Volunteers’ Week 2021: A time to say thanks at an important crossroad for volunteering

The impact of the pandemic on the volunteering landscape has been extraordinary. There have been big shifts in how people are volunteering, what they’re doing, and who’s getting involved.

The pandemic has also raised the profile of volunteering. As we take the time to say thanks this Volunteers’ Week, there’s new recognition of volunteers in the media and increased interest from politicians. They are keen to explore the potential of volunteering to deliver policy interventions, increase wellbeing, and boost the economy.

Public perceptions have also changed. Three in ten people say, because of volunteering in the pandemic, they plan to be more involved in their local community this year. 65% believe local community groups, volunteers and charities deserve more recognition.

Volunteers will play a vital part in our recovery and we’re at an important crossroad that will shape the future of volunteering. To secure the legacy of volunteering during the pandemic we must learn the lessons and realise the opportunities it has presented.

A new cohort of volunteers

There are lots of grim statistics linked to the pandemic, but volunteering has been one of the positive stories of the past year.

Recent research from the Royal Voluntary Service found an estimated 12.4m people volunteered during the pandemic, with 4.6m doing so for the first time. Over 3000 mutual aid groups have been created and an estimated 3m people took part in a mutual aid group.

Increases in volunteering were notable among younger and working-age groups, and people identifying as ethnic minorities were also more likely to start volunteering for the first time between March and July 2020 (12% vs. 8%)

The ‘Isolation Economy’ brought on by the pandemic is estimated to have been worth £357m a week during the first lockdown.

A more complex volunteering picture

The positive headlines mask the complexity and breadth of the changes to volunteering during the pandemic.

Evidence shows formal volunteering decreased by 10% in 2020, partly offset by increased informal volunteering. Our latest covid voluntary sector report research highlights that just 24% of charities reported an increase in volunteer numbers since March 2020, compared with 36% who saw a decline. Older age groups who traditionally volunteer more were most likely to be impacted by social restrictions, and women and disabled people were more likely to say they volunteered less.

There’s also evidence that after an initial surge, interest in volunteering fell. We received over 750,000 visits to our volunteering webpage during 2020 and  80% were in the initial months of the pandemic. Data from YouGov shows a peak in people wanting to volunteer at the end of March 2020 (16%) before declining (9% by mid-April).

The rise of digital and micro-volunteering

Before the pandemic, only 6% of people volunteered exclusively online. With over 80% of UK adults not leaving home during the first lockdown, people needed new ways to engage in volunteering. 92% of the voluntary organisations we surveyed stated they had moved services online in the past year as a result of the pandemic. 39% had increased the number of remote volunteer roles.

Digital also played a much greater role in the recruitment and management of volunteers.

  • Mutual aid groups almost exclusively organised through Facebook or WhatsApp.
  • Digital ‘matchmaking’ services. 
  • Digital volunteering enabled people to donate their time in short, convenient chunks, known as micro-volunteering. These trends, accelerated by the pandemic, have enabled people previously excluded from volunteering to get involved.

Collaborating to provide emergency community support

The restrictions imposed by the pandemic also changed the roles volunteers play. Before the pandemic, four in ten volunteers helped with in-person events. As this has not been possible, there’s been a big shift in roles towards emergency community support towards:

  • food aid
  • assisting with loneliness
  • providing mental health support.

The vaccination programme has presented further volunteering opportunities, with volunteers supporting directly alongside paid staff to deliver services. It’s also a shining example of collaboration between national initiatives and grassroots action, which has been central to the success of volunteer efforts during the pandemic.

Another important example is the Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Partnership (VCSEP) which has brought together 230 national and local organisations to improve their response to emergencies. Local knowledge, facilitated by the VCSEP, has allowed for more effective government interventions.

There’s also been increased collaboration locally between local authorities, citizens, as well as the public, voluntary and private sectors. Charities are working together in agile ways locally, sharing data and information with each other.

Securing the legacy of the pandemic

To secure the positive legacies of the pandemic for volunteering, there are some short-and long-term considerations for volunteer-involving organisations.

Short-term considerations

  • Prioritising the wellbeing and safety of volunteers and staff. Volunteers must feel supported and be confident about measures being put in place as we follow the roadmap out of lockdown.
  • Retaining the new volunteers who signed up during the pandemic. Many may think they’re no longer needed and could be signposted to different volunteering roles. As people return to work from furlough, they will have less free time, and will need more flexibility to stay involved. Many believe volunteering during the pandemic was a positive experience, so we need to look at retaining this.
  • Reengaging those who couldn’t volunteer due to the pandemic. Life patterns may have changed for many, so we need to consider how to make reengaging as flexible and personal as possible.
  • Don’t panic about a short-term slump in volunteering. This may occur as life returns to normal – but also don’t base future plans on maintaining volunteer levels seen in the first lockdown.

Longer-term lessons

  • Balancing risk with ‘getting stuff done’. The pandemic forced new ways of working, at speed, and encouraged more informal approaches. We now need to find the right balance between processes and risk management while making sure the benefits of more flexible and informal volunteering seen during the pandemic are not lost.
  • Maintaining flexibility. Time commitment is a big factor for those thinking of volunteering. The pandemic has forced organisations to create more flexible roles. If people can volunteer successfully from home, at a time that suits them, does this have to change just because it can?
  • Working with employers. Paid work was a key barrier to volunteering prior to the pandemic. As working-age groups return to employment, we need to look at how employers can encourage continued volunteering.
  • Diversify volunteering. During the pandemic, we saw new cohorts of people step forward to volunteer, which in many cases were more representative of the communities they supported. NCVO’s research on diversity in volunteering includes recommendations for how organisations can reach a wider pool of people. One important action is to consider the digital divide and how digitally-enabled volunteering can include or exclude people at the same time.
  • National and local, not versus. The pandemic has shown we should lose the binary idea of top down or bottom up when it comes to organising volunteering, and think about a collaboration between national, local and hyperlocal. It’s also essential that volunteering infrastructure is adequately funded, especially in areas with lower social capital.

We’re at a crossroad for volunteering

The pandemic has highlighted how much we need each other as a society. Volunteers and volunteering have helped us to put that need into action and remain at the heart of our communities through challenging times. It’s right that we take the time to thank volunteers this Volunteers’ Week for the huge impact they have made in the past year.

We see this as a pivotal moment to re-energise and plan strategically for the future of volunteering. It’s an opportunity to embrace the importance of deeply embedded, relationship-based volunteering, which builds resilient communities, helps people find their sense of purpose, and to develop economically, socially, and in their health and well-being.

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