Volunteering and covid: Making sense of where we are and where we might be heading

Jo StuartThis blog was jointly written by Joanna Stuart and Laura Crawford. Joanna is an independent researcher and NCVO research associate, and Laura Crawford is a senior research fellow at Northumbria University.

The effects of the covid-19 pandemic on the volunteering landscape has been extraordinary. We have seen a dramatic shift, not only in the scale of involvement, but also what volunteers do and who is getting involved. 

Recent research from The Together Initiative has found that among those who volunteered during the pandemic, one in three were first-time volunteers. This reflects the upsurge in neighbourly help and mutual aid we saw, particularly during the early stages of the pandemic which brought more and new volunteers.

Community resourcefulness

Some of the most useful insights charting these changes comes from research carried out for Local Trust. This real-time research with 25 communities across England highlights how resourceful communities have been in their response to covid-19 and the critical role of grassroots action in meeting local needs. With this has come a heightened appreciation of volunteers but also community concerns about the increased expectations around the contribution and role of volunteers. This being particularly challenging as budgets are reduced and resources squeezed.

Volunteering paused

Alongside the swell of informal local action during covid-19, many volunteers have had to stop or pause their volunteering. Others have altered what they do, as services have been adapted or reimagined. During the first phase of the pandemic, the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing noted among those aged 50 and over:

  • 18% of volunteers reduced their activity
  • 43% of volunteers stopped volunteering completely.

While some organisations have seen volunteer numbers and the time given by volunteers rise, more have seen this decrease according to the findings of the February Covid-19 Voluntary Sector Impact Barometer. Among the 710 responding voluntary organisations, 40% experienced a decline in the amount of unpaid time contributed by volunteers since March 2020, while 27% reported an increase.

A graph showing the changes in number of people volunteering with organisations during the pandemic.Change in the number of people volunteering with organisations during the pandemic.[1]

Understanding where we are now

To help make sense of the current situation including the challenges facing volunteering and the support needed for organisations, NCVO has recently launched a survey to capture the experiences of organisations in England. This invites local authorities and local infrastructure organisations to share their reflections on volunteering in their area and organisations working with volunteers to voice their views on volunteering in their organisations.

This survey is part of a UK wide study, led by Northumbria University, which brings together practitioners and academics to help us better understand the mobilisation of voluntary effort during the pandemic. The findings will be used to champion examples of:

  • good practice
  • foster shared learning
  • generate recommendations to shape future policy.

How this survey will help our understanding

The survey builds on existing research to address unanswered questions about the effects of covid-19 on volunteering as we move into the next phase of the pandemic. It’s a chance to hear from those at the heart of local responses about how the pandemic has changed volunteering in their area or organisation and what support is needed on the road to recovery.

The survey looks to capture the shifts of the volunteer response and how the changing national restrictions and localised lockdowns have impacted:

  • who volunteers
  • the numbers of volunteers who stepped forward
  • what roles they have taken on.

Organisations have had to rethink the ways they operate to engage volunteers in a covid-secure way. For some, this has given the opportunity to broaden their scope, mobilise new volunteers and reach out to a broader demographic. 

Meanwhile, the nature of projects and resource constraints have made it impossible for others to adapt with the pandemic creating new pockets of unmet need and inequality. The survey looks to capture this diversity to broaden our understanding of the disproportionate impact on certain groups and types of volunteering to identify where additional support is needed.

To build back better we must not only consider how to sustain the involvement of new volunteers and voluntary groups but also how to re-connect and re-engage with those who were unable to volunteer during the pandemic.

The findings from the survey will be available in early summer from the project website. Over the coming months, this recently launched site will include regular updates on covid volunteering research and insights, briefing reports from each UK nation and podcasts on volunteering.

If you want to learn more about the project please contact Laura Crawford.

[1] Respond, recover, reset: the voluntary sector and covid-19 p.9

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