One of the few positive side effects of the pandemic has been the apparent eruption in volunteering we’ve seen across Welsh communities – both in terms of the grassroots groups that have sprung up all over the country and the thousands of volunteers who have signed up with Volunteer Wales and local councils. We’ve heard a lot about how communities have come together in response to the pandemic in Wales, and elsewhere, and how this kind of volunteering can be supported, but less about what all this might mean for the future of volunteering in Wales.
There is relevant learning from previous disasters, particularly in terms of ‘spontaneous volunteering’ in emergency situations, such as in responding to floods or terror attacks. Research on spontaneous volunteers during 9/11 found there was a huge spike in volunteering in the three-week period after 9/11, but that volunteer rates dropped back to normal levels afterwards. Maintaining volunteering after the immediate crisis is important for developing a legacy of increased participation in Wales but also to be able to respond quickly and effectively to future waves of Covid-19 or other pandemics. Here are three things we need to consider in preparing for this future.
Almost a third of adults (28%) in Wales volunteered in 2017–18. Are those now volunteering predominantly new volunteers, or are they people who were already volunteering but have pivoted towards the pandemic effort? If it’s the latter, there may not be any real increase in volunteering. There may even have been a decline in overall volunteering rates, with volunteering activity paused in some cases and many volunteers currently shielding.
If there are new volunteers, how can they be supported to continue volunteering once the pandemic has eased, particularly if a return to work and social life means people have less available time? We know that prior to the pandemic certain sectors were experiencing volunteer shortages, with hundreds of young people on ScoutsCymru waiting lists because there weren’t enough Scout leaders, for example. The rapid mobilisation of volunteers over the past couple of months suggests that removing unnecessary barriers to involvement and supporting new volunteers to find opportunities after the pandemic, including in new kinds of remote volunteering that have emerged, could help to fill some of these gaps in Wales. A study of spontaneous volunteers in response to natural disasters in Australia found that targeted responses taking into account specific needs for new and experienced volunteers were necessary in maintaining a legacy of volunteering.
Supporting new and existing volunteers also requires resourcing. Various pots of funding from Welsh Government, UK Government, and the Wales Council for Voluntary Action have been announced to support charities in Wales through the immediate crisis. But Welsh charities are nevertheless struggling financially, whether with unprecedented increases in demand for their services or with traditional fundraising activities suspended. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has estimated the loss in income over 12 weeks for charities in the UK will be over £4bn. This will not only impact on Wales’ vibrant third sector, particularly the micro-charities that make up a large proportion of our 8,000 charities, but under-resourced organisations may also not be able to engage fully any new volunteers who want to help. Appropriate support and resource for the third sector in Wales to manage this – and in a way that maintains the sector’s independence from government – will be vital in maintaining volunteering as we move into the recovery period.
The relationship between the third sector and government also raises questions about the kinds of activities volunteers should (and shouldn’t) undertake. During the pandemic there have been stories of volunteers fundraising to top up electricity meters for those waiting on benefits claims, sewing PPE, and Sir Captain Tom’s fundraising £40m for NHS Charities Together – all of which arguably ought to be responsibilities of the state, rather than private charity. There has long been a concern that volunteering in health and social care, while a vital part of service provision, needs to be handled carefully to avoid slipping from complementary work to job substitution.
These issues were already sensitive prior to the pandemic, exacerbated by austerity, but may become even more important in the pandemic recovery and in future emergencies. If the NHS begins to be seen as a charity, what impact does that have on public sympathy to tax increases to fund healthcare or a social care levy in future, for instance?
The last few months have shown us just how important a role volunteers play in Welsh life, with careful coordination and support. Learning from this experience will be vital in rebuilding our society after the pandemic.
Read our next blog in this series: The role of Welsh local government in a post-Coronavirus world