingly, a few interviewees mentioned the environmental impact of volunteering. This is a theme which is undoubtedly going to increase in popularity as time goes by, but it is worth making note of at this stage. One interviewee highlighted the lack of opportunities through environmental schemes (e.g. tree planting, solar panel installation, etc.), suggesting that this is an area requiring more attention by local government and funders. In future, this could be the theme of collective lobbying from the voluntary and community sector for the implementation of such schemes.

Another important aspect to highlight is around Generation Z. This generation commonly consider the ethics of an organisation before agreeing to purchase a product, and this is likely to be the case before deciding to volunteer with a particular group or organisation. Therefore, it will be beneficial for organisations to develop an awareness of their carbon footprint and environmental impact moving forward. This is not yet urgent, but it is worth consideration from organisations.

5. Underrepresented groups

Again, a key theme of discussion was on underrepresented group involvement in volunteering. During the first set of interviews, additional support for these individuals was identified as a major opportunity for the sector. There were a couple of new developments to this in February. There appears to have been a slight shift towards facilitating and supporting refugee involvement, with additional pots of funding becoming available to engage this group in the wider community. On the other hand, reductions in funding have led to discontinued projects and programmes. One group suggested that funding cuts had led to large decreases in disability participation. Therefore, it remains a very real challenge and is an area that must remain on the agenda.

Conclusion: A “Cause for Optimism”

Overall, this batch of interviews paints a slightly more positive picture for volunteering. At the end, interviewees were asked about how they feel about 2023. All interviewees acknowledged that there are aspects of their role which cause anxiety, but on the whole, there is genuine excitement about the year ahead- a year to be proactive and forward-thinking, as opposed to reactive. Overall, the theme emerging throughout this blog is resilience. It will be interesting to hear from the group again in a few months to see if this optimism develops into meaningful positive action.

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