A woman has her head in her hands, she is worried about finding enough volunteers

‘In an emergency, put on your own oxygen mask first’

Published: 20/12/23 | Categories: Volunteering, Author: Natalie Zhivkova

WCVA’s Policy & Insights Manager, Natalie Zhivkova delves into the volunteer recruitment and retention challenges facing organisations in Wales.

There is a natural ebb and flow to volunteer participation, influenced by changing socio-economic, cultural, environmental and policy circumstances. The millions of people offering a helping hand during the COVID-19 pandemic were a source of hope and inspiration, but we are now faced with an alarming trend of declining volunteer rates.


Last month we conducted a survey of over 150 voluntary sector representatives. 90% reported they have experienced volunteer recruitment issues in the past six months, with 31% describing their volunteer recruitment challenges as ‘severe’. Additionally, 82% reported volunteer retention difficulties, with 14% classifying their retention problems as ‘severe’.

This worrying trend comes at a time when voluntary organisations are struggling financially and bracing for an influx of new service users with more complex needs in the wake of cuts to public services.


The adaptability and creative thinking typical of the voluntary sector is exemplified where collaboration, changes of practice and small targeted investments have resulted in widened volunteer pools and more stable retention rates.

Effective engagement with young people, as seen in Foothold Cymru’s Volunteens: Be Heard. Be Helpful initiative, provides a blueprint for creating the volunteers of the future. The incorporation of volunteering hubs into specialised tools, such as Innovate Trust’s Insight community app for people with learning disabilities, makes volunteering accessible to a wider audience.

Organisations that are not currently experiencing severe recruitment and retention challenges are nonetheless concerned about volunteers’ wellbeing and rising support needs:

‘It is noticeably a more challenging time […] We are finding [that] our volunteers (both existing and new) need more support from the staff team […] Mental health is not as robust because of stresses in other parts of their [lives], and we feel a duty to put extra resource into supporting them.’ – Survey respondent.


We first received reports of volunteer recruitment and retention difficulties in parts of the sector back in 2021. Following the end of furlough schemes organisations lost many of their working age recruits while volunteers of retirement age were not returning in substantial numbers. Simultaneously, a sustained high service demand put a lot of pressure on existing volunteers, leading to burnout.

Two years on, the sector is still operating in a challenging environment. The pressures of the cost of living crisis have had a big impact. Participants in our recent survey pointed to a lack of time, lack of awareness, and financial constraints as the top three barriers for new volunteers.

Lack of time: Many have taken on additional employment or gone back into the workforce from retirement. Others have had to leave their volunteering roles to support friends and family with childcare.

Lack of awareness: It is natural to first look inward and ensure our basic needs and the needs of those closest to us are met at times of financial insecurity. This means people are looking out for volunteering opportunities less and may not be thinking about the collective and individual benefits to be gained from giving their time. Public awareness of where to find volunteering opportunities and the wide variety of roles available, including digital and short-term options, is inadequate.

Financial constraints: Volunteers are not able to afford upfront transportation or other costs, even when organisations offer prompt reimbursement. In some cases, the reimbursement does not reflect true costs and leaves volunteers out of pocket.

The challenges are similar when it comes to retention. Reduced availability, financial constraints related to the volunteering role and worsened physical or mental health unrelated to volunteering were identified as the top three factors.


Volunteering comes with a host of benefits not only for the individuals and communities it supports, but also for the volunteers, our public services, and Welsh society overall.

Volunteering has a positive impact on our mental and physical health, builds community cohesion and helps us live more fulfilled lives. This has been recognised in the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act as National Well-being Indication 28. Percentage of people who volunteer, which maps out Welsh Government’s ambition for Wales as a volunteering nation.

Positive impacts aside, it is equally important to consider what would happen if people in Wales are no longer able to turn to and support their neighbours. We have a proud history of stepping in at times of need, from Tredegar Medical Aid Society, which inspired the creation of the NHS, to the Urdd. Volunteering is ingrained in our history and culture.

Volunteering plays a crucial role in prevention, follow-up, specialised support and community outreach. How many doctors’ appointments will be missed because volunteer drivers can no longer subsidise inadequate milage rates? How many would suffer with loneliness in silence, instead of being connected with each other to reduce isolation?


The changing landscape: The COVID-19 pandemic triggered a process of accelerated change, transforming nearly every aspect of our lives – how we work, how we socialise, and how we volunteer. Digital roles, micro volunteering, and flexible opportunities have risen in popularity.

What motivates people to volunteer and the expectations they have of their volunteering experience have changed. WCVA published a report featuring recommendations for government, funders and voluntary organisations on the steps they need to take to adapt to the new landscape.

Raising awareness: Third Sector Support Wales (TSSW) has re-launched the Volunteering Wales website – an optimised, free, national platform designed to be a link between volunteers and organisations looking to recruit. It’s our way of ensuring that finding and advertising volunteering opportunities is easy, quick and intuitive.

The launch was extensively covered in national media on International Volunteer Day with features in Wales Online, Nation.Cymru, Radio Wales, Radio Cymru and BBC Cymru, among others. This gave us an opportunity to speak about the severe volunteer recruitment and retention challenges faced by organisations across the country. The media campaign will continue into the new year.

‘You do give a little, but you gain an awful lot. And that’s in terms of meeting new people, developing new skills, but also just giving something back. And I think it’s true – you get out of life what you put in.’ – Ruth Marks, Chief Executive of WCVA speaking about the benefits of volunteering on BBC Radio Wales Breakfast.

Influencing government: We raised our concerns at a Third Sector Partnership meeting, which led to a ministerial statement followed by a debate in the Senedd Siambr. The Minister for Social Justice announced plans for a new national approach to volunteering and we saw cross-party support for volunteers.

Members of the Senedd highlighted the importance of sustainable funding for the sector, volunteer training programmes, and adequate resourcing of public services. We continue to highlight volunteer recruitment and retention challenges as part of the broader pressures affecting the sector in our targeted communication with ministers.

WCVA is part of a coalition calling for a review of the Approved Mileage Allowance Payment (AMAP) – a rate capped at 45p per mile, which has not been reviewed since 2012 and no longer covers true costs.

Your suggestions: Through our recent survey, we received over 100 suggestions for ways in which changes in policy, practice, funding, cultures and attitudes could help alleviate volunteer recruitment and retention difficulties. We are currently reviewing the data and devising an action plan.

If you have thoughts to share on this topic please email policy@wcva.cymru.