Gentle and strong: Looking back on the role of the voluntary sector during the pandemic

Many commentators have, rightly, scorned Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s description of charity as one of ‘gentleness’. After all the issues tackled by charities are often far from gentle. Yet this week it is perhaps a virtue that charities can be described as gentle. One year on from the start of what became the first of several lockdowns, it was fitting that our National Day of Reflection was led by Marie Curie, the UK’s leading end of life charity.

Twelve months ago, few of us could have grasped the collective loss we would experience in the year ahead. Charities and volunteers have had a vital role to play in supporting people and communities in response to this loss: the loss of lives, livelihoods and freedoms.

Anniversaries are a time to also look forwards as well as backwards. As the country starts to look – with both hope and fear – to the future, charities and volunteers are also critical in supporting people and communities to mourn, celebrate, re-connect and build trust, as Julia Unwin wrote so eloquently in her blog. Here, I reflect on the role of the voluntary sector during the pandemic, how the sector has changed and what role charities and volunteers must play in our future. 

The voluntary sector’s response to the pandemic 

When the first lockdown was announced last March, we saw charities do what they do best: stepping up to respond to new and urgent needs in society. SignHealth provided interpreters for Deaf people who are unable to lip-read if a doctor is wearing a mask or communicating via the phone. Age UK branches across the country moved their face-to-face support groups online ensuring older people shielding continued to have social contact. Refuge has been responding to a 61% increase in average monthly calls to its National Domestic Abuse helpline since April 2020. There are countless examples, some supporting alongside frontline NHS services and others providing vital support rooted in communities. 

It goes without saying that volunteers have also played a key role in the pandemic response. Last April, more than 750,000 people signed up to the NHS Volunteer Responders and thousands of mutual aid groups were created across the country, as communities came together to support each other. Volunteers continue to play an important role. For example the Royal Voluntary Service is working in partnership with St John Ambulance to support the NHS in delivering the vaccination programme. 

Additionally, rather than being a ‘great leveller’ as initially described, covid-19 has worsened inequalities within our society. Members of our communities have been disproportionally affected by both the pandemic and the policy measures taken to address it. A number of charities and volunteers have been working tirelessly to expose these inequalities whilst simultaneously offering support.

For example, Marcus Rashford in partnership with FareShare, succeeded in extending the free school meals scheme over summer and raised awareness of child hunger in the UKPregnant then Screwed has been campaigning for the rights of pregnant workers and mothers. ExcludedUK is working towards bringing about an end to the exclusions in the UK government’s covid-19 financial support measures across all employment statuses, circumstances, professions and industries. 

In parallel, the global anti-racist protests triggered by the death of George Floyd in police custody in the USA has invigorated the Black Lives Matter movement in the UK. The end of last year saw the formation of the Baobab Foundation, a Black and Ethnic Minority community-led foundation aiming to address the chronic underfunding of community organisations led by people of colour.

Many organisations were also inspired to publicly stand against racism. However, as the Home Truths and Hidden Leaders reports demonstrate, more must be done to confront internal power structures in charities. If we are to become a more equitable, diverse and inclusive sector then we must examine our structures of power and privilege with humility, determination and a focus on action. 

How has the pandemic changed charities and volunteering? 

Much of the work of charities during the pandemic has been characterised by a new spirit of collaboration. To get people the help they need, voluntary organisations of all sizes at national and local level, have worked together willingly and efficiently to support communities. The Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Partnership is a great example of pooling evidence on unmet need and using this information to allocate resources to those not being supported elsewhere.  

The pandemic has also changed who volunteers, how they give their time and how volunteering is organised. The circumstances of the pandemic have removed some barriers to volunteering enabling people to come forward and volunteer for the first time. People on furlough have had more time to spare and online volunteering has enabled people to volunteer more flexibly. In parallel however, the pandemic has excluded some from volunteering, for example people who are shielding and unable to continue with in-person volunteering roles. 

Of course, it is important to highlight that while the voluntary sector was transforming their services overnight, they were also dealing with a significant loss of income and, in some cases, the very real threat of closure. While predicted mass closures have not happened – yet – services have been severely reduced and, in some areas, cut all together. Many charities that stepped up in the earlier days of the pandemic, such as SignHealth, are now closing vital services they can no longer afford to pay for. It is perhaps too early to see the long-term financial impact on the sector, but it is likely that the sector will emerge smaller and less resilient, with fewer reserves.   

How have we supported charities and volunteering? 

Lobbying for funding with partners across the sector has been a critical part of NCVO’s work over the last year. The #EveryDayCounts campaign resulted in £750 million coronavirus funding for frontline charities. We said at the time it was ‘an important first step’ however, the social and economic consequences of the pandemic mean charities continue to experience increasing demand for services coupled with falling incomeAs part of the #NeverMoreNeeded coalition we are refreshing our collective strategy to consider new ways of influencing government following a budget where charities were largely ignored. 

An important part of influencing is providing evidence of need. The Respond, Recover, Reset: The voluntary sector and covid-19 research project run in partnership with two universities, is providing regular temperature checks on the state of charities throughout the crisis. 

In a time of constant change and uncertainty, clear and concise information has been crucial in allowing organisations to provide the best support to volunteers while responding to the pandemic and supporting the recovery. Responding to this need, we developed our online coronavirus resources, which have received over 400,000 views over the last year, with information on financial planning being the most popular. Involving Volunteers has been another popular source of support, providing key updates on how changing restrictions impact volunteering. The trend towards digital has been accelerated by the pandemic, with many charities moving their services online. In response we have developed a new suite of content and tools to support charities with digital and technology strategy and planning. 

The continued response to the pandemic reminds us that as a sector we are stronger when we come together. Yet collaboration is not without its challenges. It requires reflection, an acknowledgement of mistakes and focus on changing behaviours and attitudes. Recognising that partnership work is not always straightforward, the Rebalancing the Relationship project explores these challenges while highlighting the benefits of collaborative working.

Looking to the year ahead 

Ensuring we maintain the goodwill we have witnessed throughout this crisis is a key priority. NCVO and Volunteering Matters are working in partnership to develop recommendations for a National Volunteer Passporting Scheme. This aims to make it easier for volunteers to move between similar roles in different charities. Our research into barriers to volunteering, as well as our work on the role of volunteering in addressing health inequalities, points to how the future of volunteering can – and must – be more inclusive.  

In addition to recruiting new volunteers, it is important we acknowledge and celebrate the contribution of current volunteers, particularly in light of the last twelve months. We are looking forward to Volunteers’ Week 2021 in June this year to recognise, along with others across the sector, the huge role they have played. 

With the government’s roadmap out of lockdown established, questions now arise as to what kind of recovery we want. The pandemic will cast a long shadow in terms of its impact on society, and charities will be a critical part of the solution to how we collectively meet new needs. As Sophia Moreau highlighted, all of the signposts to mental health support in the NHS’s directory, are to charities. Charities also have an important role in pushing for a more equitable, inclusive and sustainable futureThe Crack the Crises campaign, developed by a coalition of charities, is highlighting the opportunity to tackle social injustice and climate change as part of creating a post-covid world.  

Charities and volunteering remain at the heart of communities

The pandemic has highlighted how much we need each other as a society. Charities and volunteering enable us to put that need into action and remain at the heart of our communities through the best and worst times. To do this, yes, as charities we need to be gentle. But we also need to be fearless and strong. At NCVO we are committed to supporting charities and volunteers as we rebuild, recover and continue to provide essential support across the country. 

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