Feedback from the Network on Volunteering

by Solferino Academy | Jul 3, 2024 | Thought Pieces

Volunteering is one of the most important issues impacting the wellbeing of the IFRC network and its ability to fulfil its humanitarian mission. In our consultations, ‘Volunteer engagement and support’ was cited as the second most important priority for the organisation in the coming 5 years (after climate change), and the number one issue y respondents hoped would be improved by 2030. This was cited as more important for those who identified as volunteers rather than staff or leaders, however it was in general across all three groups a consistently very high priority.

Current State

Volunteering patterns and modalities continue to change across most countries in the world. These shifts have been well documented over the last decade, both by the IFRC network and other volunteer-involving organisations and think tanks and have again featured prominently in consultations.

Shifts include more alignment with causes rather than institutions, the desire for quicker mobilisation to deliver direct action with reduced bureaucracy, shorter volunteering life spans, and reduced availability due to economic shifts, life pressures and changes in expectations of the volunteer experience. While not all countries experience these changes at the same pace or intensity, survey respondents indicate the impacts are becoming more widespread and disruptive.

On top of these well documented shifts, other significant drivers of change appear to be emerging, including the role of digitalisation in volunteer management and service delivery. The impacts of the COVID pandemic have also been pervasive. While delivering a boost to our volunteer numbers during the crisis, any gains appear to be declining (with exceptions) and post-pandemic, COVID has seemingly exacerbated the trends outlined above.

Is the era of volunteer retention over?

Take the Survey

Don’t miss our Survey on Volunteering. Currently available in 7 languages: English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese (traditional), Italian, Portuguese (Portugal), Russian, Korean, Persian (Farsi)

While evidence is mixed at a global level, available data suggests a downward trend in formal volunteering, even as youth remain highly engaged and active in the social and environmental causes they are passionate about, focusing their energy on actions outside traditional volunteer institutions.

The implications of these shifts are significant across virtually all domains. Most the organisations’ service models are predicated on the availability of trained volunteers participating with some degree of regularity, consistency and longevity. If the emerging volunteering trends persist, they present a threat to reliable service provision at meaningful scale and manageable cost. Conversely, as the organisation grapples with new types or combinations of crises which necessitate more complex service responses, the network needs more sophisticated skills in its volunteer base. This challenges existing engagement and retention strategies and brings National Societies into competition with other sectors seeking the same capabilities.  

“Even the activities and projects that my National Society is developing are more effective, interesting and better oriented to our contemporaneity. Perhaps the values ​​of volunteering have decreased. Most tasks require a level of knowledge and management that is difficult to achieve with your free effort. I don’t think this is a bad thing, but just the expression of a world that is changing more quickly than in the past.”

Future Priorities

Despite the manifold challenges, people cite youth and volunteers as two of the greatest opportunities for the organisation. The volunteer base is still massive in many parts of the world (110 National Societies count more than 5,000 volunteers in their base) and there are large numbers of highly committed, passionate and ‘longer-term’ volunteers who want to help improve the way our system operates. Even retention, while on a downward trend, is still high compared to many external organisations. Our people remain our greatest asset and most respondents argue that enhancing volunteerism and energising the next generation of humanitarians is one of the most effective strategies to confront the array of humanitarian issues unfolding. Our volunteer base seen as a strategic advantage that it would be foolish to allow to decay.

The digital transformation of volunteering approaches appear to have significantly improved in the first half of this strategy period but requires continued focus. Respondents who identified digital transformation as a priority overwhelmingly indicated that there had been improvements in areas such as streamlining sign up processes, creating more convenient and accessible training, enabling communication, enhancing collaboration and increasing effective data management. COVID undoubtedly accelerated this. Respondents felt there are considerable opportunities to be grasped but called for continued focus and investment, including in emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and new digital service opportunities.

“The push from COVID required moving to online technology and better security of personal identifiable information far ahead of the planned implementation. Effects from better data management has been stunning. I’ve not seen anything like this in my 20+ years as a disaster volunteer.”

Inclusivity, transparency and accountability are important ingredients. One of the most common critiques from volunteers was that the hierarchy did not listen  to nor include them in decision making, and that there was an overall lack of transparency. They felt strongly that accountability to volunteers could be strengthened, and this would help people feel included and be a decisive factor in engagement quality. Where National Societies appeared to get this right, the results were compelling:

The most significant change has been involved in collecting “stories” about change at regular intervals and interpreting/discussing them in a participatory way (through group discussions). In this way children, youths and adults have been able to express, document and make use of their views about the benefits”.

“Youth engagement has skyrocketed, and young people are being encouraged to develop their own innovative solutions at community level.”

There is also a consistent call for more flexible volunteering that will enable more diverse participation. Specific efforts must be made to engage with groups currently underrepresented in the National Society. While it is recognised that some volunteer roles require more training, process and management, the need to complement these with more flexible models to meet shifting engagement patterns, was strongly articulated.

“There’s too much red tape, and not enough support for them and yet we can’t be Red Cross without them. We need to put our people front and centre again as the connection point with the people who need our services. We need to adapt our approaches to meet the needs of the volunteers more”  

We cannot achieve the same outcomes through volunteerism that we have enjoyed in the past without significant additional investment. Put simply, volunteering is now more expensive. The broader trend is shifting from volunteers adapting to organisational priorities towards organisations adapting to volunteer expectations. This requires greater diversity of offerings, more focus on enhancing the volunteering experience and more investment in training, coaching and helping volunteers achieve their goals. All of this requires more investment per output return  than we may be used to.

Complicating this further, in many countries volunteers are grappling with their own economic travails and we must continue to explore how to structure volunteering opportunities that, at the least, don’t worsen these, and at best contribute to alleviating them.

“Understanding that volunteerism in today’s economy cannot be sustained without monetary compensation and as such; proper mechanisms should be put in place in order to address this challenge that is gnawing at the core of our national societies”

“The changing nature of voluntary service presents a significant challenge for our National Society. Our volunteers cannot necessarily afford to volunteer their time whilst families are relying increasingly on employment. This raises questions around discrimination (only those who are privileged in terms of time and income can afford to volunteer) and also diversity in our membership. There is an opportunity here to reconsider what voluntary service means in this context and we will need to do that if our National Societies are to remain relevant”

What Success Looks Like by 2030

  • Openness to innovation and considerably more investment in experimenting with new models of volunteering that result in more diverse volunteer opportunities better suited to volunteer needs.
  • Greater focus on developing digitised approaches that make the volunteer experience more efficient and incorporate meaningful digital volunteering opportunities.
  • More inclusive decision making and transparency with volunteers in the National Societies, including more focus on supporting volunteers to make the change in the world that they want to see. And the opportunity to influence and be involved in the development of services and of the National Society.
  • More and higher quality training offerings to volunteers.
  • Targeted strategies to offer volunteering opportunities to people who do not normally have the chance to participate.
  • Leadership that sets a high standard of ethics and accountability to its volunteers.

Dive in the IFRC Strategy 2030 Intelligence Centre (also available in French, Arabic and Spanish)

Is the era of volunteer retention over?

Take the Survey

Don’t miss our Survey on Your Daily Work. Currently available in 4 languages: English, French, Spanish, and Arabic.


  1. Nyakeru Muturi

    Thank you for sharing this timely article. I agree on most of the areas tackled and hope that the implementation will be done in the course of the years to come…HINIVUU a proud life member and Kenya Redcross Society volunteer.

  2. Raziyeh

    The results of your survey are very valuable, although the conditions have changed and I agree with the retention of volunteers. But I was elected as the representative of the environment of the Red Crescent, so I proposed a plan according to the climate and population conditions that would generate income for myself and the volunteers and be humanitarian. Doing such things with your support can save both the volunteers and also generate income, just please note that volunteers in different places do not have the same conditions, so don’t create the same conditions for participation. Rules are important, but they must be flexible. In Ira, the age conditions are very difficult for us, and many people because of this. are excluded and in other parts of the world there may be other difficult social conditions. Please allow your volunteers to have stability in their work and not leave after completing a project and continue to interact with you so that they can continue humanitarian work. The Solforino Academy program is excellent, but please pay attention to our social conditions so that we can participate in this course and our next courses according to age. These can be great for retaining volunteers and generating income and motivation for philanthropy. Thank you.

  3. egwujubileetochukwu

    My own feedback in volunteer aspect is that volunteer need a very careful responsibility to take good care of them that resourceful that security by financial mobilization and also sympathetic movement together for them to give us affective and wonderful work

  4. Abdulmajeed Hassan

    Voluntary activities is in our blood we will never stop it until we death
    Abdulmajeed Hassan
    volunteer Nigerian red cross society

  5. SIMON Mureu

    It is a good work you are doing. It is true we are going to need volunteering for a long time ,evenly more than five years
    What we need most is training the volunteers from the under rated countries so they may .too have good , better trained


Leave a Reply