Heritage Pulse: Spotlight on Volunteering

Heritage Pulse: Spotlight on Volunteering

By Flo Carr


Results from the 2023 Heritage Pulse survey on the theme of volunteering. The questions covered management, retention and the areas where heritage organisations rely on heritage most.

Sector faces challenges in recruitment of new volunteers

When asked about their experience over the past year with recruiting new volunteers, responses suggest a mixed picture, with 44% of organisations saying they had found this challenging. Organisations with higher turnover (over £1m pa) and those who work with larger numbers of volunteers (50+) have found it slightly less challenging than smaller organisations.

What has been your experience over the past year with recruiting and retaining volunteers?  [select one answer per line]  

We found this challenging
2 3 4 5
This has gone well
Recruitment of new volunteers
Recruitment of existing volunteers
Row %
Attracting volunteers from a broad range of ages & backgrounds
Row %

Even more difficult though – for organisations of all sizes – was recruiting volunteers from a broad range of ages and backgrounds. 58% of respondents found this challenging, and only 14% said it has gone well.

Retention of existing volunteers has been less of an issue however. For over half of organisations this has gone well in the last year, while 22% were finding it challenging. Organisations with a lower turnover (under £1m pa) find it easier to retain volunteers than larger organisations.


“Recruitment and retention has been reasonably ok. We have been successful in recruiting a greater number of under-represented audiences but this has required a substantial investment of time.”


“We attract lots of volunteers as the prospect of working outdoors is very appealing to a lot of people. We’ve put emphasis on diversifying our volunteer base but we aren’t having much success in attracting people from more varied backgrounds.”


“Covid has had a huge impact with volunteers. Our charity is run entirely by volunteers and we are genuinely struggling. People’s priorities have changed…”


We have a loyal cohort of several hundred volunteers with a steady stream of new recruits to replace older volunteers.”

There is a reliance on volunteers in a significant number of business areas

There are six areas of business operation for which more than a third of respondents said they were reliant on volunteers to function at full capacity. Almost half said they were reliant on volunteers for public facing roles – engaging with visitors through interpretation, tours or room hosting. 38% said they need volunteers for the delivery of education and learning programmes. A number of organisations also mentioned governance as a key business area which involves volunteers.

42% of respondents said their organisation relies on volunteers for technical skills like maintenance, while 39% rely on them for administration and finance. Around a third are reliant for research / archaeology and conservation / collections management.

There is a stark difference in responses from organisations of different sizes. Those with lower turnover are relying on volunteers much more heavily than those with higher turnover, with more than half saying they were reliant on volunteers for administration/finance and public facing roles.

In which areas is your organisation reliant on volunteers to function at full capacity? [Select all that apply]

Value % Responses
Administration / Finance 39.3% 59
Collections accession or cataloguing 26.7% 40
Conservation or collections management 33.3% 50
Delivering or supporting education and learning programmes 38.0% 57
Engaging with visitors through interpretation, tours, or room hosting 46.7% 70
Engaging with visitors transactionally, e.g. ticket or cafe sales 22.7% 34
Engaging with visitors through another way (non-transactionally) 28.7% 43
Managing Health & Safety 28.7% 43
Marketing 24.7% 37
Pastoral roles (e.g. for staff, visitors, or other volunteers) 17.3% 26
Research / archaeology 35.3% 53
Technical skills – e.g. maintenance 42.0% 63
Security 13.3% 20
None of the above 17.3% 26


Clear perception of over-reliance on volunteers, but one in four think the sector could make more use of them

45% of respondents said that the sector is over-reliant on volunteers, but 24% think that there is an opportunity to make more use of volunteers.

Just under a third of respondents said they think the level of reliance is ‘about right’. Overall, smaller organisations tend to feel the overreliance more keenly.

Thinking about the heritage sector as a whole, please choose which of the statements below best reflects your opinion:

Value % Responses
The heritage sector should make more use of volunteers 24.1% 45
The amount that the heritage sector relies on volunteers is about right 31.0% 58
The heritage sector is over-reliant on volunteers 44.9% 84



The sector has lots of ideas for making the most of volunteers

Respondents shared their tips for improving volunteer recruitment and retention. Advertising through social media featured highly, along with local events:


“Facebook. It has done more for our recruitment of volunteers than everything else put together. But you must post regularly (at least weekly) and build up followers first.”


“Attend local events… meeting people promotes your organisation and face to face contact and conversation is the best way to recruit volunteers”


Particular schemes and organisations such as National Council for Voluntary OrganisationsMake Your Mark Volunteer Participation Campaign and Volunteer Scotland were also mentioned.

When considering how to keep volunteers engaged and make the most of them, comments included recommendations of systems as well as tips for activities:

“For the past 4 years, we have used timecounts.org. It’s fabulous, and so easy to use, good value and  incredibly well supported.”


“Keep everyone occupied and try to make each day fun and enjoyable.”


“Create teams of people that enjoy working together. It is a day out for most of our volunteers and an important chance to use their skills and have company.”


“You need to understand and know your potential volunteer base; it’s about ensuring you create tasks and duties that will be attractive to volunteers and keep them inspired and interested.”

Head and shoulders Flo Carr

Flo Carr, Associate Director, Indigo
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Resource type: Research | Published: 2023