Volunteering Leadership Organizations, Strategic Leadership and the

Future of Volunteering


Ongoing change and unpredictability are the likely hallmarks of an uncertain future within which VLOs and member organizations seek to survive, become more prepared, and grow in an increasingly complex context of the ongoing global pandemic, climate change, and a growing economic and fiscal crisis. Two survey respondents captured the future in this way:

We will be more virtual than before, but everything else is unpredictable.

There are a wide number of unknowns – many beyond the pandemic – that will collectively change the landscape of volunteering in Wales.

Survey Respondents

Within this context some VLOs expressed clear views about strategic priorities and the methods required to navigate an unpredictable landscape. These include innovation and ‘out-of-the box’ thinking to develop a volunteer movement that meets current and future challenges.

The survey of VLOs explored their views on the wider context in which they were operating and what this might mean for their organizations in the future.  The results are shown in Figures 1 and 2 below.

Figure 1 shows the significance of the changing landscape of partnerships, reinforcing the ways in which the pandemic has generated new relationships and forms of co-operation, and these are further seen as important for the future, whether at local, regional or multinational levels. The perceived reduction in volunteering activity sits alongside a noted commitment of donors and policy makers to focus on inclusivity in volunteering in the future. This is matched in the responses shown in Figure 9 about VLOs approach to inclusivity.

Agency for Volunteer Service (Hong Kong) volunteers plant trees in this outdoor, COVID-safe volunteering activity.

Figure 1: Respondent views on the wider context for VLOs

Figure 2 indicates the uncertainty VLOs face, most significantly in the requirement for policy makers to address the issue of an enabling environment for volunteering.  The anticipation of change in new ways of working with technology is widespread, although the use of online volunteering is anticipated somewhat less. Opinion was evenly divided on whether face-to-face volunteering is expected to decline because of the pandemic. The future for funding also looks less clear, showing a relatively small movement in favour of social enterprise away from government funding.

These findings suggest an uncertain future, where change remains a significant feature of the environment within which they operate and resourcing for volunteering being of concern to VLOs.   A number of challenges emerge and these are discussed below.

Figure 2: VLO views on the future for their organization

The trajectory of volunteering in the future

The research data produced a variety of views on how the pandemic impacted on the scale of volunteering activity in the VLO countries surveyed. 56% of respondents said that the pandemic lockdown had reduced volunteering activity in their country while 29% disagreed/strongly disagreed with this proposition. A number of respondents expected volunteering to decline in the future due to financial constraints and the emotional impact associated with the pandemic and the practicality of volunteering given ongoing pandemic restrictions.

indicated that the lockdown reduced volunteering activity in their country 56%
disagreed with this proposition29%
a large cohort was effectively stripped out of the volunteering workforce. That is the vulnerable and elderly Australians.
Volunteering Australia

Such perspectives are supported by a recent Australian study showing that the proportion of adult Australians doing voluntary work fell substantially in the first year of COVID-19. The study found that despite the easing of COVID-related restrictions, many of those who had previously volunteered had stopped doing so, and they had not returned to volunteering. The same study shows that there were an estimated 2.3 million fewer Australians volunteering in April 2021 than there were in late 2019.  Unpaid work declined at a higher rate than paid work. Volunteering Australia refers to this as a “step change” in volunteering with implications arising from the fact that “a large cohort was effectively stripped out of the volunteering workforce. That is the vulnerable and elderly Australians”. It remains to be seen whether VLO networks will be able to involve volunteers with other profiles (such as young people and people with mental health or physical conditions) to fill these gaps.

The rising economic crisis may require VLO leadership to focus more squarely on the role of volunteerism as a force for social and economic support. One survey respondent was of the view that “in future, volunteerism work will be evaluated bas(ed) on social and economic impact created by volunteer organizations.” In this regard, several other researchers have raised concerns about future expectations of volunteering and questioned whether agencies understand the limits and boundaries of volunteering roles. These include volunteers being asked to take on roles previously performed by paid workers, and volunteers being mobilized at scale to meet new complex needs. Another critical strategic question for VLOs thus emerges: Are there limits to what volunteers could or should be asked to do?”

Volunteers at M'ngaro Mtaani (Kenya) distribute sanitary napkins to students.

Program and organizational adaptation

changed their programs to engage
issues arising from the pandemic
supported programs in which volunteers
raised awareness of personal & community practice around COVID-19

COVID-19 has produced fundamental changes in programming as VLOs sought to respond to new needs generated by the pandemic. As shown above, 87% of survey respondents stated that their programs changed to engage issues arising from the pandemic while 65% stated they supported programs in which volunteers raised awareness of personal and community practice around COVID-19.

Looking ahead, the VLOs and the organizations they work with are increasingly aware that they may need to venture into unknown territory in responding to needs arising from the longer-term effects of COVID-19. Mental health is one such area and in the view of one survey respondent, it should be a priority for volunteer and government action: “We know the mental health impacts of repeated lockdowns will have an effect on communities as well as people who volunteer to enable better mental health. We think this is a priority area that needs to be addressed by the UK government.”

The evidence is clear that partnerships have been the mainstay of VLO evolution in response to the pandemic. Such collaboration points to the adaptive capability of VLOs that has generated new methods of working around the limitations created by COVID-19. The survey data suggests that such adaptations are likely to endure and evolve further: 62% of respondents agree/strongly agree that ‘COVID-19 has changed the way [their] organization operates and these changes will not be reversed in the future’.

We know the mental health impacts of repeated lockdowns will have an effect on communities as well as people who volunteer to enable better mental health. We think this is a priority area that needs to be addressed by the UK government.
Survey Respondent (UK)

The complexity of cross-sectoral partnerships is also unlikely to be reversed. Naua in Jordan cautioned that organizations risk losing sight of their objectives if they are pulled in directions that do not serve their goals. The Philippine Coalition on Volunteerism is determined to roll out its localized version of the Global Standard for Volunteering for Development and will also not be deflected from its plans to mobilize volunteers during the upcoming national election.

Community-based volunteering: new opportunities and challenges?

The evidence suggests that the needs of communities have taken center-stage and VLOs are recognizing the growing importance of community-centered and collective approaches to volunteer involving practice. 90% of VLO respondents agreed/strongly agreed that ‘the new relationships at local level formed during COVID-19 will continue to be important in the post-COVID-19 era’. One study found that “a new cohort of people at the grassroots level has been more effective than national or regional command-and-control initiatives.” In Bolivia and Guatemala, UNV identified community-based volunteerism and social cohesion as critical factors in producing resilience in the face of challenges such as COVID-19.


Agreed that the new relationships at local level formed during COVID-19 will continue to be important in the post-COVID-19 era

This view is consistent with the comment from one survey respondent who said: “relationality on micro-territorial level is the most important issue for volunteering: this dimension will be strengthened, not impoverished by physical distancing measures.” It is also illustrated in this perspective shared by one VLO:

I was seeing as different groups coming together at local level as the needs of the community… It’s these spaces of relationships … if it’s on common issues [it] impresses… the possibility to do something meaningful – you as a person and you as the network, a collective interest.

The spontaneous public response to supporting communities and households facing food shortages, ill-health, unemployment and other hardships, confronted VLOs and their members with the need to integrate these forms of volunteering in new ways: “We saw a surge in spontaneous volunteering and the challenge was to link them to existing initiatives, frameworks, networks, organizations to be effective rather than recreating the wheel.”

The evidence indicates that COVID-19 increased the visibility of informal and community-based volunteering, which, going forward, offers VLOs the opportunity to think differently about their networks, organizational structures and programs. They will also need to respond to the often informal structural nature of community-based volunteering. One view is that such voluntary action does not simply happen – it requires an investment in community-led infrastructure to build and sustain local voluntary action. This perspective is amplified by a survey respondent:

During COVID-19 we learned that volunteering infrastructure is not well developed in our country and the partnership mechanisms on local level need to recognize volunteering as a resource and invest in strategic development of volunteering, to get ready for future crises (of all kinds).

Naua (Jordan) volunteers hand out masks via a drive-through system for safe distribution.

The role of technology

Across all the countries in this study, COVID-19 has entrenched the use of technology in the volunteering sector for both operational and programming purposes. Consequently, the opinion of one survey respondent is not surprising: “The future of volunteering will be more inclusive and heavily virtual.” This resonates with the views of close to two-thirds (64%) of the survey respondents who said that ‘volunteers of the future will increasingly be online and virtual’. Furthermore, 95% of survey respondents said that ‘COVID-19 has changed the way we use technology and social media, and this trend will continue’. 

predict that volunteers of the future will increasingly be online and virtual64%
agreed that COVID-19 has changed
the way we use technology and social
media, and this trend will continue
Volunteer Center of Trinidad & Tobago organized an online volunteering mentorship program for vulnerable youth across the country.

Nevertheless, the interviews demonstrate that these forecasts may be ambitious in both high and low-income countries. For example, access to internet capacity, software and hardware is a problem for Volunteer Canada and its members:

Internet isn’t as strong in every part of the country. So, access is a problem, access to software and hardware is a problem. And then comfort with using the technology is another piece. But we are seeing that organizations over time are building those capacities where they can be able to continue with that virtual programming going forward.

COVID-19 has pushed people to digitalize… We have a lot of families that have internet. I think that without COVID-19 it would not be so fast.

Perú Volontario

By contrast, it is interesting to see that in Perú, COVID-19 is impacting in a small way on the North/South digital divide. Perú Volontario reports that “COVID-19 has pushed people to digitalize. … We have a lot of families that have internet. I think that without COVID-19 it would not be so fast.” However, internet access is not prevalent in all sectors and this presented Perú Volontario with a challenge in reaching micro-entrepreneurs with its financial and business practice support program using digital platforms. 

Agence Nigérienne de Volontariat pour le Développement (ANVD) in Niger, Association Jeunesse-Sensibilization-Action in Togo, and VIONet in Sierra Leone all experience software and hardware shortages and constraints, but these form part of a larger set of interlocking factors that limit the participation of member organizations and volunteers in the digital space. According to VSP Guyana, extending the reach of digital infrastructure depends on introducing more competition in the digital space which is dominated in that country by a private sector monopoly.

Despite these constraints, the VLOs interviewed across the globe recognize how digital technology can transform volunteering. Volunteering Australia sees its potential in terms of “coordination, in terms of capacity, utilization efficiency … to vastly transform the volunteer experience in Australia.” AVS Hong Kong “have to increasingly use ICT in order to improve our community, as a marketing strategy or in … provision of service.”  For VCTT in Trinidad & Tobago, digital technology provides “deeper reach; we can be in places and spaces that we are not able to be in terms of physical volunteer.” VIO Society in Kenya found great value in its members participating in the GTA meeting at the UN and in other meetings on the world stage; for Red Argentina de Cooperación Internacional, one benefit lies in “articulating more with regional international organizations”; and in the UAE, the Emirates Foundation identifies ”an enhanced need for technology to play a role … in recruitment, management, database … managing sign-in/sign-out … to make things easier for the volunteers.”

A central debate that emerges is whether technology will be used to replace face-to-face/physical volunteering with virtual volunteering. 64% of survey respondents agree/strongly agree with the statement that ‘we have moved from supporting face-to-face volunteering to online volunteering.’ However, far from virtual and face-to-face volunteering being positioned as binary, both are likely to be seen as opportunities for growth, despite COVID-19 induced restrictions on mobility. Survey respondents were evenly divided on whether ‘face-to-face volunteering will decline because of the impact of COVID-19 with 42% agreeing/strongly agreeing with the statement and 41% disagreeing/strongly disagreeing. Comments made by interviewed VLOs suggest that in future, virtual and face-to-face volunteering are more likely to interact in a variety of ways.

In Peru, the Guerreros por la Educación program links students up with virtual tutors to reinforce school curriculum during lockdown.

there’s room and space for both. I think we still have to do a lot of work in terms of really… understanding what truly is happening with online volunteering… we really want to have robust systems to monitor and evaluate what is happening online.

Volunteer Center of Trinidad & Tobago

Volunteer Canada reported that while 56% of the organizations were able to adapt some programming to virtual delivery, 20% to 30% were not: “There was a push to virtual, but there’s still the pull of in-person.” CVS Lazio in Italy regards ICT as “a tool, not a substitute for direct relations.”   VCTT Trinidad & Tobago argues that “there’s room and space for both. I think we still have to do a lot of work in terms of really … understanding what truly is happening with online volunteering. … we really want to have robust systems to monitor and evaluate what is happening online.” And Volunteer Ireland cautions that A little bit of the volunteering has been switched into the virtual space and [it] doesn’t always work in every context.” Nevertheless, Naua in Jordan is confident that in the future “everything needs to become a couple of clicks. And that’s where we’re hopefully heading towards now.”

The enabling environment

As already noted, some organizations reported that government and the private sector have developed a new appreciation for the role of VLOs, particularly for their ability to mobilize and deploy volunteers in communities and activate campaigns in response to the pandemic. In some cases, this has produced formal recognition of the role of the VLOs going forward. For example, the government of the Republic of Ireland placed Volunteer Ireland at the center of implementing its national volunteer strategy, launched early in 2021. A critical success factor cited in this regard is the minister’s experience of volunteering and his understanding that “it’s not just numbers and thinking volunteering is a solution for everything, and volunteers are free”.

Volunteer Ireland organizes workshops volunteer health and safety.

There’s just no possibility that anybody in the government is interested at all in anything that has to do with our issues.

Fundación Voluntarios de Panamá

In other cases, however, the good relationship with government has not translated into a more enabling environment for volunteering. This is reflected in “the lack of provision of appropriate volunteering infrastructure.” The concern is that, going forward, the focus will be on the short-term recovery and COVID-19 challenges and immediate fixes”, rather than driving for strategic and longer-term change. These perspectives suggest that VLOs need to build on the recognition of volunteering that the pandemic has produced, and that they cannot assume that their public/private partnerships will be sufficient to strengthen the volunteering environment. For this reason, organizations such as Chile Volontario and the VIO Society in Kenya are determined to continue their efforts to develop policy and legislation in support of national volunteer activities.

By contrast, the conditions in Panamá provide Fundación Voluntarios de Panamá with few options for forward-looking policy engagement: “There’s just no possibility that anybody in the government is interested at all in anything that has to do with our issues.”

These accounts demonstrate a spectrum of engagement between VLOs and the state in the context of the pandemic.  The case of Volunteer Ireland provides an example of an integrated relationship with the VLO leading the implementation of the national volunteering strategy; in the UAE the Emirates Foundation is the recognized authority for volunteering in the country. In other countries (Thailand, Australia) VLOs are still marginalized by government (as described earlier in this report), even though their ministries enrol their own volunteers in pursuit of their objectives. And in Panamá the prospects of government engaging with the VLO appear bleak. Clearly the struggle to build an enabling environment for volunteering will continue, despite COVID-19 having raised the visibility and power of volunteering.


Kaohsiung City Youth Volunteer Group led by Volunteering Taiwan at the Jhouzai Wetland.

Preparedness for future crises

Some VLOs spoke about the importance of being prepared for future disasters and other humanitarian emergencies. In this regard it is interesting to note that despite the sudden shock of COVID-19, 42% of survey respondents agreed/strongly agreed that they had used previous experiences of pandemics or disaster responses in the way they engaged with the COVID-19 pandemic.

What is different from these previous events is that COVID-19 is a global pandemic that is currently ongoing and morphing in different ways. The evidence shows that preparedness for future crises is not only about developing safety and security protocols, but is fundamentally about re-organizing, restructuring and retooling programs and operations to be able to respond meaningfully to climate change and other crises in the future.


Agreed that they had used previous experiences of pandemics or disaster responses in the way they engaged with COVID-19

I think we can find many ways to fight this virus, but probably next to the virus we will face another challenge like a climate crisis, migration, starving and many other challenges… We have to take this time, to take technology as a preparation… And then I think we will be more prepared to confront or to face up to new challenges in face to face volunteering.

Chile Volontario

A number of priorities for preparedness were cited by VLOs:

  • Focusing more closely on fostering community resilience, especially in anticipation of future global disasters: “We all realize that we’re going to have more of these situations.
  • Creating networks that can cooperate during future crises: “Because at the moment we don't have the network to cooperate or to work during the crisis in Thailand.”
  • Increasing the resource base for volunteer involving organizations: “From the level of government, I can tell you the budget will double and triple as regards to COVID-19 and how we put things in place to not suffer the setbacks you would have suffered if another pandemic is to befall us.”
  • Influencing systemic change for volunteer involvement in civic protection.
Emirates Foundation (United Arab Emirates) volunteers providing support on the frontlines.
Agence Nigérienne de Volontariat pour le Développement organizes volunteer healthcare workers in response to the pandemic.

VLOs also described difficulties they are encountering in taking steps to future-proof their organizations. Some continue to deal with the rapid changes they had to make in response to the onset of COVID-19, which may slow their ability to undertake further innovation in the short-term: “We did experience … very real challenges which we still need to work through.” In Niger, Agence Nigérienne de Volontariat pour le Développement (ANVD) described its concern about how further restrictions on mobility would cut its activities and result in staff reductions. This “leads to a strong lethargy in implementing the ANVD action plan.”  Fundación Voluntarios de Panamá is concerned that it is losing momentum and that while “virtual works … it might hurt our ability to communicate our message and to be more visible.” VSN Thailand described the challenge of improving its online services whilst planning to train volunteers and volunteer managers with “proper and updated skills for coping with those [crisis] situations.”

In navigating this unpredictable terrain, preparation for the future will likely require working towards organizational sustainability. This involves being clear about the organization’s goals and planning to deal with challenges that will inevitably arise. There is some evidence that VLOs recognize this.

Restructuring in the volunteering sector

The study shows how in a number of countries COVID-19 is giving rise to restructuring in the volunteering sector, albeit in somewhat contradictory ways. One survey respondent anticipates “seismic shifts in VLOs” that might mean some not surviving while others thrive.

In some instances, networks are being reconfigured e.g., pairing smaller and larger organizations for greater impact.

While smaller, grassroots organizations may be more vulnerable, there are also contexts in which larger VLOs are being weakened by funding cuts. Conversely, this suggests that some smaller organizations appear to be more resilient given their close proximity to the communities they serve.

These trends are closely related to the changing resource base for VLOs. There is evidence of government funding being reallocated to the formal health sector and emergency relief, which has impacted negatively on the VLOs. Larger organizations that rely on extensive public fundraising have had to “pull back.” In this context organizations could reduce administrative costs by coming together, which, it is argued, would redefine “what’s going on in the sector and what’s needed.”

We are promoting that smaller organizations work with bigger organizations, with international organization. Everyone wants to have a small organization in our community in their projects; donors are looking for projects where we have bigger organizations with small organizations… We need to articulate a national organization and a small organization. 

Red Argentina de Cooperación Internacional

Future volunteer programs will be resourced mostly through social enterprise and earned income

VLO strategies being used to manage this uncertainty include looking at self-earned income as a means of alternative resourcing, but this option drew mixed responses from the VLOs. While 43% of survey respondents said that in future volunteer programs will be resourced mostly through social enterprise and earned income, 20% disagreed and 37% were neutral. Social enterprise may provide a basis for stabilizing an organization in the face of funding challenges, but this may not address the shortfall from previous sources. Reducing staff costs leads to a consequent loss of capacity, which has implications for the future: “It’s harder to build back if you take all your experience out.”

Other efforts to reduce funding dependency are also evident: “We are trying to consider seriously how we can build our own capacity within the network so that we can operate without a lot of dependency” and “the coalition needs to find a way of economic sustainability for future.”

The worldwide drive to vaccinate citizens against COVID-19 may also contribute to reshaping the volunteering sector. This is envisaged in the response from 63% of survey respondents who said that ‘new voluntary service schemes are essential to support vaccination programs or other COVID-19 recovery efforts.’

The literature indicates that new approaches to building organizational resilience will require reimagining the future:

Shifts must happen in the way resilience-building activities are implemented – the notion of ‘bouncing back’ is not an option when the past model is broken. We need to reimagine completely different futures, built through grassroots coalitions that can address local needs and build decentralized leadership.

Sitas, N., & Wamalwa, R.
“OPINION: African women are leading community responses to COVID-19 crisis”, Thomson Reuters Foundation News