CEOs respond to findings from ‘Volunteering in England during Covid-19’ report

The CEOs of three charity and volunteering organisations – Royal Voluntary Service, NAVCA and NCVO – respond to the findings of a new report examining the policy response to volunteering in England during the pandemic and the impact on volunteers and volunteer involving or supporting organisations.

Volunteers rose to meet the toughest challenge

Catherine Johnstone CBE, CEO, Royal Voluntary Service

In a week when Royal Voluntary Service launched its own new report, Kickstarting a new volunteer revolution: volunteering for a healthier Britain, I welcome NCVO’s paper Volunteering in England during Covid-19 funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). This report points to a need to collaborate more across the sector and for government policy to encourage that.

Volunteering is a remarkable public health intervention and one which has particular value to areas of health inequality and social deprivation. Its benefit to a society recovering from a pandemic is obvious. And when it comes to ‘levelling up’, volunteering must be in the very foundations of the response. Its relevance spans government departments and, of course, it needs solid investment to allow the benefits to be realised.

I am still astounded by the covid-19 response from the nation’s volunteers. Over 12.4m stepped forward to help in some way and 4.6m of these were first time volunteers according to Britain Thinks research. We clearly, collectively, did something right and I fundamentally believe the volunteering landscape has changed forever as a result.

Amid a once-in-a-generation crisis we saw brilliant ideas emerge which attracted new volunteers. Often these were local and propelled by technology, the upsurge in mutual aid organisations, for example. The NHS Volunteer Responders programme which Royal Voluntary Service has delivered for NHS England with GoodSAM was designed as a crisis response and a ‘safety net’ and launched in a few short weeks. Enabled by a smart phone app, micro-volunteering offered new flexibility. People got involved who would not have been able to otherwise.

At times, tensions arose around the intersection between national and local provision. But the impact of this programme has been significant. Over 2 million tasks have been undertaken by its volunteers supporting people who needed help. For some – both clients and healthcare professionals – this was the only form of support locally. The volunteers were also buffered from some of the effects of the pandemic seeing significant improvement in their own wellbeing.

This scheme was just one component of the voluntary response, of course. Those 12.4m volunteers were spread across Britain and included a wide range of interventions.

So, were there things which could have been improved?

Well, collaboration is vital if we are to deliver the best outcomes. All our collective capacity and capability – national and local organisations – will be needed as we support the nation’s covid-19 recovery. At Royal Voluntary Service we are working with others in the sector through the Shaping the future with volunteering group which is looking at how we can all learn from each other and develop our practice for the years ahead.

We have incredible strength in the volunteer base in Britain. Let’s keep broadening and deepening engagement in civil society, breaking down those barriers to entry for the benefit of all.

Volunteering and voluntary action from a local perspective

Maddy Desforges, CEO, NAVCA

We all know the crucial role volunteering and voluntary action in communities has played over the course of the pandemic. This response is not unique to the pandemic but can be seen at times of crisis throughout our recent history and within communities affected by crisis. We’ve seen people give their time and energy in response to fires and floods and the wave of local volunteering in the pandemic shows the commitment people feel to their neighbours and their communities.

Community and local relationships have been at the very heart of pandemic volunteering. We know that where volunteering is grounded in our local communities, it contributes not just to individual wellbeing but also builds stronger relationships and thriving neighbourhoods. Place-based volunteering has the potential to transform communities as people get to know each other and work together on things they care about.

Two other things stand out from the excellent report released this week and put together by NCVO: strategy and leadership.

We need to recognise the significant impact and long-lasting transformational benefits of volunteering in our communities – to both volunteers and community.

The voluntary sector and government working together, rather than separately is synergising. The voluntary sector can make an amazing difference in communities with relatively small amounts of funding. By being a co-designer and an enabler of strategic planning with the sector, governments enhance and validate community development and growth.

We are all tired of hearing about resilience, with its connotations of withstanding immense pressure and assault – instead let’s talk about thriving communities, where people identify what matters and build the future they want to see. The voluntary sector has the creativity, strategic thinking and leadership to help build a future that is a fitting legacy for the pandemic, and volunteers will be at the forefront of that effort.

The Vision for Volunteering project is developing this collaborative and enabling strategy for England.

Led by the voluntary sector it brings together voices from ours and other sectors, including government through the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). It will give England an ambitious, thoughtful strategy for taking down barriers to volunteering, building opportunities for everyone to be a part of their own thriving community.

“We need to seek to blend ‘national’ and ‘local’ – bringing out the strengths of both.”

Sarah Vibert, interim-CEO, NCVO

A lot has been written about who volunteered and how during the pandemic. However there has been less focus on the policy response. The research, Volunteering in England during covid-19: the policy response and its impact, published earlier this week takes a critical look at the policy response in England and presents clear lessons to support volunteering in future emergencies.

My main take away is that we need to move beyond a binary choice of ‘top down’ or ‘bottom up’ in volunteering policy and instead seek to blend ‘national’ and ‘local’ – bringing out the strengths of both. The findings provide clear evidence that this approach delivered successful outcomes during the pandemic, especially in communities with lower social capital and fewer pre-existing community connections.

There are a number of things that need to happen to support this in future.

We must place greater emphasis on building and improving the ecosystem for volunteering. We need increased partnership between central and local government and voluntary organisations. Local knowledge has enabled statutory interventions to operate more flexibly and reach a broader range of people during the pandemic. Our research also shows that areas where local statutory bodies invested time and effort in building collaborative relationships within communities before the pandemic generally responded quicker.

We also need investment in initiatives focused on local economies and local social infrastructure to help harness the strengths of local communities. The role of charities and volunteers in the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda is important here and is something we’re feeding into. We want to see decision-making devolved, with more for communities and local institutions – not detached from the centre but emboldened by a new partnership settlement.

All of this will require the voluntary sector to develop a new relationship with government, one where we work in partnership while also championing the contribution of volunteering – as we saw during the pandemic – ensuring it is valued and considered strategically. I believe there is genuine government interest here, which we should harness.

Some of this work has started. Earlier this week we attended a roundtable with the new Civil Society Minister where volunteering was central to the agenda. As Maddy highlights, we are also working alongside other organisations including the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, to lead a cross-sector, inclusive consultation to create an ambitious ten-year Vision for Volunteering.

However, it’s not just about relationships with government – we need to improve relationships in the sector too. During the pandemic voluntary organisations that would normally compete for funding have worked together. And there has also been a general willingness to work in more agile ways, sharing data and info. The Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Partnership (VCSEP) is a shining example of this. Catherine mentions the Shaping the Future with Volunteering group; another great example of cross-sector collaboration. All this needs to continue and is the reason why we launched The Civil Society Group with other organisations this month, to improve collaboration within the sector and streamline engagement with governments.

I am optimistic the lessons of the pandemic offer a positive vision for the future role of volunteering in society. NCVO has an important part to play in building this into our work with members and decision makers, working with partners such as RVS, NAVCA and many more. And as a wider sector, we should embrace this as an opportunity to think about what our future, and that of the communities we serve, should look like.

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