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

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

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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Nine reasons the Steve Holiday report into full-time social action is a disappointment

February 3rd saw the publication of Steve Holiday’s much anticipated report into Full-Time Social Action (FTSA) for young people. The report is the result of an independent inquiry into full-time volunteering commissioned by the government a little over a year ago. It is the same piece of work I mentioned in a recent article on this blog that looked back on 2017.

I started drafting this article shortly after reading the report but have held off publishing it until now to allow myself to calm down and reflect on the contents. You see my initial response was mix of anger, disappointment and frustration. Whilst there is some good in the report, much of it is weak and, frankly, poor. So here, tempered by a few days of reflection and re-writing, are my top nine reasons (in no order of importance) for feeling so disappointed by the report.

1 – No mention of family volunteering

Whilst it speaks about the role of government and education providers in encouraging young people to embrace volunteering, the report barely mentions the importance of families. Family volunteering is recognised as great way to instil values of service and volunteerism in young people, yet it doesn’t even warrant a mention. Yet again, an initiative to explore engaging more young people in volunteering places all responsibility on the state.

2 – The role of National Citizens Service (NCS)

I am concerned that the Holiday report places too much emphasis on NCS as a framework for developing full-time volunteering. I worry about the independence of a report commissioned by government that seeks to strengthen the argument for a government scheme, funded in excess of £1billion, and with big questions still to be answered about its efficacy. Whilst I see the sense in not creating yet another new organisation, questions still remain about the effectiveness and value for money of NCS. For example:

  • A key NCS volunteering metric is that eight million hours of volunteer time have been given. However, nothing is said about the impact that time had and the difference it made to young people and their communities.
  • 64% of NCS graduates would consider engaging in social action. This is touted as a success but, as I argued in my recent article about the problem with volunteering pledges, considering future engagement in volunteering does not mean they will actually go on and do more volunteering.

3 – Quality vs. quantity

Throughout the report there are calls for further evidence before action is taken. Yet this demand for evidence weakens significantly when it comes to discussion as to whether the quality of a volunteer experience is more important than how many people engage in volunteering, and how such time they give.

“Many organisations argue that quality of social action is more important than quantity. However, intuitively, the more a young person engages in voluntary activity, the greater the impact will be – although we need more research to substantiate this belief.”

Basic common sense would argue that if the quality of the experience is not good then it doesn’t matter how many people participate, they will not gain from it as much as they would if they had a great experience. Evidence surely isn’t needed to substantiate this?

Furthermore, I noticed in the call for evidence responses on page fourteen of the report (“What impact does full time social action / volunteering have on young people and providers in comparison to part time social action / volunteering?”) that the arguments for full-time volunteering over part-time volunteering relate to how well designed volunteer roles are (quality) and not how long people spend doing them (quantity).

4 – A missed opportunity regarding volunteering infrastructure

Page six of the report briefly notes the the inadequacy of infrastructure support to help young people engage in volunteering.

Since 2010 funding for volunteering infrastructure in England has been slashed, resulting in the closure of many local Volunteer Centres and, in many, cases a reduced service from those that remain.

It would have been good for an independent report such as this to acknowledge that the impacts of austerity on volunteering infrastructure have had, and will continue to have, long-term and significant effects on support for young people to engage in part- or full-time volunteering.

5 – Recommendation two – is there an echo in here?

“To ensure that social action is accessible to all, we recommend that the Department for Work and Pensions supports Job Coaches, to proactively inform young people who are Universal Credit claimants of their right to reduce their job-seeking hours up to 50 percent to participate in voluntary activities. We also favour extending this right to all benefit claimants and ask that the crucial role of volunteering is better recognised by this department. The Department for Work and Pensions should explore this and report back on implementation plans within 12 months.”

Different words may have been used on this occasion but that’s the same recommendation countless reports have made to the Department for Work and Pensions and it’s predecessors over the last 20 years. Still nothing has changed.

Reading the DWP ‘ statement in the report – which I can only assume is included to show they are responsive – I am struck by their failure to acknowledge that the rules aren’t the problem, it is how individual advisers interpret them. Doing what we have always done will get what we have always got. New thinking is needed to get DWP to change and I see no evidence of that here.

6 – Recommendation four – I’m sorry, what?!

“…the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) should lead an activity with NNVIA, Volunteering Matters, the Association of Volunteer Managers and V-Inspired to develop non-mandatory guidelines specific to 16-25 year olds with support and encouragement from government. This could include of ‘out-of-pocket’ expenses, setting realistic targets, good recruitment and safeguarding processes and reiterating that completion of social action programmes does not guarantee employment. Furthermore, they should develop a plan that encourages charities to operate transparently with young people, and encourage charities to provide better information, advice, guidance and support to young people during their social action journey.”

Whatever this ill defined activity is, this kind of work has been ongoing since Millennium Volunteers was conceived in the late 1990s. Exhibit one, the 1996 book pictured below from the National Centre for Volunteering, based on a year-long research project with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

I can’t help but think that energy directed towards this recommendation will reinvent wheels. Much better would have been a focus on helping Volunteer Managers to create relevant and engaging full-time volunteering opportunities and support them in challenging the institutional barriers many would face in doing this e.g. paid staff feeling threatened that full-time volunteers will take their jobs.

Recommendation four demonstrates a woeful lack of understanding about volunteering and volunteer management, not surprising given no leaders of volunteers were on the inquiry panel.

7 – Recommendation eight – know your history

I was astounded to read this in recommendation eight of the report:

“…FTSA programmes are still in their infancy in the UK…”

Community Service Volunteers, now Volunteering Matters, has been running full-time volunteering programmes since 1962. Something fifty-six years old is hardly in its infancy!

8 – What about the clients?

The report talks extensively about the benefits of full-time volunteering to the volunteers and the organisations that involve them. Not once does it mention any benefit to the clients and beneficiaries of the organisations people volunteer for.

In fact, the only time this ever gets a mention is a point made (I assume by a young person) in the consultation with young people (page 17) which says:

“…full time social action opportunities need to have greater impact, led and developed by the communities they work within.”

Cliched it may be, but volunteers want to make a difference to the lives of others. Missing this element from the discussion of full-time volunteering is a significant omission.

9 – What’s in a word?

The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noted I have talked throughout this article about volunteering, not social action. That’s because I am a firm believer that we do not need a new word for volunteering. What we need is to reframe volunteering so it is more relevant for people.

Page fifteen of the report states:

“Social action was a familiar term to 75% of young people, but only half were able to define it”

In other words, whilst they may of heard of it half of young people don’t know what it is. If we are going to have to work hard educating people, why not do so with a term that probably has higher recognition but a bit of an image problem?

Furthermore, on the same page, social action is shown as distinct from volunteering by this statement:

“Social action is distinct from work experience and volunteering. It is about creating lasting social change on big issues that matter to young people and their communities. It can be used to address inequalities, challenge racism, and improve women’s rights. It is often personal to each young person, and that is the biggest motivating factor to getting involved.”

Because volunteers have never created lasting social change (HIV / AIDS awareness in the 1980s).

Because volunteers have never addressed big issues that matter (e.g. climate change and the environment).

Because volunteers have never tackled inequality, challenged racism or improved women’s rights.

Because volunteering is never a personal act. I’d give an example to challenge this but I don’t even know what point is being made. How is giving your time not a personal act?

So there you have it. As you can tell, I am less than impressed. But what do you think of the Holiday report? Do you agree or disagree with me? Leave a comment below.

And before I go, for a different spin on the Holiday report, take a look at Shaun Delaney’s assessment on the NCVO website.