Cost of Living Crisis: Testing the Resilience of Volunteers

Head of Research and Evaluation at Volunteer Scotland, discusses the implications of the cost of living crisis on volunteering and volunteers.

Matthew Linning

During COVID-19 the contribution of volunteers was widely acclaimed across Scotland, and rightly so. They made a remarkable contribution to the worst crisis we have faced in generations. Coronavirus was seen as a ‘once in a lifetime’ event, with the expectation that there would be a recovery process which enabled Volunteer Involving Organisations (VIOs) to get back to something that resembled ‘steady state’. Indeed, Volunteer Scotland’s research on the pandemic was entitled: ‘The Road to Recovery’.

And then along comes the Ukraine crisis and now the cost of living crisis. We’re living through a period of perpetual crises and change. So, what can we learn from our response to COVID-19 and the resilience of our society? What are the positive legacies from COVID-19 and how can we use this to inform the contribution of volunteering and volunteers in tackling the cost of living crisis?

Firstly, there are some striking similarities between these two crises:

  • Their global scale and impact – they are extremely serious in terms of the harm they have caused/will cause, and the fact that they affect everyone to some extent.
  • They also have differential impacts across society – with those suffering from poverty, disability and long term health conditions being particularly badly affected.
  • They both highlight the important distinction between meeting immediate crisis needs of people, and the longer term impacts they have/will have on people’s mental health and wellbeing, amongst a range of other damaging societal impacts.

Secondly, COVID-19 has demonstrated what can be achieved in the face of what often seems to be insurmountable odds. The contribution of charities, community organisations and social enterprises were critical in supporting Scotland’s third sector response. Central to this was the contribution of volunteers who demonstrated the true resilience of our communities. This included not just formal volunteers, but also newly formed mutual aid groups and the remarkable support of informal volunteers, helping their neighbours and friends.

However, what level of volunteering support can we expect in the face of the cost of living crisis? Volunteer Scotland’s report ‘Testing our Resilience – The impact of the cost of living crisis on volunteering and volunteers‘ highlights a range of factors which cast doubt on the nature and level of the volunteering response this time round. The potential impacts of the crisis are examined on three levels:

  • People– the cost of living crisis is likely to have significant long-term adverse impacts on people’s health and wellbeing. Combined with the financial pressures of people having to increase paid working hours and take on multiple jobs, it is quite likely that there will be fewer volunteers stepping forward this time, especially when their expenses are not fully reimbursed in many instances. COVID-19 provided exceptional conditions for volunteering, especially during lockdowns, when a large proportion of society was furloughed.
  • Organisations- there is emerging evidence that VIOs are facing significant challenges in recruiting volunteers, most likely a combination of fewer volunteers coming forward and increasing demand for their services. However, they are also facing declining income and increasing costs – a ’perfect storm’ of adverse impacts. VIOs are being seriously weakened by the crisis which compromises their ability to provide the support so desperately needed.
  • Communities– it’s early days, and there is a lack of evidence, but it is quite possible that the level of support delivered through mutual aid groups and informal volunteering is lower than that delivered during the height of COVID-19. Also, it’s clear that those in poverty and the most disadvantaged in society, are the people who will be most adversely impacted by the cost of living crisis. Unfortunately, a potential outcome is that the more affluent areas of Scotland, where the need for volunteering support is lower, will have higher volunteering participation; in contrast to deprived areas with high needs which will have lower volunteering support.

Finally, the cost of living crisis could be even longer-term than COVID-19 and more concentrated in terms of its impact on those who are most disadvantaged, yet the level of volunteering support may be more limited. To help the voluntary sector and volunteers address this issue, the report concludes with a  ‘Top Ten’ list of areas for action. This includes a mixture of financial support; practical support measures for VIOs; investment in volunteer management; protecting the health and wellbeing of volunteers; and targeting support where it is needed most.

Volunteer Scotland would welcome your views to help inform our ongoing research and the work of the Cost of Living Task Group, part of the rollout of Scotland’s Volunteering Action Plan.

:: Want to find our more about the mechanisms that underpin the effectiveness of volunteering efforts? Come to IPPO’s online event on October 31 to find out what we can learn from the findings of our latest evidence review.