How did covid-19 change volunteering?
The enforcement of social distancing characterised much of our lives during the pandemic. While volunteering remained legal and volunteers were exempt from stay-at-home restrictions, this posed a significant challenge to the way volunteering had been traditionally run and managed. Guidance issued by the central government titled Enabling Safe and Effective Volunteering during Coronavirus recommended that volunteering which could not be done at home should be paused or adapted to limit the risks of transmission and illness.
This section summarises some of the key impacts of this policy on volunteering.
The suspension of face-to-face volunteering
The main feature of the covid-19 pandemic was the unprecedented level of restrictions placed on social interactions, which volunteering inevitably involved.
During the period of local and national restrictions, particularly from March 2020 to July 2021, levels of formal volunteering dropped significantly. According to the 2021 Community Life Survey, formal volunteering levels fell from 23% of adults who volunteered at least once a month in 2019/20 to 17% in 2020/21. For those who volunteered at least once a year, this also fell from 37% to 30%. Similarly, the Respond, Recover, Reset project, which surveyed voluntary organisations from September 2020 to December 2021, recorded that more organisations reported declining levels of volunteering each month than increased levels from September 2020 until April 2021.
Our own research into volunteer-involving organisations and volunteers shows a significant decrease — or a complete suspension — of volunteering activities at the initial phase of the pandemic. From charity shops to Girlguiding units and hospice support, volunteering opportunities stopped overnight. As one workshop participant said: “with the start of covid, everything shut down.”
Volunteering hasn't changed that much per se, but the actual ability to do volunteering has changed a lot.
This was echoed by our focus group volunteers. Many of those who volunteered right before the pandemic did not hear from their organisations in March 2020, and it took a while for the volunteer-involving organisations to start communication with their volunteers.
I think in the beginning [her volunteering organisation] panicked...we didn't hear anything for a while...there was definitely a deathly silence.
My volunteering group was basically strongly discouraging [volunteering]. I only went there a couple of times [for the duration of the pandemic]. When I went there, it was so dead. There was no point in doing [volunteering].
Some organisations, on the other hand, witnessed a record number of people registering as volunteers. In our workshop, a voluntary manager from a national emergency charity saw their volunteers jump from 9,000 in February to 90,000 in July 2020. Another volunteer manager at a local council reported that prior to March 2020 they would receive about five enquiries a week, which then jumped to 98 in a day.
Such stories demonstrate the rise of public altruism and the sense of alarm at the outset of the pandemic, which will be later explored in detail. Yet while many organisations saw this huge influx in people who wanted to help, there weren't necessarily enough roles for everyone, and even fewer when so many activities had paused. One survey of the NHS Volunteer Responder programme noted that 38% had not been given a task (76% “on duty”). For most organisations, even though they experienced a surge in volunteer recruitment, most activities experienced a significant drop.
Changes in volunteering spaces and innovations
As most face-to-face volunteering had to pause, the pandemic led to innovative ways of creating volunteering spaces. The Royal Voluntary Service research notes how the NHS volunteer responder scheme was digitally run, and activities such as delivery, befriending and mentoring became core parts of pandemic volunteering. The context of volunteering shifted towards digital (social media or coordinating virtual activities), moved outdoors, or at a safe social distance.
Essential communication and training also moved online. Our workshop participants named Facebook hubs, WhatsApp groups, online induction systems, and regular Zoom check-ins as examples of changes in operation introduced during the pandemic. One organisation started using a volunteering app, which enabled volunteers to register and dip in and out of volunteering at their convenience. As restrictions lifted, these were increasingly combined with face-to-face volunteering, providing volunteers flexibility to take part in whichever they felt most comfortable – including both.
[We were] aware of the benefit of digital volunteering before the pandemic, but systems were not adequate. It was meant to be a two year project, but was brought in place over two months.
A younger participant in our focus group stressed that moving online made volunteering easier:
I was teaching at home [online]. I was keen to do things online, because it meant it was easier...without worrying about all the extra steps for face-to-face. It's worked really well online, and it's probably something that never needs to go in person. You can do it anywhere.
He also added that when mentoring university applicants, virtual volunteering enabled him to reach a wider group of young people from low socio-economic backgrounds.
While face-to-face volunteering ceased temporarily, volunteers carried on important work such as applying for grants and fundraising.
When we first went into the lockdown...a lot of face-to-face hours were cut down, and I spent a lot of time working on my laptop, writing grant applications.
Rise of informal, small-scaled volunteering
An abundance of literature has recorded a quick rise of informal volunteering, namely mutual aid groups. Over 4,000 such groups in the UK emerged to help people seek and offer support. Under lockdowns, volunteering increasingly took on a role of essential service provision, such as grocery deliveries and prescription pickups. In Tower Hamlets, a Young Foundation report assessed how public health volunteering activities programme changed to essential services such as food deliveries.
A lot of our station induction groups before the pandemic had big community action days...We're a lot less ambitions now to do those events. Even with relaxed restrictions, we run smaller-scale, less ambitious events to be safe.
Our focus group research showed that volunteers switched or worked on more than one role. One volunteer who used to volunteer for a youth organization before the pandemic joined a local community support group to start food deliveries. Another trained to be a telephone befriender during the pandemic, in addition to the drug and alcohol welfare service where she had been volunteering.
I wasn't able to carry on with any of the previous volunteering...because those opportunities stopped. But I was doing different stuff...I was a vaccine steward and did driving food parcels out to the local community group...and I did a bit of shopping for housebound people as well.
In the newspaper it came up as Royal Voluntary Service (RVS) GoodSam request, and I started doing that...doing prescription and shopping collections, and also for another local charity...I also trained to be a vaccinator [later].
Those who started volunteering for the first time were impressed with the ease and flexibility that digital technology offered. One participant who volunteered through the RVS with grocery and prescription collections said:
The Royal Voluntary Service had a website, in an app...so you can click to see who wants help. You can do as much or as little as you want to, so that was great for me. [The organisation was] absolutely smooth.
Diversity and inclusion in volunteering
As one workshop participant described, the use of digital technology was a ‘modernising process’, and the resultant effect of these processes was that it managed to attract a new group of people who had never volunteered before. The RVS NHS volunteer responders survey said 68% of respondents would continue to volunteer while British Future projected 3.8 of 12.4 million volunteers said they were interested in volunteering again, which included many from social groups less likely to volunteer. These studies show that government-led, large-scale volunteering schemes such as the NHS Responder, covid-19 testing, and vaccination volunteering had a wide demographic reach in recruitment, and this was echoed in our workshop and focus groups.
We engaged different demographics...[people on] furlough, younger people...it was a good opportunity to build diversity.
It did bring me into a wider network across the country and the world...their experiences and insights are the biggest thing.