Lessons from the Pandemic: How Policymakers Can Best Support Volunteering

Senior Lecturer in Social Policy from the University of Kent discusses the findings of newly published co-authored book.

Eddy Hogg

Volunteering was one of the few good news stories in the early days of the pandemic. Across the four nations of the United Kingdom, millions of people offered up their time and talents to support those being impacted most by the pandemic and associated lockdowns. Yet behind this good news story lay stark inequalities in access to volunteering opportunities and support for newly formed groups.

In response to this, we embarked on an ambitious study of the volunteering response in each of the four nations of the UK. In each nation, collaboration between academics and sector leaders enabled us to get a clear and comprehensive overview of the role volunteers played in the pandemic response and how policy facilitated or constrained the impact volunteers could have.

The result of this project is a new book, Mobilising Voluntary Action in the UK: Learning from the Pandemic, in which we discuss our findings and what they can teach to ensure that we are better prepared to utilise volunteer support in future. Our key messages are:

People want to help

The early days and weeks of the pandemic saw the biggest surge in volunteering in living memory. Across the UK, millions of people joined newly formed mutual aid organisations, signed up for mobile apps and offered their time to existing voluntary organisations. Faced with an unprecedented situation, many people’s first instinct was to help others.

It is therefore clear that the helping impulse is alive and well. We should not worry unduly about the supply of volunteer time. While not all ‘calls to volunteer’ are as clear, strong and universal as those first few discombobulating weeks of the pandemic, we can now say with some confidence that when people see others in need they are keen to know how they can help.

Volunteering requires support

The good news story, however, wasn’t the whole story. Within days of the first media stories about scores of new volunteers signing up there were further stories about the lack of opportunities eager volunteers were being offered. People who had put their hands up to play a part in the pandemic response found themselves left frustrated by the lack of tasks to do.

This served to highlight the crucial role of the volunteer manager. For volunteers to be valued and their time put to good use, someone needs to have oversight of what tasks they are undertaking and why. Whether highly regulated or very informal, volunteer roles need to be planned, defined and supervised. Without this, keen and enthusiastic volunteers are left with nothing of value to do.

This doesn’t need to cost money. Volunteers can be very successfully supervised by other volunteers. Tasks can be handed out with minimum fuss. But before huge numbers of volunteers are recruited, there needs to be a clear plan of what they are needed for.

Good policy makes communities better prepared

The extent to which policy laid out the role of volunteers in crisis response varied, and continues to vary, hugely between the four nations of the UK. Scotland and Wales have clear, up to date and collaborative strategies for engaging volunteers in a wide range of circumstances. In Northern Ireland, the plans are older and less comprehensive, but there is something there at least. In England, the most recent policy, 2018’s Civil Society Strategy, only mentions volunteering in the context of young people. Local resilience forums, where they exist, go a little further, but in all respects policy on volunteering in England lags far behind the rest of the UK.

This matters. The early days of a crisis are not a good time to be developing a volunteering strategy on the hoof. Inevitably, the result was large scale, broad brush initiatives rather than nuanced and locality-specific plans. Nations, regions and communities need a plan that lays out the roles that volunteers could play in both crises and normal times, and a strategy for how that can be delivered in practice.

Work with partners who know their stuff

Policies and plans were most effective when they involved collaboration with partners experienced in working with volunteers. This was the case at a range of scales. Within communities, volunteering had the most impact where partnerships were forged, often based on pre-existing relationships, between councils, the extant voluntary sector and newly emerging mutual aid organisations. At a much larger scale, initiatives such as the NHS COVID-19 vaccination team were successful because they drew on the volunteer management experience and expertise of the NHS, St John Ambulance and the Royal Voluntary Service.

Partnership should not be an afterthought. It should be a key part of planning for volunteer involvement in times of crisis and times of calm.