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New research examines volunteering policy response in England during the pandemic

A new research briefing published today and authored by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) examines the government’s policy response to volunteering in England, and its impact, during the covid-19 pandemic.

The briefing presents findings from research capturing the experiences of those working with volunteers within organisations and communities in England during the pandemic. The research, Volunteering in England during Covid-19: The policy response and its impact, forms part of the Mobilising Voluntary Action in the four UK jurisdictions: Learning from today, prepared for tomorrow study. It is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to covid-19.

About the research

The research builds on a briefing published in July 2021, which looked at the challenges during the height of the pandemic and recovery. This latest briefing aims to understand the policy response to volunteering in England during the pandemic, its impact, and lessons learned; and, to explore the ways policy-making can support voluntary action in the future, and how the voluntary sector can work in collaboration with the government to shape recovery and prepare for future crises.

The findings reflect a survey, interviews with key stakeholders, workshops, and a desk review of policy documents. The briefing has been written to help those working with volunteers, as well as policymakers, funders, and commissioners. It will also feed into the Vision for Volunteering project which aims to set out a concrete action plan for volunteering in England over the next decade – due to be published in early 2022.

Key findings from the research

The findings reveal a mixed, but more often negative, experience among voluntary organisations and others of the government’s policy response to volunteering in England during the pandemic.

Inconsistent and confusing public health guidance for frontline organisations put strains on those managing and coordinating volunteers and was deemed to have caused further delays in implementing this guidance locally.

The pandemic and policy response was found to expose and amplify inequalities in volunteering already in place before March 2020, with areas and organisations better prepared for crises – whether due to greater pre-existing experience, collaboration, resource (or a combination) – responding better to the pandemic.

There was a disconnect between the ‘top down’ response being driven nationally and what was happening at a local level, with the ‘NHS responders’ scheme cited as an example where the perception in some areas was that local volunteering infrastructure and knowledge was overlooked or underutilised.

The government’s ‘call to action’ to volunteer was beneficial in raising the profile of volunteering and was cited as helping to bring volunteering into the ‘consciousness of the public’.

Volunteering is a devolved matter, and other UK nations have differing mechanisms for creating and implementing policy nationally. This created challenges in England in developing the policy to the crisis, and the role that central government should play in coordinating volunteering nationally.

Local authorities, infrastructure and volunteer-involving organisations shared concerns about ‘covid money’ running out as the nature of this funding was deemed to have supported innovative collaboration, compared to the competitive nature of funding pre-pandemic.

Respondents want to see a clearer strategic direction and stronger leadership for volunteering both at the policy level and within the voluntary sector.

Four key lessons from the pandemic for volunteering policy

The briefing highlights key lessons from the pandemic which will be useful for volunteering in future emergencies.

  1. Long term planning and preparedness are vital in enabling effective volunteering and there is a need to address inequalities between and within communities’ abilities to respond to emergencies.
  2. Effective communication and collaboration are essential to ensuring the mobilisation of a volunteering response, and government and voluntary organisations should look at ways to continue promoting collaboration and not competition.
  3. A strategic direction for volunteering in England is needed – such as the Vision for Volunteering project – and greater representation of volunteering to the government to ensure proper consideration of the role of volunteering in relation to local and national government priorities.
  4. Volunteering needs a healthy environment to thrive, and the pandemic has presented a chance to explore how to further develop the complex ecosystem needed to support volunteering.

Reflections on the research

Catherine Goodall, report co-author and senior policy and influencing advisor at NCVO, said:
The nature, scale and urgency of the pandemic meant that policy making happened at pace, often with limited or inconsistent emerging evidence. Our findings reveal a mixed, but more often negative, experience among voluntary organisations and others to the government’s policy response to volunteering in England during the pandemic. But there are vital lessons and successes we can learn from the volunteering response to the pandemic which will be vital as we prepare for and respond to future emergencies.

Sarah Vibert, interim chief executive at NCVO, commented:
My main take away from the research is that we need to move beyond a binary choice of ‘top down’ or ‘bottom up’ approach in volunteering policy in England and to instead seek to blend ‘national’ and ‘local’ – bringing out the strengths of both. The key lessons from this report outline a number of things that need to happen to support this in future.
A lot has been written about who volunteered and how during the pandemic. However, less focus has been given to how the policy response supported the mobilisation of volunteers. This research takes a critical look at the policy response in England and presents clear lessons to support volunteering responses to future emergencies.
I am optimistic that the lesson of volunteering during the pandemic offer a positive vision for its future role in society. NCVO has an important part to play here by building the learning into our work with members and decision makers. But as a wider sector we should embrace this as an opportunity to think about what our future, and that of the communities we serve, should look like. Let’s work together to make it a reality.

Catherine Johnstone CBE, chief executive at Royal Voluntary Service, said:
I welcome the paper released today by NCVO which points to a need to collaborate more across the sector, and for government policy to encourage that. I am still astounded by the COVID-19 response from the nation’s volunteers. We clearly, collectively, did something right and I fundamentally believe the volunteering landscape has changed forever as a result.
The NHS Volunteer Responders programme which Royal Voluntary Service has delivered for NHS England with GoodSAM was designed as a crisis response and a ‘safety net’ and launched in a few short weeks. Enabled by a smart phone app, micro-volunteering offered new flexibility. People got involved who would not have been able to otherwise. At times, tensions arose around the intersection between national and local provision. But the impact of this programme has been significant. Over 2 million tasks have been undertaken by its volunteers supporting people who needed help.
Volunteering’s relevance spans government departments and, of course, it needs solid investment to allow the benefits to be realised. And when it comes to ‘Levelling Up’ volunteering must be in the very foundations of the response.
We have incredible strength in the volunteer base in Britain. Let’s keep broadening and deepening engagement in civil society, breaking down those barriers to entry for the benefit of all.

Maddy Deforges, chief executive at NAVCA, said:
We all know the crucial role volunteering and voluntary action in communities has played over the course of the pandemic. This report put together by NCVO shows that community and local relationships have been at the very heart of pandemic volunteering. We know that where volunteering is grounded in our local communities, it contributes not just to individual wellbeing but also builds stronger relationships and thriving neighbourhoods.
We need to recognise the significant impact and long-lasting transformational benefits of volunteering in our communities – to both volunteer and community. With the voluntary sector and government working together, rather than separately, there’s a synergy: the voluntary sector can make an amazing difference in communities with relatively small amounts of funding, and by being a co-designer and an enabler of strategic planning and thinking, governments enhance and validate community development and growth.
Let’s start talking about thriving communities, where people identify what matters and build the future they want to see. The voluntary sector has the creativity, strategic thinking and leadership to help build a future that is a fitting legacy for the pandemic, which we are developing through projects such as the Vision for Volunteering which will be published in the new year, and volunteers will be at the forefront of that effort.


Notes to editors

Media enquiries: Please contact

Download the report: You can read the full briefing here.

About NCVO: NCVO is the largest membership organisation for the voluntary sector in England. It currently has 16,500+ members, NCVO represents all types of organisations, from large ‘household name’ charities to small voluntary and community groups involved at the local level. We are also the lead body for volunteering in England. To find out more visit visit the NCVO website.

About Mobilising UK Voluntary Action: This briefing forms part of the Mobilising UK Voluntary Action project. The project explores voluntary action responses to the pandemic from across the fours UK nations. The research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to covid-19. Across the UK the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the landscape of ‘voluntary action’. This project reviews, analyses and evaluates the state-and non-state supported volunteer responses to the crisis. There is imperative to understand how voluntary action is responding to pre-existing need, and need that has emerged during the crisis. The findings will help guide the UK volunteer effort to support the national recovery and preparedness for future crises. This study will allow for a better understanding of what worked well and what was less successful, and whether the learning is transferable and under what conditions/circumstances. To find out more visit the Mobilising Voluntary Action website.

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