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Some challenges starting to ease but volunteer numbers a rising concern, Barometer finds


Some challenges are starting to ease for charities, with optimism on financial position and recruitment growing. However, volunteer numbers are a rising concern – especially for smaller organisations, according to the latest VCSE Sector Barometer.

The latest quarterly Barometer from Pro Bono Economics and Nottingham Trent University’s National VCSE Data and Insights Observatory found that volunteer recruitment is difficult for 63% of small charities – up from 45% last November, while 4 in 10 consider retention a main concern. Overall, four in ten charities lack enough volunteers to meet their objectives, and almost six in 10 (56%) say volunteer recruitment has been difficult over the past year.

In addition, around one in six charities overall believe the wellbeing of their volunteers has deteriorated in the past 12 months. The findings reflect government data showing a decade-long decline in regular volunteering rates.

Impact of economic & social pressures on volunteering

The trend is being exacerbated by wider economic and social pressures, with the cost of living crisis impacting volunteer retention for 34% of charities, and making volunteer recruitment more difficult for 19%.  At the same time, 27% of charities say lack of organisational capacity is a key issue for volunteer recruitment while 17% lack the resources to retain them.

In part driven by volunteering challenges, 47% of large and medium-sized charities do not think they will meet demand over the next three months, compared to 31% of small charities.

Growing optimism elsewhere

However, the Barometer also identified growing optimism elsewhere, with an increasing expectation among charities that their financial position will improve, and a marked reduction in concern about energy costs.

This means that for the first time since the survey series began, in November 2022, more than half of charities of all sizes now expect to meet demand over the next three months. The survey also found increased confidence in recruitment – with a rise since November in the proportion of charities of all sizes expecting their workforce to grow in the next three months.

Times are still challenging however: with a majority saying need continues to grow, and while more expect to meet this need, a large proportion do not expect to do so. 

Between November 2022 and May this year, charities of all sizes reported increased optimism about their financial outlook. Among medium-sized charities this rose to 28% from 21% in November, while a quarter of small charities now expect their finances to improve, compared to a fifth in November. Large charities recorded the biggest jump in optimism, with a third now saying they expect their financial position to improve over the next three months, compared with less than a fifth (17%) in November.

This is in part driven by the drop in energy prices. The Barometer found concerns about energy prices have fallen over the past six months for charities of all sizes. Small charities, in particular, are less concerned about the cost of energy now – with just under a quarter (23%) ranking energy prices as a main organisational concern, compared to two-fifths (41%) in November.

Renewed confidence has also been identified in relation to recruitment. Since November, the proportion of charities of all sizes expecting their workforce to grow in the next three months has increased. Nearly half (48%) of large charities now expect to recruit more staff, compared with just over a third (36%) in November.

Need for charity services continuing to rise

Although expectations for recruitment and the near-term financial outlook have improved, the challenging economic landscape means the need for charity services remains very high. Almost three-quarters (73%) of large charities and four in five (81%) medium-sized charities responding to the survey said that this had increased over the last three months. More than four in five (83%) large charities said they expect need to grow over the next three months too.

Matt Whittaker, CEO of Pro Bono Economics, said:

“With the tougher winter months behind us and the first glimmers of hope emerging in the economy, our latest survey seems to suggest that the car has at least shifted out of reverse for the social sector.


“Nevertheless, there is a lot of ground to make up. Demand for charity support continues to rise and finances remain restrictively tight for very many organisations. Against this backdrop, it’s worrying to see concern about volunteer recruitment, retention and wellbeing growing across the sector.


“The enormous number of volunteers that came forward for the Big Help Out, as part of the Coronation celebrations, was hugely encouraging to see. It is important the sector is now supported and puts in a concerted effort to convert this show of volunteer spirit into a sustained return for organisations around the country.”

Prof Daniel King, Director of the National VCSE Data and Insights Observatory, said:

“This is the third of our quarterly Barometer surveys and we are now beginning to see evidence of trends in the sector’s evolving response to the conditions in which it is operating. It is heartening to see that concerns over energy costs and staffing are beginning to ease.


“However, there is an emerging picture of increasing challenges for our small groups and organisations, who are so dependent on the energy, commitment and skills of volunteers for their survival.


“According to the Barometer, 58% of small organisations found their experience of volunteer recruitment over the past year difficult, and concerns around volunteer retention are escalating.  Worsening wellbeing among volunteers in smaller organisations is also an emerging concern.”

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