What can we learn from England’s volunteering policy response to covid-19?

Today we publish our briefing on the volunteering policy response to the covid-19 pandemic in England. Our research explored the experiences of those working with volunteers during the pandemic, and is part of a larger cross-UK study. In this blog, we share the key messages and findings.

What did we do?

This phase of our research focused on the policy response in England for volunteering. It builds on the first stage of our research, published in July 2021, which looked at the challenges during the height of the pandemic and recovery.

Since then, we reviewed a huge range of documents, to explore what happened and the impact policy decisions had. We interviewed experts who were involved in developing and implementing national policy and engaging volunteers. We gathered views from a wide range of volunteer-involving organisations, voluntary infrastructure and policy makers. Alongside this, we held a series of workshops and events, to test and refine the findings.

What did we find?

The policy response

In this research we reviewed how we make and develop policy for volunteering in England, mainly at a national level, and considered how this differs in England to other parts of the UK .

Much of our national policy understandably focused on preserving public health, given the uncertainty and risk of covid-19. Policy makers aimed to limit placing additional restrictions on volunteers, and focused on how to volunteer safely, including to pause or adapt activities.

How England experienced the policy response

Interestingly, different parts of the country perceived England’s volunteering policy response differently.

The pandemic appears to have exposed and amplified what was already in place before the virus spread. Areas that responded best to the pandemic already had high numbers of volunteers, established infrastructure for attracting and managing volunteers, and good relationships with local and national decision makers. These areas had less of a need for national responses like the NHS Volunteer Responders programme, and so people felt they were less effective.

However, in areas that were under-resourced and less prepared, the national response was considered to be extremely useful in promoting the vital role that volunteers could play, and supporting the mobilisation of volunteers to carry out emergency tasks.

What can we learn?

The nature, scale and urgency of the pandemic meant that policy making happened quickly, often with limited or inconsistent emerging evidence. The lessons we learn from the pandemic will be vital as we prepare for and respond to future emergencies.

  • Long-term planning and preparedness are vital in creating the environment volunteering needs to flourish. This includes addressing inequalities within and between different areas of the country, and targeting resources to communities that are most in need.
  • Effective communication and collaboration were essential in ensuring volunteers could be mobilised and supported to respond to the crisis. This includes between volunteer-involving organisations, infrastructure bodies, public services, and local and national government.
  • We need a strategic direction for volunteering, which builds on what we have learnt from the pandemic. This should make clear the roles that volunteer-involving organisations, infrastructure bodies and government play in supporting volunteering. Many of those who took part in our research cited the Vision for Volunteering as a great opportunity to develop this.
  • The pandemic showed how the environment for volunteering is crucial. The ‘ecosystem’ that supports volunteering is complex. We have an opportunity to explore how we can develop and support this ecosystem, learning from what worked best in the crisis.

What’s next?

This exciting research project is coming to an end. A cross-UK study will be published in early 2022, drawing together findings from each UK nation. Take a look at the Mobilising UK Voluntary Action website to keep up to date with announcements.

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Catherine Goodall is a senior policy officer at NCVO, working primarily on public services policy. She has a background in research and practice, working with local authorities and universities to drive service improvement and facilitating participatory action research.

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