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Rei Kanemura

Volunteering during the covid-19 pandemic: What we know

Rei Kanemura

Today we release our latest report examining volunteering during the covid-19 pandemic as part of our ongoing research into the experience of volunteers. This is the fourth and final instalment of the Time Well Spent reports, which complement the main survey of over 10,000 adults in Great Britain published in 2019.

Volunteering during the pandemic

Celebrated by the media and voluntary organisations at the start of the pandemic, covid-19 generated an unprecedented level of interest in volunteering. Government-backed schemes, such as NHS Volunteer Responders, succeeded in recruiting new volunteers. These also made volunteering more convenient by allowing volunteers to sign up and manage their shifts digitally and strict rules on social distancing gave rise to virtual volunteering.

While we had an idea about what changed in the volunteering space, there was a critical gap in our knowledge — namely how volunteers felt while volunteering during the pandemic. The report first conducted a thorough literature review, surveying the profound changes seen in volunteering.

Building on this knowledge, we conducted a series of in-depth focus group interviews, aiming to directly capture the voices of those who gave their time during the pandemic. Participants ranged from people who volunteered for the first time during the pandemic, those who volunteered before and continued volunteering during the pandemic, and those who stopped volunteering during the pandemic. The discussion explored a range of topics including why they volunteered, how and where they volunteered, the role of digital technology and how they felt after volunteering. Below is the summary of their experiences:

1. People were driven to volunteer by a sense of duty

The start of the pandemic was marked by unexpected restrictions on social activity and concerns about the virus and its impact on vulnerable people. Volunteers, particularly those who had given their time before the pandemic, felt an acute sense of alarm and duty to “do something”. Some volunteers felt guilty for staying home while healthcare workers were on the frontline with infection rates rising. “I thought I had to do something”, was a commonly heard phrase in the interviews. Changes in their working patterns and home schooling contributed to changes in their lives, which made it easier for some to give more time than before. Other factors such as furlough and school closures led those who had never volunteered to give their time to fill their time or to seek social interaction. Their motivations to volunteer largely matched those before the pandemic, as outlined in the original Time Well Spent.

2 .Virtual volunteering only helped volunteers feel connected under a strict lockdown

A key part of the interviews examined the role of digital technology and virtual volunteering during the pandemic. In the original Time Well Spent report, the sense of connection was a key component of a quality volunteer experience, and we were interested in exploring how and whether virtual volunteering achieved a feeling of connection among volunteers. Volunteers shared their joy when they were reunited with their volunteering group on Zoom under lockdowns, and many acknowledged its benefits — the ease of operation and the wide reach it allows. Nonetheless, for most participants the preference was still face to face volunteering. This was observed particularly among older volunteers, who believed that it hampered the quality of their volunteer experience. Virtual volunteering did not serve as an alternative to those who stopped volunteering due to health concerns. When we presented the option of virtual volunteering to the group of those who stopped volunteering, they showed little appetite, saying that they missed face-to-face volunteering. As society gradually opened up, volunteers explicitly stated their preference for in-person volunteering over digital. While digital technology opened doors to innovation in volunteer operation, virtual volunteering enabled volunteers to feel connected only under strict lockdown.

3. Volunteers are suffering burnout

As mentioned earlier, a sense of guilt was what motivated some volunteers to give their time during the pandemic. The pandemic took an emotional toll on volunteers. Volunteering or not volunteering, participants recalled that the pandemic was a stressful time, which significantly affected both their professional and social lives, as well as physical and mental health. Working through the pandemic to help others, some of them reported feeling burnout and exhaustion, and this increasingly affected volunteers who worked with vulnerable people. As we move from the pandemic to the cost-of-living crisis, volunteer-involving organisations need to act quickly to address the wellbeing issues and understand that some volunteers may be unable to return to volunteering immediately.

Health risks are an ongoing concern for those who stopped volunteering

A number of people volunteered before the pandemic but stopped during, and this was for a range of reasons. A few of them stopped for changes in their lives, like pregnancy and engagement. However, the most common reason cited was concerns around health. Not just for their own health, but also for their families they had caring responsibilities for. This was notably different from other participants who didn’t feel unsafe volunteering during the pandemic. In other words, many of them stopped unwillingly, which affected their social life and wellbeing. While society gradually opened, their health concerns lingered, and they felt reluctant to go back to volunteering. In the future, volunteer-involving organisations must come up with creative ways of re-engaging former volunteers.

What’s next?

You can read the full report here. At the end of the report, we have explored our reflections on the wider impact of these points. As we conclude our series of focused reports, we plan to re-run the quantitative survey later in the year to complement the current research and to explore more comprehensively the impact of the pandemic on volunteers and volunteering.

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