Much has been said about the effect of global inflation and supply chain bottlenecks (and plenty of other factors) making trading conditions hostile (at best) for companies operating in almost every sector of the economy. The issues I commented on in an article last year with my colleague Simon Glyn are just as pervasive now as they were then, with inflation reaching a 40-year high in 2022.

These headwinds are not just confined to commercial, profit-seeking organisations. It appears to me there is a gap in media commentary on a part of our economy that has never been as important to the most vulnerable in our society given the on-going cost of living crisis: the “third sector”.

As some of my colleagues and wider network may already know, in my spare time I am the Treasurer of my local Citizens Advice and sit on the finance sub-committee for the Essex Consortium of Citizens Advice. Recruitment and retention in particular has never been more challenging for us - a recurring theme across the economy, as we already know. We’ve recently had a 20-volunteer deficit (that’s unprecedented in our history and represents 50% of our total staff complement).

In the face of these challenges, the services of Citizens Advice (and other charities) have never been in greater demand. Last month, 20 clients attended one of our outreach centres in the space of just 2 hours.

What do the statistics tell us?

So what’s causing these challenges? My colleague Maya Hettiaratchi has been looking behind some of the statistics.

Research from the ONS indicates that the post-pandemic increase in “economically inactive” people is driven by those aged 50–64. The main reason cited in the survey for not being in work for this age group is ill health and sickness, however retirement is a very close second.

These statistics are not good news for charities. This age range (and older) is statically the most likely to volunteer (19% of 50-64 year olds volunteered at least once a month, versus 12% of 25–34 year olds). Whilst there has been a slight improvement in the number of 50+’s returning to work, current thinking is that there isn’t going to a mass return back to the labour market of this age group in the near-term.

A continually difficult time ahead?

As I mentioned at the start of the article, recruitment is just one piece of an increasingly challenging jigsaw puzzle for Charity Chief Executives and Trustees to navigate.

To respond to the recruitment challenge, charities must adapt to the current economic environment and not live in the past. Being flexible with volunteering opportunities and embracing the ability of volunteering from home, plugging volunteer vacancies with full time staff (at least temporarily) is also an option - assuming the associated salary costs can be borne. Also, the marketing to new groups of volunteers (such as Gen-Z and millennials, who are increasingly more socially aware than their predecessors, so we are led to believe). Just to add, it’s not just finding volunteers to assist operating the charity - finding trustees with the appropriate blend of skills and experience is also becoming increasingly difficult for exactly the same reasons.

That all said, with wider cost pressures and a lack of visibility and certainty over funding streams, there isn’t an overnight solution to this problem.

My final comment is that I would encourage all of those who don’t already volunteer to do so. I’ve found it to be very fulfilling to be a part of something that is both 'good for the mind, and good for the soul’. Maybe I am a socially aware millennial after all?