Reach volunteer numbers at record high as overall volunteering falls

A line of wooden blocks increasing in size with a curved arrow pointing upwards
Janet Thorne
Chief Executive at Reach Volunteering

Exploring the potential reasons behind record highs and lows in volunteering. 

According to new research, volunteering has fallen to a record low. At the same time, people signing up to Reach Volunteering is at a record high. What’s going on? 

Volunteering is vitally important, especially for small organisations, so it’s worth unpicking this a bit. 

First, let’s look at Reach: 

  • Incremental growth through 2018/19, with peaks every January. Then a big surge during the pandemic. This is a common pattern. 
  • But then, since Oct 2022, just as the cost of living bites, a massive and unexpected climb.



And this is not just an idle intention to volunteer: applications for trustee and volunteer roles closely map sign up rates.



This contrasts sharply with the wider picture: 

What is driving Reach's growth?

Pre-pandemic incremental growth is due to improvements to our service (including new partners). We assume that annual January peaks are caused by New Year, New You thinking and the pandemic surge is a mix of a desire to help and furlough. But growth since autumn? 

It’s nothing specific that we’ve done. Rise is consistent across all sources. We attract most volunteers through third party sites like LinkedIn that serve up roles to match peoples’ skills. Few are looking to volunteer, but for a percentage, this prompt is enough.  

So our best guess is that this surge is driven by concern about the impact of the cost of living crisis on others. This correlates with research which shows that most people hold ‘intrinsic' values like care for others, and the planet, as most important (but that we routinely underestimate how much our fellow citizens care). 

Barriers affecting volunteering

So why then is volunteering falling across the sector? Some barriers are:

  • Expenses (being reimbursed afterwards  / only partially / not at all).
  • Rising transport costs.
  • Burnout from ‘core’ volunteers. 
  • More older people with long-term ill health.

More insights on this are very welcome!

Most Reach roles are remote / hybrid; and by reaching new audiences we mitigate burnout. Reach volunteers are also younger than the average volunteer (please note the data in this spreadsheet only includes age, ethnicity and gender. We added disability and sexuality but too recently for this data). 

Of course, many of the barriers are intractable (e.g. some volunteering has to be in person). Organisations like the Scouts are experimenting with different ways to resolve barriers like burnout (by, for example, making individual roles into team roles to spread responsibility). None of this is easy, and much local volunteering infrastructure has been decimated, so maybe fewer people are finding opportunities too?

But still, there are grounds for hope...

There is a big appetite to volunteer, if:

  • People are presented with relevant opportunities to do so
  • Barriers like cost are removed
  • We reach new audiences. 

Given how crucial volunteering is, especially for small organisations, let’s build on these strengths. 

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