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Recruitment and retention aren’t the answer to volunteer shortages

Rob Jackson, leading volunteerism expert, writer, trainer, and consultant reflects on the solutions to decreasing volunteering rates. Join Rob on 20th June for our Online Training Event: Delivering Outstanding Volunteer Engagement

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Volunteer Shortages

We all know that the Covid-19 lockdowns and the current cost-of-living crisis have affected volunteering rates. I’ve written about it on my blog, and the sector press has shared reports of volunteer shortages, like this one from last year and this from January.

The solution to these woes is often suggested to be the two Rs: recruitment and retention. Personally, I do not believe that this focus on the two Rs is the solution, at least in a traditional sense.

Why? Well, my view is that if we pursue recruitment and retention as it is typically understood in the sector, we would be putting our effort into actions like this:


  • Work harder (not smarter) at what we’ve done before: do more of the same, but with more intensity and frequency.
  • Craft new recruitment messages to try to grab people’s attention and stand out from the pack.
  • Find ways to seek to more people, for example: through large-scale recruitment campaigns; attending recruitment fairs; finding new sites for posters; signing up with different recruitment websites etc.


  • Focus on making sure we don’t lose volunteers regardless of their behaviour, performance, or needs. This is what Marla Benson refers to as Scarcity of Numbers/Imbalance of Quality.
    ”We never have enough volunteers. Because they are always scarce, we tend to take on (and keep) volunteers even if they are problematic or not a perfect fit.”
  • Find ways to keep people for longer, even if they aren’t that keen to do so, perhaps starting to formally recognise length of service, or providing other incentives to stay.
  • Guilt trip people into staying. For example, ‘if you leave then we won’t be able to keep helping people in the same way, so please stay for a bit longer’. Be honest — we’ve all done it at some point!

The Problem

The problem is, none of these approaches will work in a context where attitudes to volunteering have shifted. As many people have said for several years (including pre-pandemic), people today want more flexible volunteering that fits around their availabilities & interests, that connects them to a larger sense of purpose, and that really makes an impact. If you want the evidence, look no further than NCVO’s excellent Time Well Spent report, which lays all this out in detail thanks to a survey of some 10,000 people.

(NB. The Time Well Spent report was published in 2019, but a new version is coming in May 2023!).

Similarly, people want to volunteer on their terms and perhaps do things that may well not match your organisation’s traditional understanding of volunteering. No more making cups of tea and stuffing envelopes, instead we may see a growth in activism, campaigning for social justice or action to tackle the climate crisis. All volunteering, even if society rarely labels it as such.

All of this change means that, as I am fond of saying, doing what we’ve always done (or doing more of it) won’t get what we always got.

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The world has changed, and so must we.

Trying harder to recruit and retain volunteers just isn’t going to cut it.

Anyone reading this who is a Volunteer Engagement Professional will probably know this. They’ll be all too aware of the need to change and adapt if they want to find and keep good volunteers who will positively impact the cause and mission of their organisation.

Maybe the rest of this article needs to be read by others in the organisation? The board. The CEO. The Finance Director. The management team. Your colleagues who look to you, the Volunteer Manager, to find them volunteers.

Because if the roles we want volunteers to do aren’t flexible and impactful enough, then however well-crafted and fancy looking our recruitment campaign is, we will struggle to engage new volunteers.

Because, in a cost-of-living crisis, if we don’t make available the funds to reimburse volunteer expenses, then people won’t volunteer because they simply can’t afford to be out-of-pocket to subside our work.

Because, if we are not prepared and set-up to be flexible, to let volunteers take a break, to switch roles, to walk away, then our retention efforts will stall and likely fail. All those beautifully designed length-of-service certificates will be wasted. We keep volunteers by being open to letting them go, not hanging onto them for dear life.

Because, if we think now might be a good time to scale back funding and support for volunteer engagement because the Volunteer Manager post doesn’t bring in any income and budgets are tight and getting tighter, then we are only going to make the volunteer recruitment and retention problems worse.

For our organisations to succeed at volunteer engagement post-lockdown, we need systemic change.

Volunteer engagement can’t be left to just one overworked Volunteer Manager any more.

Volunteer engagement can’t be the first thing to get cut when money gets tight.

Volunteer engagement requires proper resourcing, proper support and needs to be elevated to a genuine strategic priority, not just something senior leaders talk nicely about in Volunteers’ Week and then neglect for the rest of the year.

Yes, we all face challenges in 2023, some more than others. Yet in time of adversity we see creativity and innovation bloom.

With the right support, the potential of volunteering in our current context is huge.

Change is needed if we are to realise that potential.

Change that we, as Volunteer Engagement Professionals, have to drive. Because if we don’t, it’s likely nobody else will. We have to become more influential, more persuasive, more tenacious in our efforts to shape the wider context for volunteering in our organisation.

There are no shortcuts or quick fixes, but the rewards have the potential to be huge.

Are we up for the challenge? 

To develop practical solutions for effectively engaging your existing volunteers, developing attractive roles, and improving your future strategy attend our Online Training Event: Delivering Outstanding Volunteer Engagement

This article was originally published on Rob Jackson's Blog and can be viewed here.