Volunteers have been essential to our society during the global pandemic that hit the UK in the spring of 2020. Without volunteering — whether organised informally through mutual aid groups and social media, or formally through Volunteer Involving Organisations and national schemes — the country’s death toll would be higher and our communities immeasurably poorer and weaker. And the benefits haven’t just been for those whom volunteers have helped.

Recent research from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) found that levels of wellbeing increased significantly for individuals who participated in the NHS Volunteer Responders (NHSVR) programme, with effects lasting months after the volunteering period had ended.

This is great news and one of many achievements for the NHSVR programme, set up and run by the Royal Voluntary Service. It’s easy to forget that within twenty-four hours of launching, the scheme had recruited 250,000 volunteers. Three days later that number stood at 750,000. That still astounds me — it is perhaps the largest peacetime mobilisation of volunteers in the UK’s history and a massive achievement.

Not long after that launch, however, problems started to occur. In early May 2020 The Guardian reported that the “Vast majority of [the] 750,000 people who signed up to help are yet to be called into action”. The problem lay in delays referring people in need to the scheme, meaning opportunities for people to do something lagged way behind the number of volunteers recruited to be available to help.

In time the situation improved and in May 2021, it was announced that 436,000 NHSVR volunteers had completed two million tasks. This is fantastic news and everyone involved should be congratulated and celebrated for their achievement.

There is, however, an important point to make in light of those figures. 750,000 volunteers were recruited and 436,000 volunteers have been active as of May 2021. That means 314,000 volunteers who were recruited in March last year to make a difference during the pandemic have had nothing to do for over a year.

As anyone who has ever worked with volunteers will tell you, the first rule of volunteer recruitment is to have work ready for them. People do not take kindly to being asked to help and then having nothing to actually do. This is especially true when the call to action is framed as being urgent. People prefer not to sit around twiddling their thumbs, they want to get stuck in and do something to help.

As Gethyn Williams put it recently in his blog post, ‘Three ways to build on Volunteers’ Week’:

” Generating fresh energy for volunteering without providing adequate pathways into meaningful roles is just leading people on, and an excess supply of disappointed volunteers feeling ghosted by potential suitors will soon turn toxic.”

Now, as I said, the NHSVR programme should be wholeheartedly congratulated for their work during the pandemic. Nothing should be taken away from that. And it’s great to see that RVS, along with the Scouts, will be co-chairing a new “Shaping The Future of Volunteering” group of eighteen Chief Executives from significant Volunteer Involving Organisations with the aim of capitalising on the ‘revolution’ that has taken place in volunteering during the Covid-19 pandemic.

But (you knew that was coming didn’t you?), until we are prepared to look hard at how and why NHSVR left 314,000 volunteers idle we will not make the progress we need to. I don’t say that to point a finger at NHSVR or to detract from their successes. I say it because we have never had the opportunity before to learn so much from so many volunteers who were let down by the programme that recruited them.

NHSVR know who these people are. They have their contact details. They could be contacting every one of them to learn what went wrong, what that meant to the individuals concerned, what could have been done differently, what impact not being given anything to do has on people’s expectations and experiences of volunteering etc.

Have we turned over 300,000 people off volunteering for life? Or did these hundreds of thousands help in other ways when NHSVR didn’t come through for them? How can we engage them in future?

A rich seam of learning is there waiting to be explored yet, as far as I am aware, NHSVR haven’t done that research and don’t seem inclined to do it. Why?

Perhaps, like many in our sector and wider society, failure is seen as a bad thing, something to be avoided and hidden. I understand that. No individual or organisation wants the scrutiny when they get it wrong. Furthermore, with a government and media often hostile to charities, it’s natural to want to minimise the attention given to what doesn’t go as well as hoped. I am sure some of the newspapers would love to knock charity for their pandemic ‘failings’ rather than hold the government to account for theirs.

Yet failure is how we learn. It’s how we gain those insights in life that help us move on. As Matthew Syed puts it in his brilliant book, ‘Black Box Thinking: Why Most People Never Learn from Their Mistakes — But Some Do’:

“For organisations beyond aviation, it is not about creating a literal black box; rather, it is about the willingness and tenacity to investigate the lessons that often exist when we fail, but which we rarely exploit. It is about creating systems and cultures that enable organisations to learn from errors, rather than being threatened by them. Failure is rich in learning opportunities for a simple reason: in many of its guises, it represents a violation of expectation. It is showing us that the world is in some sense different from the way we imagined it to be. Failure is thus a signpost. It reveals a feature of our world we hadn’t grasped fully and offers vital clues about how to update our models, strategies, and behaviours.”

And:

” Only by redefining failure will we unleash progress, creativity, and resilience.”

And:

” A progressive attitude to failure turns out to be a cornerstone of success for any institution.”

Sarah Vibert, Interim Chief Executive of NCVO recently said:

“To secure the incredible legacy of volunteering during the pandemic, we must learn the lessons and realise the opportunities it has presented.”

That means learning from our failures, not just our successes.

So, I implore the new Shaping The Future of Volunteering group to work with the NHSVR programme to learn all we can from the 314,000 volunteers who were recruited but have sat idle for over a year. We owe it to them, to our communities and to our country to be better prepared in future.

Not learning those lessons would be the biggest failure of all.


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