While creating new volunteering opportunities, the covid-19 pandemic also created new barriers and exacerbated existing barriers to volunteering. The section focuses on those barriers and the people who stopped volunteering.
For those who stopped volunteering during the pandemic, the main barrier was the combination of covid-19 restrictions and health concerns.
As discussed above, the initial phase of the pandemic saw a suspension of almost all face-to-face volunteering activities. Yet even when opportunities resumed, some long-term volunteers were unable to return due to health reasons. For those who stopped volunteering at the start of the pandemic, caring responsibilities rather than personal health concerns were a driver. Some felt anxious about the prevalence of covid-19 and shared concerns about safety practices.
I can't see myself going back, because of my parents [who have health concerns], to the shops [where I was volunteering], covid is still rounding...at this point in my life, I'm involved in my church, that's where my volunteering is at.
One former volunteer reflected that even though she was able to return briefly after the restrictions lifted, “it wasn’t the same thing”, and she was still unable to return fully. Once a dedicated, consistent volunteer, her story resonates with the findings of the Mobilising Voluntary Action report, which argued that those with disability and health issues avoided volunteering and feared returning due to loss of confidence and safety concerns. This was not helped by perceived lack of engagement and offer of resources to help volunteers with extra support needs.
Life changes and other priorities
Time Well Spent showed that life events and circumstances can have a big influence on people’s decisions to start or stop volunteering. One participant who used to volunteer at Sea Cadets stopped volunteering said:
I ended up having a long summer holiday during the lockdown confined to my house. Compared to a lot of people...I was quite grateful for [the pandemic] really, because I got to spend almost six months with my fiancé before I went to train [in the military].
Another former volunteer similarly reached a different life stage. Before the pandemic, she volunteered at a farm while working as an intern; however, during the pandemic, she got a job.
After many months [the farm] started having back volunteers. I was able to go back a few times, but at that point I had a permanent job, and it was in conflict with my schedule and I stopped.
Little appetite for volunteering
Existing literature reveals how the pandemic has sharpened the digital volunteering divide. Those who were ‘digitally enabled’ (having the digital devices and online capabilities) were more likely to be able to volunteer than those ‘digitally excluded’, people either not skilled or didn’t have resources to volunteer online. While our focus group participants had access to digital technology, it did not occur to those who stopped volunteering that there were other opportunities virtually. When asked about if they considered virtual volunteering, one of them replied:
Everything in my life was on Zoom. I didn't think it was a good idea to spend more time on Zoom...it was so stressful to spend so much time on Zoom.
Another volunteer continued to answer the phone while raising money for his charity under lockdown, but he did not consider it to be volunteering because:
There's only one form of volunteering for me, and that's face-to-face.
Emotional impact of stopping
One long-term volunteer who stopped for health reasons reflected on the impact it had on her life:
I felt really rubbish. That's always been part of my life, helping people. With my health deteriorating, [I felt] I've got no purpose...it was a loss to stop it.
The volunteer shared that she struggled with isolation and shielding during the lockdown as her health deteriorated. While she wanted to volunteer and searched for virtual volunteering opportunities, she realised:
I can't do this...It almost feels selfish to try to offer a service or help when I know I can't do it properly, because I know I'm not really well myself.
Despite the challenges and barriers, however, it is important to note that many of those who stopped volunteering expressed their willingness to return to volunteering at some point. One former volunteer said:
I would definitely like to go back to volunteering. My only concern is...there is no restriction on social distancing, and covid is still around. That fear is still at the back of my head.
Health concerns still linger for those who stopped volunteering, and volunteering organisations will inevitably have to address them. The organisations however face a challenging task of balancing the volunteers’ need for safety against their preference for face-to-face volunteering. When asked about virtual volunteering, two volunteers who stopped volunteering due to health reasons did not show much enthusiasm when admitting that they were willing to return to volunteering. As one of them said: “I’m just waiting for the opportunity.”