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Research reveals the rise of the digital volunteer, with more than 90% of voluntary organisations moving operations online during the pandemic

The latest research into the impact of the pandemic on voluntary organisations has revealed increased positivity among charities, greater diversity among UK volunteers, and the rise of the digital volunteer.

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The number of volunteer roles being carried out online increased in 39% of the voluntary organisations which responded

Mixed impact on volunteer numbers

The latest data (May 2021) from the seventh monthly Covid-19 Voluntary Sector Impact Barometer, led by Nottingham Business School, part of Nottingham Trent University, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), and Sheffield Hallam University, shows that despite large numbers of first time volunteers coming forward during the pandemic, just 24% of charities reported an increase in volunteer numbers since March 2020, compared with 36% who saw a decline.

38% of the voluntary sector organisations also reported a decline in the amount of time contributed by volunteers, with just 29% reporting an increase since the beginning of the pandemic. The range of activities undertaken by volunteers had also reduced for 40% of charities.

In the past month 20% of organisations said they expected an increase in volunteering, with 19% expecting a decrease. This is the first time more have expected an increase and follows positive trend. This mixed volunteering picture is set against an increased number of organisations (66% in May compared to 59% in April) expecting greater demand for their services in the short term.

Increased diversity in volunteering

The pandemic has brought several positive changes to UK volunteering, including many organisations reporting a significant shift in the diversity and range of volunteers participating.

As a demographic more likely to be impacted by the restrictions the pandemic has imposed on in-person activities, 31% of the organisations experienced a decrease in the number of older volunteers (50+) actively engaged in their organisation. A decrease has also been reported by 18% of the respondents regarding disabled volunteers and 9% for the number of volunteers who identify as Black, Asian or minority ethnic.

Rise of the digital volunteer

The new data also shows the expansion of online and digital volunteering. 92% of the organisations surveyed stated that they had moved services online in the past year as a result of the pandemic. This led to an increase in the number of volunteer roles being carried out remotely in 39% of organisations. As a result of the increased presence of digital, 26% of the respondents found it necessary to recruit volunteers with different skill sets to their normal volunteers.

More positive outlook among charities

The research also shows a gradual but consistent decrease from 80% to 64% across the seven months of the survey in the number of organisations expecting the pandemic to negatively impact their ability to deliver their objectives. For the first time during the pandemic, more organisations (22%) expect their short-term financial position to improve than to deteriorate (19%).

Daniel King, professor of organisational behaviour at Nottingham Business School and project lead, said: “The pandemic has seen a shift in not only who has been volunteering but also how they are volunteering. Many people who have had to shield or look after their families have been unable to volunteer, at least in person. This has meant voluntary organisations have reduced volunteer capacity and at the same time they have had to engage more with volunteers to support their wellbeing. This reduces their capacity further.

“However other people, either because they had more time through furloughing or have wanted to help their community, have been able to volunteer, sometimes for the first time. This has opened up new ways of volunteering, through digital and remote practices, and introduced a more diverse group in terms of skills and demographics than would otherwise have been involved in volunteering. This is a real positive of the pandemic.”

Alex Farrow, head of networks and influencing at NCVO, said: “Overall, we see a mixed picture for formal volunteering during the pandemic, with some organisations seeing new volunteers, from all walks of life, many volunteering for the first time. Other organisations have struggled, either through volunteers having to shield, or having to suspend volunteering altogether.

“The increase in volunteer diversity during the pandemic is welcome and overdue, and the new opportunities and flexibility opened up by digital and micro volunteering are exciting for the sector. We need to consider what measures can sustain these changes and ensure volunteering is open to all.

“It is right that we all take the time to thank volunteers this Volunteers’ Week for the huge impact they have made in the past year. As we move out of lockdown this is a pivotal moment for all volunteer engaging organisations to build on the positives we have seen in the pandemic and plan strategically for the future of volunteering.”

Among other findings, the research also showed:

  • 30% charities reported a deteriorating financial position in the last month; 25% saw their financial position in the last month improve; and 44% reported a stable financial position in the last month. The gap here has narrowed as restrictions have begun to ease.
  • 37% voluntary organisations indicated that their range of services has decreased since March 2020; 38% reported an increase in their range of services since the beginning of the pandemic.
  • 64% of respondents expect Covid-19 to have a moderate or significant negative impact on delivering their objectives next year.
  • 6% of organisation surveyed reported that it was quite likely or very likely that their organisation would no longer be operating next year, a decrease from 8% last month.
  • Notes for editors

    Press enquiries please contact Helen Breese, Public Relations Manager, on telephone +44 (0)115 848 8751, or via email

    About the report: The Covid-19 Voluntary Sector Impact Barometer is the UK’s largest temperature check on the state of the voluntary sector during the pandemic. It is part of the Respond, Recover and Reset: The Voluntary Sector and Covid-19 project led by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), Nottingham Trent University and Sheffield Hallam University. In this seventh wave of the report, 579 organisations from across the UK responded to questions about the impact of the pandemic on volunteering within their organisations.

    Information on previous editions of the barometer can be found here:

    Report 1 (October 2020)

    Report 2 (November 2020)

    Report 3 (January 2021)

    Report 4 (February 2021)

    Report 5 (March 2021)

    Report 6 (April 2021)

    About Nottingham Business School at Nottingham Trent University: Nottingham Business School (NBS) at Nottingham Trent University (NTU) is a world leader in experiential learning and personalisation of business, management and economics education and research, combining academic excellence with positive impact on people, business and society.  NBS has an unrivalled level of engagement with business, public and voluntary organisations and thus is known as the business school for business. With more than 6,000 students, NBS is also one of UK’s largest business schools.

    NBS is accredited by EQUIS and AACSB, which are internationally recognised hallmarks of excellence and quality for business education. NBS courses are ranked in the Top 20 for Accounting and Finance and for Economics in The Guardian Good University Guide 2021. The School is one of only six UK business schools recognised as a PRME Champion and held up as an exemplar by the United Nations Principles of Responsible Management Education (PRME).

    Nottingham Trent University (NTU) was named University of the Year 2019 in the Guardian University Awards. The award was based on performance and improvement in the Guardian University Guide, retention of students from low-participation areas and attainment of BME students.

    NTU was also the Times Higher Education University of the Year 2017, and The Times and Sunday Times Modern University of the Year 2018. These awards recognise NTU for its high levels of student satisfaction, its quality of teaching, its engagement with employers, and its overall student experience.

    The university has been rated Gold in the Government’s Teaching Excellence Framework – the highest ranking available.

    It is one of the largest UK universities. With nearly 32,000 students and more than 4,000 staff located across four campuses, the University contributes £900m to the UK economy every year. With an international student population of more than 3,000 from around 100 countries, the University prides itself on its global outlook.

    The university is passionate about creating opportunities and its extensive outreach programme is designed to enable NTU to be a vehicle for social mobility. NTU is among the UK’s top five recruiters of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and was awarded University of the Year in the UK Social Mobility Awards 2019.

    About Volunteers’ Week: Volunteers' Week is a long-standing, national event in the voluntary sector, established in 1984 and now in its 37th year. It is supported and celebrated by small grassroots organisations as well as larger, household-name charities, who together run hundreds of events across the UK. These events showcase and celebrate volunteers and the contribution volunteering makes in our communities. The theme for this year’s Volunteers’ Week is ‘A time to say thanks’ – marking the incredible contribution of volunteers during the coronavirus pandemic. Volunteers’ Week is led in partnership by NCVO, WCVA, Volunteer Scotland, and Volunteer Now.  Follow #VolunteersWeek.

    About NCVO: The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) is the largest membership organisation for the voluntary sector in England. With over 16,000 members, NCVO represents all types of organisations, from large ‘household name’ charities to small voluntary and community groups involved at the local level. We are also the lead body for volunteering in England. To find out more visit

Published on 21 May 2021
  • Category: Press office; Research