As society continues to respond to the challenges posed by COVID-19, it’s important to assess how the pandemic has impacted on volunteering in the UK. We have seen volunteers brought in to assist with COVID-19 testing services, emergency healthcare, and the delivery of the vaccination programme. In our research for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), we found that demand for volunteering varied depending on the sector and the type of voluntary activity.
Demand for volunteers
During the pandemic, demand for volunteers increased in relation to health and wellbeing. Health-related services experienced an increase in requests for support from clinically trained volunteers to help the NHS cope with demand, providing ambulance drivers, triage support and delivering testing and vaccination programmes. Alongside this, health-related services provided support to people who felt isolated or lonely due to social restrictions, which raised the concern that mental health needs were becoming more prominent.
Lockdown was also a concern for organisations in a logistical sense, as many activities were unable to take place or had to be undertaken in new ways. Events and venues required significantly fewer volunteers, and some organisations were adapting services, such as social clubs, to take place online or were launching virtual befriending schemes. Other organisations had to adapt by providing practical day-to-day assistance for those who were shielding, such as shopping for food. Administrative tasks and recruitment and training of new volunteers were also unable to take place due to the restrictions of lockdown.
Supply of volunteers
Looking at the supply of volunteers, organisations witnessed a decrease in the availability of some groups of volunteers and an increase in others. Some older people and people with long-term health concerns who were previously dedicated volunteers, had to shield in order to protect themselves. For the voluntary organisations we spoke to, this raised concerns around whether older volunteers and those vulnerable due to their health will want to return to volunteering due to safety concerns and possible restrictions in future.
A separate trend from our research which may resonate with some readers was the increase in people’s motivation to help their community. Motivations for volunteering cited by participants included a sense of moral duty, being a part of something bigger and developing a connection to their communities.
Participants in our research reported the development of newly formed mutual aid groups (small groups of local people) popping up on social media, such as Facebook and WhatsApp. The pandemic saw a strong community response, with eagerness to get involved in supporting neighbours and wider communities. As such, for some mutual aid groups, finding volunteers to provide frontline services was far from an issue.
The opposite was the case, however, for administrative or backroom tasks. Participants reported challenges arising from managing large numbers of new volunteers. Established organisations indicated that they did not have the systems or platforms in place to process and manage the substantial increase in numbers, with many wanting to volunteer, but the supply outweighing the demand in some areas.
The future of volunteering
Stakeholders shared concerns that there may be a ‘tidal wave’ of need for new services in the future, due to the possible long-term economic and social consequences of the pandemic. In response to this, organisations in our research reported that capitalising on the rise of interest in volunteering will be especially important. Building an agile network of volunteers who can be matched up to needs depending on their location, availability, and skills will be essential. However, organisations relying on volunteers ultimately said reaping the benefits of the rise of volunteering would depend on the funding they receive to develop and manage new networks of volunteers.
Methodology: The study used a qualitative approach of twelve interviews with organisations that supported volunteering or worked with volunteers, and three focus groups made up of four volunteers each, held between February and March 2021. Participants included in the focus groups had been involved in volunteering at least once since January 2020 and were segmented according to whether they had started volunteering before or during the pandemic. The findings in this blog are collated from both volunteers and volunteering organisations, more information can be found here.