On the 23rd March it will be one year since the UK entered its first lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s been a year of huge change for us all. Here are five reflections from me, looking at volunteer engagement both over the last year and into the future.

1 – Does the data help us?

It’s hard to tell if we have had any significant and lasting uplift in volunteering over the last year. Data from different sources is collected differently and often hard to compare. Informal volunteering – which many suspect has boomed – is always hard to track, not least because few people doing it see it as volunteering.

Some studies suggest a drop in volunteering during the second and third lockdowns in England. Some suggest an unsurprising drop in volunteering by older people and a recovery to pre-pandemic levels of volunteering by 16-24 year olds after an initial spike last spring.

To me, debates about the changes in the number of volunteers aren’t that helpful. As usual we’re reducing volunteering to a numbers game. Far more important is whether those who have given time in the last year had a good experience doing so.

  • Did they find it fulfilling and rewarding? Why?
  • Was it easy to get involved and make a difference quickly? Why?
  • What can we learn to make volunteering a more accessible and rewarding experience in future?

The answers to those questions (and others like them) will help us truly learn from the last year and change our approach for the better in the future.

2 – A better balance when it comes to risk

Pre-pandemic we had become an increasingly risk-averse society, sector and profession. We’d check and screen volunteers, often beyond what’s actually required, for fear that they might do something wrong. We seemed to place less trust in our ability to attract and place the right people into the right roles than we do in the reams of paperwork we generate.

That all changed in March 2020. Yes, much volunteering was put on hold to minimise the risk of exposure to the virus amongst volunteers. But we also know that volunteering happened without the bureaucratic trappings we have all become so used to. Why? Because the benefits to society of stripping all that back outweighed the risk of doing nothing.

I have often spoken about how I applied and was approved as an NHS Volunteer Responder in less than thirty-six hours. Five minutes on a smartphone was all it took for me to be green-lit for the kind of role that a month previously I’d have had to be checked and screened intensively for.

700,000 people had a similar experience. To my knowledge, there has been no significant safeguarding issue amongst the 300,000 who subsequently went on to be given something to do.

It is my sincere hope that we learn from this and strive to get a better balance between our safeguarding obligations and the bureaucratic trappings we previously created for volunteers.

Volunteer Involving Organisations need to place greater trust in the competence of well selected and trained volunteers and the competence of those who lead them, rather than simply returning to a liability screen made of paper, forms and disclaimers. As Seth Godin put it recently, we need appropriate caution, not an abundance of caution.

Volunteer engagement needs to be safe and more frictionless. =

3 – The importance of infrastructure

Whilst the aforementioned NHS Volunteer Responder scheme has played a vital role during the pandemic, it also highlighted the problems of a national, top-down solution to meeting community need. I was one of the 400,000 initial applicants who frustratingly received nothing to do as the supply of tasks lagged behind the supply of volunteers, in some places by many months.

The conventional narrative is that local action had more impact. Many mutual-aid groups have been rightly heralded for their responsiveness and efficacy. Yet we also know that this has been enhanced when those groups have connected with local infrastructure organisations who can help co-ordinate and direct support for maximum efficiency and effectiveness.

But for me national, local, top-down, bottom-up: such debate misses the point. We need an effective infrastructure supporting civil society and local action. What we have is immeasurably weaker thanks to a decade of austerity and funding cuts. That has to be reversed.

We also need to recognise that infrastructure isn’t physical asset like a building, it’s people. People who know their community, who build relationships and trust. Who strengthen bonding and bridging social capital. It’s going to take time to rebuild what we’ve lost since 2010 and hopefully the pandemic is the impetus to start rebuilding now.

4 – A vital role for leaders of volunteer engagement

Back in my first blog post of this year I wrote:

“I look back in pride at our profession. At leaders of volunteer engagement who overnight faced and embraced many of changes we thought we weren’t going to have to deal with for a few more years: seismic demographic shifts; rapid adoption of technology; a switch to remote and flexible volunteering; the list goes on. ”

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown what leaders of volunteer engagement can do when we have to. As the imperative we’ve lived with for a year dwindles when this (hopefully) last national lockdown starts to ease, we must not take our collective feet off the gas. We must re-double our efforts to capitalise on the opportunities to influence and shape our organisations – and wider sector – for the future.

Our sector and Volunteer Involving Organisations can’t return to life as it was in the first two months of 2020. New thinking and new models are needed. Leaders of volunteer engagement have a vital role to play in that re-imagining and it’s up to each and every one of us to make sure our voices are heard.

5 – An uncertain future

Will we forever live in a world of virtual meetings?

What will events, conferences and public gatherings be like when we can finally mix freely again?

Will volunteering re-bound or be slow to recover, as seems to be the case in Australia?

In a challenging economic context, is fundraising our way out of trouble a realistic option or will donated time become the most valuable resource at our disposal?

Will the post-pandemic office and work environment be geared solely around paid staff or will volunteers factor in future workplace planning?

These and many more questions will need thinking through and answering in the coming weeks and months. Are we making the space to do this and are we sat at the right tables to contribute to the discussions?

What do you think?

What would you add to my list of five reflections?

What questions do you think we need to consider in our uncertain future?

Leave a comment to share your thoughts.

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Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash

7 thoughts on “One year on – five reflections on volunteer engagement during the global pandemic

  1. I was really impressed to see organizations and agencies like VolunteerMatch and California Volunteers so quickly pivot to promoting COVID-19 related opportunities. I was frustrated that so many nonprofits and corporate folks pretended that virtual volunteering was a brand new, untried thing. I was pleased that a committee I volunteer with, that has said it was impossible to ever have online meetings and use GoogleDocs, suddenly decided that, in fact, that was a great idea – I think many volunteers had that experience and are hoping this online engagement won’t entirely disappear once we’re all vaccinated. While I was pleased to see so many young people want to volunteer, I was frustrated that, at least here in the USA, so many wanted to “write cards for the elderly” (one manager of such a home told me that she was refusing cards, because they were often inappropriate, impersonal and not at all what was needed, as well as being too many) or they wouldn’t volunteer with Meals on Wheels or food banks who were desperate for volunteers – they wanted to start their own nonprofit, not because it would be more effective, but because it could be theirs (many created apps and web sites before bothering to find out if what they wanted to do was even needed – and these same young people who so urgently wanted to create food delivery or write cards for the elderly have balked at the idea of helping people sign up to get vaccines, at least the young people on Reddit). Another really positive thing that has stood out to me regarding nonprofits and volunteers: (1) arts groups, and volunteers at those groups specifically. Their creativity at delivering everything from immediate interactive online theater for children to producing community Christmas programs online has been delightful and inspiring. (2) universities that launched meaningful, high-impact virtual volunteering for NGOs that had previously been supported by onsite students. They have done far more than even I would say you could do – and that thrills me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great insights, as usual, Rob!

    One quick story to contribute: I once labeled volunteer numbers and hours ‘dangerous’ to a colleague in academia and was told that was an inflammatory statement. Fast forward to this year when I heard from colleagues that they are having to justify their roles as Volunteer Directors because volunteer hours went down due to COVID. Their experience demonstrates the danger of defaulting to narrow metrics that are unrelated to mission advancement. Thanks for highlighting this and many issues!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “I heard from colleagues that they are having to justify their roles as Volunteer Directors because volunteer hours went down due to COVID”

      Wow! That’s a whole new level of stupid from upper management right there.


  3. Rob, it’s been about 3 hours since I first saw this blog post and I’ve been thinking about it non-stop. There are so many questions and thoughts that stood out to me for different reasons. Two of them combine for one of my reflections or questions for post-pandemic operations. You said: ‘We also need to recognise that infrastructure isn’t physical asset like a building, it’s people. People who know their community, who build relationships and trust. Who strengthen bonding and bridging social capital.’ I love this, and it strikes deep when I think about what I value the most about working in volunteer engagement, and what training I love to look for in expanding professionally. When you connect that idea with your other question: ‘In a challenging economic context, is fundraising our way out of trouble a realistic option or will donated time become the most valuable resource at our disposal?’ it prompts me to ask:

    ‘To ensure that the scales tip towards ‘more seats’ at the table, and a net gain in volunteer engagement being seen as a central strategic element of an organization’s post pandemic planning, is it the time to work towards having volunteer engagement professionals supported and represented by one international body/association to help with the challenges and opportunities ahead?’

    The pandemic has demonstrated the international connectivity of our sector, and there are so many amazing efforts put into various national, local and regional associations, I can’t help but think of the potential of unifying those efforts. I know this has been debated before, I just wonder if the pandemic has offered us an opportunity that we shouldn’t miss, to mobilize not only individually in our organizations, but as a whole?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great point Erin. I’d also add that to a achieve this we need good national and local associations as well. A global solution will work best when tied to more localised leadership and support. What do others think?


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