‘Times like these’: 2020 Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference: selected highlights

For the first time ever the annual Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference, held by VSSN, NCVO and BVSC on 7–8 September, was run entirely online. At least 250 attendees, mostly academic and non-academic researchers, and voluntary sector professionals, came together to share and discuss new research findings, experiences and implications going forward.

This year’s theme, ‘Times like these’, entirely focused on the impact of the covid-19 pandemic on the voluntary sector. The sheer scale of challenges facing the sector was made clear in the opening presentation by Chris Dayson from Sheffield Hallam University. Seeing a ‘dizzying array of speed, scale and flexibility of response’, he claimed that civil society organisations often helped to meet immediate needs, especially for people in need, more effectively than the public sector. According to Chris, the relationship between central government and civil society has become more antagonistic compared with a more complementary partnership emerging with local authorities. Covid-19 provides an opportunity to rethink the state-civil society relationship as less transactional and more supportive of the special value that civil society organisations contribute.

How charities have adapted during covid-19

One of the most profound changes that emerged was the ways in which charities changed how they operated during the crisis. A keynote presentation by Affan Cheema from Islamic Relief Worldwide discussed how his organisation had to act differently, not just by working remotely but also adapting existing activities like food distribution to become covid-secure and taking up new activities like public health advice through the media and via community leaders. Also, by creating innovative fundraising responses like online direct marketing, virtual mosques and Zoom-based fundraising events, they succeeded in increasing their fundraising income during its crucial Ramadan period compared to last year.

However, some voluntary organisations have found themselves more restricted. Jess Mullen from criminal justice membership body Clinks presented survey research and feedback indicating that ongoing funding issues for criminal justice charities — often reliant on increasingly smaller government contracts and less likely to gain public donations — had got worse during covid-19. The face-to-face nature of their work, especially being more reliant on volunteers, has been affected by visitor restrictions and prisoners being kept in further isolation due to lockdown. As a result, many organisations were unable to deliver services at a time of increased needs, especially around mental health and poverty. Criminal justice organisations were further affected by grant applications decisions being paused or delayed.

Meeting emerging, complex needs now and moving forward

Another theme was new, emerging community needs that were being met by voluntary organisations and communities alike. Neil Cowan from the Poverty Alliance gave a Scottish perspective, highlighting feedback from charities and civil society groups on the impact of the pandemic on individuals including falling incomes, rising unemployment, new demand for food, debt, the effect on people with no right to public funds, and mental health issues. With unprecedented demand on services expected to rise further after the end of furlough schemes, Cowan noted further obstacles such as inconsistencies in partnership working and uncertainty around voluntary sector funding.

Much of the responsibility to meet rising demand is falling to communities themselves. Michele Biddle and Mat Jones from the University of the West of England presented research findings on neighbourhood support during lockdown. Social media-run mutual aid groups and neighbourhood forums allowed neighbours to volunteer outside of formal organisations to help meet each other’s basic material and emotional support needs. This community-based support helped create a stronger sense of belonging, with a feeling that there was ‘no going back’ to times when they felt less connected with their neighbourhoods.

This is only the beginning

Despite major challenges ahead, we heard about a number of valuable research projects at the conference that show how voluntary organisations and communities can learn from each other’s experiences to confront the challenges of covid-19.

With increasing talk of a second wave, we know that conditions will change and we are confident that voluntary sector researchers will be working hard to capture these changes and their impact on the sector and volunteering.

View the complete video recordings of this year’s conference presentations. We thank the staff at VSSN, BSVC and all the presenters and hope to see you all next year – hopefully in person!

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Avatar photo Oliver is a researcher at NCVO, looking at the state of the volunteer sector and volunteering. Projects include the annual Almanac and reports exploring the changing nature of volunteering such as emerging employer, public service and family volunteering models, and government public service contracting with charities.

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