Impact on volunteer experience

Digital volunteering has had a mixed impact on feeling connected

While virtual volunteering served as the critical source of social interaction during lockdowns for those who continued to volunteer, a similar aversion to that observed in the previous section was also experienced among those who continued to volunteer, which arguably saw a less connected volunteering experience. Participants in older age groups were particularly reluctant to use digital technology.

I had to adapt to Zoom, which I used for my [volunteering group]. I'm not very computer literate, and I did it reluctantly.

Female, 55-64, continued volunteering

As restrictions have eased, organisations are not returning to a pre-pandemic way of managing volunteering. For some, digital recruitment and e-learning have replaced or complement traditional processes, and digital events (such as Zoom quizzes and drop-in sessions) between volunteers and managers are run in conjunction with face-to-face events.

Digital is a constant balance – it makes our lives easier but not everyone wants to use it.

Volunteer lead at a hospice

Our research shows the detrimental effect on the sense of connection that the pandemic restrictions incurred, and in some cases, technology failed to ameliorate it. Volunteers could not physically be together to volunteer, enjoy events, or socialise, and this particularly affected those for whom the social side was a key motivation. Volunteer managers feared that their volunteers lost a sense of connection as some roles had to stop. Managers worried volunteers did not feel as much of a part of their charity anymore, although some organisations tried to keep in touch. When asked about how the pandemic changed volunteering, one workshop participant, a volunteering co-ordinator at a hospice, answered, “volunteering is less social”. Volunteer managers observed a loss of connection with those who stopped during the pandemic.

A lot of volunteers haven't volunteered during the pandemic so a lot of them may feel disconnected from the organisation, so it's hard to know their experience. It's difficult to keep in touch with them...what do you say all the time?

National Volunteering Lead at a social welfare charity

A lot of our station groups felt like they [weren't] as important as the frontline volunteers because of lockdown. It's had an impact on how valued people feel.

Training and Development Coordinator at a transport membership organisation

While volunteers agreed that virtual volunteering helped them feel connected during lockdowns, the increased use of digital technology undeniably led to a low level of satisfaction amongst volunteers. A large number of volunteer managers and volunteers reported that virtual volunteering led to a “Zoom fatigue,” and when asked about what activities they planned for volunteers, many answered: “Something other than Zoom.”

Although digital technology enabled volunteering during lockdown, not all volunteers were pleased. One volunteer who worked as a telephone befriender said that she struggled to feel connected to the person on the phone, and worried that she “wasn’t doing the job properly”. Another volunteer recalled a “ghastly” Zoom presentation at a committee meeting:

We had people attending from all over the world, rather than just people who can get to a pub in London. The audience changed a bit, perhaps increased in number; although, for me, the quality of the experience was much impaired.

Male, 65+, continued volunteering

Our interviews uncovered both positive and negative responses to virtual volunteering, and it is difficult to develop a balanced view on its role and impact. One plausible explanation is that volunteers were likely to appreciate digital interaction under lockdowns. Outside of lockdowns, the sense of connection is hard to achieve online.

Volunteers could see the impact of their activities

In contrast to the feeling of connection, volunteers were able to see the difference that they were making. Recalling the first Zoom session with her youth organisation, one volunteer said: “It was magical…seeing the smiles on their faces.” Another added: “My son attended online Cubs, and he really liked it even though it wasn’t face to face.”

Volunteers could see that people using their organisation’s services benefitted from their volunteering, which in turn amplified their sense of fulfilment. For some volunteers, the pandemic magnified their sense of purpose:

All volunteering pre-pandemic...I enjoyed it...but it wasn't as fulfilling as the kind of volunteering I've been doing since the pandemic. The value shift due to the pandemic made me approach volunteering differently.

Female, 25-34, continued volunteering

Those who volunteered expressed their joy at being able to see the impact of their work with a renewed sense of meaning.

Thousands of hours we volunteered, seeing the impact...we piloted hospital volunteering...and rolled out across the country, started at one A&E department, spread to 39 A&Es across the country. 25% of the vaccines delivered across the UK were delivered by us...that felt amaing.

Male, 45-54, continued volunteering

Increased volunteering workload and responsibilities

On the other hand, the pandemic enabled volunteers to quickly step up in their roles which saw an increase in both workload and responsibility.

Covid has helped staff recognise the value of volunteers more than they did before. They realised that volunteers do so much, whereas before I think they were reluctant.

Volunteer Coordinator of a regional emergency service

One participant who volunteered in the emergency services reported:

Covid increased my volunteering. My phone was off the hook.

Male, 45-54, continued volunteering

Similarly, one focus group volunteer was happy to report that her volunteering led to a permanent job.

While volunteers stepping up and taking more roles mostly shared positive experiences, volunteering under the pandemic created new problems. Interviews of volunteer-involving organisations have revealed that the lack of detailed government information on how to operate social distance rules placed too much personal responsibility on volunteer managers to make decisions about how to follow rules.

One volunteer for the NHS Responders noted the lack of clarity over the nature of her task while delivering food parcels locally. She eventually stopped because “it was too stressful”:

I do feel as a volunteer...sometimes during the pandemic I was asked to do difficult stuff...I was on the phone with [someone] who was deaf, and that was very difficult.

Female, 45-54, continued volunteering

Some of these informal volunteering opportunities, she added, offered little induction or training before volunteering.

Pandemic restrictions increased volunteers’ responsibilities that had previously been assigned to those in paid roles. Social distancing and hygiene safety practices significantly altered volunteer operations, and wearing masks and gloves, following the latest social distancing rules, and lateral flow tests before volunteering became commonplace. Volunteering organisations were forced to adapt quickly. Some stressed that increased requirements for adaptability were not always matched with the resources needed to make it happen, and the processes – especially risk assessment and insurance procedures – became longer.

There's more onus on the volunteers to sign off risk assessments. It's made them nervous. We had to reassure them they wouldn't be held legally liable.

Volunteer lead at a national children's organisation

While the emotional impact of this will be explored in the next section, the consensus among volunteering organisations and volunteers was that they found it stressful to keep up with ever-changing government guidelines on when and how to volunteer.

Volunteer wellbeing: trauma and burnout

Our interviews of volunteers have revealed a high level of wellbeing issues as a result of pandemic volunteering. A large body of research has been done on the emotional impact of working during the covid-19 pandemic internationally, and it presents a mixed picture.

Studies of pandemic volunteers in China and Spain report different emotional outcomes, yet they both point to a long-term effect of the trauma and burnout.

  • In the UK, many studies stress that the pandemic severely exacerbated a feeling of burnout among the NHS health and social care staff, and a report by Wales Centre for Public Policy aptly identifies that some volunteering roles, particularly involving vulnerable or ill people, were prone to emotional fatigue. Collectively, deterioration of mental health was not restricted to volunteers and healthcare professionals.
  • The Office for National Statistics reveals that adults experiencing some form of depression in early 2021 doubled from pre-pandemic times.

When we asked about how it felt to volunteer during the pandemic, one participant shared his experience of volunteering while also working in the emergency services:

I've loved [volunteering and working]. The burnout element...I think I'm still pretty much there at the moment...because for us, [the pandemic] hasn't stopped.

Male, 35-44, continued volunteering

Another also expressed the feeling of exhaustion while volunteering.

Sometimes it can be so thankless...there were definitely bad times in the past where I [went] home [and thought]: "Why am I doing this?"

Female, 25-34, continued volunteering

While this did not stop them from continuing, volunteers were equally aware of the stress incurred by the pandemic, and existing studies suggest that lack of funding and resources played a major role, where many organisations reported a lack of insufficient capacity and resources to place, manage and support volunteers. These contributed to a feeling of lack of support among volunteers.

This strongly resonates with the findings of a number of studies on the topic. A study by Samaritans of healthcare workers over the course of the pandemic. Healthcare workers, despite suffering severely with exhaustion and burnout, felt guilty for not being able to do more. Another study has detailed the deterioration of mental health among voluntary and community sector staff, noting that 82% of VCS project leaders were concerned about staff burnout. A study of mutual-aid group volunteers also reported a high level of anxiety while willing to continue volunteering. When volunteers took on similar health and social care roles, it is not hard to imagine that they shared this feeling of guilt and burnout.

Many volunteers still carry this feeling of burnout. Nonetheless, there is little knowledge on the emotional effect of the pandemic in the longer term, while existing studies have focused on shifting public sentiments in the shorter term. When the Relationship Project report chronicled the emotional journey of the covid-19 pandemic – from the initial “honeymoon” period in March 2020 to the optimism following the vaccine rollout and re-opening of society in early 2021 – it fell short of covering the long-term impact of the trauma endured during the pandemic beyond the removal of all pandemic restrictions. We are yet to see how the trauma may come to surface and potentially undermine the appetite for volunteering.

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 22 July 2022