A study by the University of Aberystwyth found over a third could not find enough candidates, while some faced entirely empty council chambers.
Dr Michael Woods, who led the research team, said: 'Parish and town councils are a vital part of grass-roots democracy in Britain, but there is a serious shortfall of people willing to serve their community.'
He added this lack of candidates suggests the fragmentation of community life.
'Any initiative to increase the powers of parish councils must be accompanied by action to encourage greater participation,' Dr Woods said.
The figures, which cover elections in 1998, 1999 and 2000, show 36% of parish, town and community councils in England and Wales had too few candidates. In 3% no candidates were nominated at all.