Diverse group of people discuss volunteering trends from across the world

Lessons in volunteering from around the world

Published: 06/11/23 | Categories: Volunteering, Author: Rob Jackson & Martin J Cowling

International volunteering experts Rob Jackson and Martin J Cowling recently spoke at our gofod3 session looking at how volunteering has changed in recent years and how we can stop its decline.

Volunteering in the 21st century is transforming significantly, shifting landscape and people’s perspectives. It started before the pandemic’s emergence and has been accelerated by it. You are not alone if you see fewer volunteers, a ‘lower commitment’ and a change in interests, focus and priorities. We are seeing this across the world.

We have access to so much valuable data about volunteering. As a result, we have a very accurate picture of volunteering. Two such resources are:

  1. The Community Life Survey (CLS), a large government study that has been running since 2001, provides valuable trend data on how many people volunteer and why some people give time and some don’t. The CLS is now England-only, as volunteering is a devolved responsibility across the UK. Nonetheless, it is a helpful, up-to-date, long-term data set.
  2. Time Well Spent (TWS). Published in 2019 and 2023, TWS looked at a large sample of volunteers across England, Wales, and Scotland to explore their feelings about their volunteering experience. These all show declines in volunteer numbers and volunteer hours given.

To understand and interpret these reports, we recommend:


Government austerity

Reduced public financing has put charities under additional pressure to accomplish more with fewer resources. As a result, volunteer contributions are now even more essential to bridging the gaps left by financial reductions. There is minimal funding for volunteer management (Wales is fortunate to have the long-standing Welsh Government backed Volunteering Wales Grant).

Appropriation of ‘volunteering’

Governments, corporations, and institutions have appropriated the term to include activities that could be traditionally considered national service, employee community services, paid work, or punishments. This blurring of lines between volunteering and other activities has raised questions about the nature of volunteering.

Technology – divide & challenge

While technology has created new volunteering opportunities, it has also presented challenges. The digital divide means only some have equal access to online volunteering opportunities, creating disparities in engagement. Additionally, the rise of remote and virtual volunteering has implications for organisations.


Evaluating everything

The 21st century individual is more discerning, evaluating organisations based on their impact and transparency. People want to know that their voluntary efforts are making a difference, and they are increasingly drawn to organisations that can demonstrate their impact through data and examples.

Feeling overwhelmed by issues

Today’s members of the public face many pressing global issues, from climate change to social inequality. While this heightened awareness can motivate individuals to volunteer, it can also leave them feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenges. When asking people to volunteer, we are competing in a sea of issues.

Doing more online and more locally

The digital age has made it easier for people to connect with products, causes and events across the globe. Simultaneously, people are increasingly focused on their local communities, wanting to be involved closer to home.


Older people reviewing priorities

Older individuals are reviewing their priorities as people live longer and healthier lives. Many are no longer choosing to devote time to volunteering, meaning their valuable time. skills and experiences are being lost to organisations. This demographic shift highlights the need for volunteer programs catering to older adults’ preferences and lifestyles.

Younger people wanting impact

Conversely, younger generations are entering the volunteering landscape with a desire for meaningful impact. They are drawn to causes that align with their values and are more likely to engage in short-term, high-impact projects. If they do not see this impact, they won’t commit. Organisations must adapt their volunteer opportunities and communication strategies to engage younger volunteers effectively.

Time is a major focus

Volunteers seek opportunities that offer flexibility and convenience in a world where time is a precious commodity. Micro-volunteering and episodic volunteering, which allow individuals to contribute in small, time-limited increments, are rising. Organisations accommodating these preferences are more likely to attract and retain volunteers.

Institutional cynicism

Institutional cynicism has grown in recent years, with some individuals questioning the effectiveness and ethics of traditional charity models. To overcome this scepticism, organisations must be transparent, accountable, and able to demonstrate their impact.


Most of the volunteering we saw during the COVID-19 lockdowns was informal, mutual aid style activity that was self-organised. Typically, this was easy to access with little or no bureaucracy. Often the whole recruitment process involved a simple ‘yes’ in response to a WhatsApp message. We call it ‘frictionless volunteering’.

As the pandemic fades, however, many volunteer involving organisations have reinstated the previous approach to volunteering, with lengthy administrative processes before anyone can start volunteering. The forms and paperwork are back!

Whilst they are necessary in some circumstances, such as regulated environments (think Care Inspectorate Wales), more often they are an organisational comfort blanket to try and avoid any risk in volunteer engagement. And they aren’t helping. The Time Well Spent report found that volunteers are now more likely to think their volunteering is becoming too much like paid work (up from 19% in 2018 to 26% in 2022).


To survive, volunteering has to completely transform. We have to change the way we see the community contributing to our organisation. We have to change the structure, timing, focus, impact and outcome of volunteer roles, the language we use, how we market, how we recruit, how we train and how we manage. In other words, a complete revolution.

How can we streamline our systems and processes to make them more frictionless for potential volunteers? How do we balance people’s expectations of frictionless volunteering with our requirements around safeguarding etc.? These are essential questions and priorities for volunteer involving organisations.

We need a renewed effort to provide quality volunteer experiences for all. We need to make significant changes to stop this inevitable ongoing slide in volunteering involvement. There will be options only if we make these changes. Creating a new vehicle for volunteering means we will see individuals and communities continue to make a difference for the issues we grapple with as a global community.


Third Sector Support Wales (TSSW) partners – the 19 local County Voluntary Councils and WCVA – will be running some follow up practical workshops to our gofod3 sessions ‘Where to? Lessons from volunteering around the world’. Events will be taking place online over the autumn, to register your interest please email volunteering@wcva.cymru.