Right volunteers, right place, right time

For our latest guidance on volunteering and covid-19, please visit our coronavirus pages on NCVO Knowhow.

When the going gets tough, people roll their sleeves up to help. But how can we make sure the right people are in the right place at the right time? Here are two ways the voluntary sector is tackling that issue.

Volunteers have responded in their hundreds of thousands

Mutual aid groups continue to grow, from an initial 200 in March to many thousands now. The NHS Volunteer Responder scheme was able to attract 750,000 volunteers in a matter of days. Volunteer Centres and local voluntary sector infrastructure report being overwhelmed by offers of help. As this crisis unfolds, we can certainly reassure ourselves by seeing the people rushing to help.

What we have also seen is in recent weeks are areas that need more support, communities that are disproportionately affected, and supplies that still need distributing. We’ve also seen reports that the majority of NHS Volunteer Responders are still on standby. Obviously, this isn’t a great experience for those volunteers. But more than this, it shows that we don’t have a problem with the number of people wanting to help. We have a problem with offers for help getting to the right places.

A problem of coordination

Back in April, we shared five lessons from the past about volunteering in emergencies. In 2020, we are seeing the same issues emerge – most notably around coordination. We know there are plenty of people willing to volunteer. We also know that between community groups, voluntary organisations, volunteer management specialists and statutory partners, we have the skills and experiences needed to work through the crisis. But that doesn’t stop this from being a huge operational challenge.

Enter the Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Partnership. Since the crisis began, the Emergencies Partnership has been working hard to support volunteering. Led by the British Red Cross and NAVCA, NCVO is one member among a range of voluntary sector organisations with the aim of improving coordination. Bringing together local, national and global expertise, the Emergencies Partnership aims to help people prepare for, respond to and recover from emergencies, so that they can rebuild their lives.

Keeping it local

We know that local knowledge and networks are crucial in a crisis. However, the groups and organisations at the heart of communities need support. Over the last few weeks, NAVCA has been working with the Emergencies Partnership to establish a network of 42 local liaison leads for the voluntary and community sector. These liaison leads will work alongside local resilience forums and statutory service hubs to connect the voluntary and community sector to what is happening locally.

Anna Pashley at NAVCA tells us:

Liaison leads are members of the Community and Voluntary Sector and often leaders in their own local organisations. They have extensive experience of activities, groups and needs in their local areas and in this role are acting as the point of contact between local and regional levels.

Finding big solutions to national problems

As we get a clearer picture of trends in unmet needs in communities, we need larger responses. The Emergencies Partnership has brought together a new national volunteering coordination cell to coordinate requests from government departments and other organisations responding to the crisis. It will act as the main route to key volunteering organisations in the voluntary sector, making sure calls for help reach the right part of the sector quickly and with support of the partnership. Led by Volunteering Matters, the cell includes NCVO, British Red Cross, Royal Voluntary Service and St John Ambulance.

Paul Reddish at Volunteering Matters tells us:

This co-ordination cell will hold an overall picture of volunteering needs and develop strategies to manage the emerging picture. National schemes such as NHS Responders have mobilised, and this initiative will support the connecting of these national delivery models to local areas. This is important as the VCSE sector will continue to be a critical part of the recovery from the coronavirus crisis over coming months.

Final thoughts

Volunteers have responded to emergencies before, but no one was expecting coronavirus to impact our lives just as much as it has. Volunteers can make a huge difference, but high impact volunteer involvement requires skill, infrastructure and local leadership. This time, I hope we learn this lesson and continue to invest in volunteers.


Find out how you can get additional help finding and supporting volunteers here. You can stay informed of the latest in volunteering policy, practice and coordination in response to the coronavirus pandemic by following @NCVOVolunteers or sign up for updates.
We’re also running weekly briefings for volunteering infrastructure organisation. If you work in this area, more details can be found via the Volunteer Centre Manager Network, NAVCA or NNVIA network, or by emailing shaun.delaney@ncvo.org.uk.

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Avatar photo Shaun is volunteering development manager at NCVO, overseeing strategy for volunteer management and good practice. Previously, he was head of volunteering at Samaritans and is currently a volunteer trustee of Greater London Volunteering.

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