The road to recovery: Covid-19 and volunteering

As the final stage of the government’s roadmap to end England’s lockdown comes into effect today, we share new findings from our research on covid-19 and volunteering. This research aims to inform how we can support volunteering as we look ahead and move towards recovery from the pandemic. 

Part of a larger UK-wide research project on voluntary action during the pandemic led by Northumbria University, the findings are from a survey of 127 volunteer-involving organisations in England (voluntary and community organisations, public sector bodies, local infrastructure organisations, for example volunteer centres, local authorities). 

Conducted in spring 2021, it explored the challenges and opportunities organisations faced, and the support needed going forward. We also ran a workshop following the survey with a wide range of organisations who shared their reflections on the issues raised.

So, what have we learned? We’ve published a short briefing of our findings on volunteering and the pandemic. Below is a summary of four key themes which emerged, as organisations reflected on their experiences and looked ahead to the next stage.

Adjusting to a new world

First, bringing volunteers back. We know that the pandemic has meant many volunteers, including those who have previously dedicated their lives to volunteering, temporarily stood down. Organisations look forward to welcoming volunteers back, but recognise the challenges, especially where roles have changed. 

New guidance and training are already in motion to support this. However, alongside practical measures, organisations feel it is crucial to provide additional emotional support and empathy to support the wellbeing of volunteers and address anxieties and fears some face as they return.

Maintaining the momentum

Second, retaining the new volunteers who stepped forward, especially early in the pandemic. Looking forward, a concern for some organisations centres on retaining them. They reported different strategies already in place, including: 

  • flexible and accessible volunteering opportunities (building on some innovative approaches to roles successfully adopted during the pandemic)
  • linking with employers and creating ‘pools’ of volunteer-ready individuals to be called on for future emergencies or community projects.

Breaking down barriers

Third, diversity and inclusion. Our survey responses reflected other research which indicates a two-fold impact of the covid-19 pandemic: on the one hand, there are signs that new, more diverse volunteers got involved (including young people) and with the shift to more virtual volunteering roles some practical barriers associated with volunteering such as lengthy on-boarding processes. 

However, there is also evidence that covid-19 has further increased societal inequalities and barriers to volunteering. Organisations are focusing on making sure that volunteer roles and opportunities are accessible and support the needs of a diverse range of people. They are looking at different ways to minimise barriers across the volunteer journey, from making it easier to get started to targeted recruitment activities.

Collaboration and importance of working locally

Finally, working locally and in partnership with others to coordinate volunteer and community responses to the pandemic. While for many this has been successful, others report a lack of joined up working. 

The importance of building or sustaining links with other organisations and agencies on volunteering is widely shared – especially in the next steps towards recovery. New multi-agency working groups or new systems for sharing resources between organisations and sectors including establishing volunteer training.

Moving towards recovery

Organisations identified a range of ways to help support volunteering as we move towards recovery, including support from within their own organisations, from the voluntary sector and more widely from funders, policymakers and government. Key areas of support needed include:

  1. Clear, timely and accurate information with guidance to help navigate the new volunteering environment
  2. Collaborative, communicative and flexible ways of working responsive to the changes
  3. Recognising and meeting volunteer needs through support, particularly around mental health and wellbeing, transition to new roles and meeting additional support needs
  4. Making the volunteer effort sustainable for the future through investment in volunteering, by raising its profile and value and investing in its infrastructure, breaking down barriers to include new and diverse volunteers, and offering a range of flexible opportunities.

What’s next

More detail can be found in our mid-project briefing on voluntary action and covid-19. A full report will be published in autumn 2021 on the Mobilising Voluntary Action website, which will include a UK-wide analysis of policy responses. The findings will provide good practice guidance, practical learnings and recommendations to shape future policy. 

It will also feed into the recently launched Vision for Volunteering which aims to set out the ambition for volunteering in England over the next decade. For further information, please contact Amy McGarvey at amy.mcgarvey@ncvo.org.uk.

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Avatar photo Amy works as a research manager and is leading on NCVO’s major piece of research about the volunteer experience. She also contributes to other parts of NCVO’s research programme on voluntary sector and volunteering.

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