Amanda Carr, Director of Swansea Council for Voluntary Service (SCVS), reflects on how new research into volunteering and wellbeing during the pandemic matches up with her own experiences.
I wanted to start by taking the opportunity to wish everyone a very Happy Volunteers’ Week and to say a huge thank you to all those volunteers whose priceless gift of time, energy and a passion for our communities has helped keep Wales resilient and strong over the last year.
This week is therefore a really fitting opportunity to launch the Volunteering and wellbeing during the pandemic research reports.
As I write I am sitting, at home, waiting for another online meeting, in my case a regional meeting where along with statutory partners we will be reporting on the role of volunteers and the voluntary and community sector in regional planning for the future and more urgently, the role we have in ongoing pandemic recovery efforts.
In our region, there is no question that all sectors play vital roles in these efforts. Over the last year volunteers have really proved their value to our statutory partners and the relationships built are now stronger than ever. It is good to see these strong relationships cited in the research and occurring across many areas of Wales.
Having looked back on my diary for Volunteers’ Week last year, I can see that much has moved on. The issues we in Swansea were dealing with this time last year are not the same ones we’re facing today. During Volunteers’ Week last year I was in several meetings trying to put in place arrangements for volunteers supporting vulnerable people to access shopping and prescriptions, and to access PPE to better safeguard their own wellbeing and the wellbeing of the people they were supporting.
My diary also shows a number of meetings to look at how best to support children and young people to access free school meals whilst in lockdown. On both of these issues, in our area partners worked really closely together to come up with creative solutions with change happening rapidly for the benefit of our communities. (The meetings were worth it and really positive long-term working relationships were formed!)
The research shows how so many of our communities were supported by volunteer effort right across Wales and it is really good to read about how volunteering was so valuable, not just to those receiving support but also for the volunteers offering their time. It will interesting to look at the longer-term wellbeing of those both receiving support and offering it and the contribution volunteering has made in this respect.
Looking longer-term at wellbeing outcomes is noted as a recommendation and a current gap in existing research, the infrastructure supporting volunteering in Wales means that we are really well placed to support further research as in many cases infrastructure organisations have built long term connections with volunteers.
However, for volunteer managers, the research points to some important learning from the pandemic volunteering experience. We will all remember the huge numbers of volunteers who came forward to offer help, initially at a time when necessary roles were just emerging. So many people all wanting to help and with so many motivations – some furloughed and having time to volunteer for possibly the first time, others wanting to do something useful or to do more volunteering or different volunteering that would connect them more closely with their local community.
For some, the initial offer of help was frustrating, waiting to be allocated tasks while groups and organisations made changes to their volunteering programmes to meet the emerging and ever-changing needs.
Reflecting back on the last year I think that volunteer managers are now reassessing their roles and opportunities, and are really focussed on adapting roles to better suit the motivational and lifestyle needs of those wishing to volunteer.
I hope that this year of adaptation means that the voluntary and community sector is now in a position to retain the volunteers who have come forward during the pandemic and to turn volunteering into a lifelong choice for our new volunteers. I hope that some of the initial frustrations felt by potential volunteers and noted in the evidence review have been overcome.
The findings and recommendations in relation to the future of volunteering – building on the flexible approaches that emerged at the height of the pandemic, adapting to involve ‘informal’ volunteers and focussing on hyper local opportunities – these recommendations feel right based on our experiences in Swansea and the feedback we have received during regional coproduction sessions looking at how volunteering can support a wellbeing recovery.
What a year it has been and there is so much for us to consider supported by the research findings and the testimony and case studies from those involved. Volunteering has so much to offer at a community and individual wellbeing level.
Volunteers’ Week gives us the opportunity to consider how we might build learning into our volunteering programmes in the future and how volunteering can play a part in supporting those people whose wellbeing has been severely disrupted by the pandemic.
This research was undertaken by the Wales Centre for Public Policy research conducted in partnership with the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) and WCVA and funded by the Welsh Government Volunteering Recovery Fund. You can read the full report here.