Paul Reddish: Covid-19 has shown us different paths to tackle old problems, but will we follow them?

Examining volunteering across the pandemic might help us to inform the shape the sector needs to take

Paul Reddish
Paul Reddish

As chief executive of Volunteering Matters, I’m frequently asked: “What will the voluntary sector do with the surge of volunteers post Covid-19?” This question is understandable given the profile that volunteering has had through the crisis. But is it accurate?

One in four adults volunteered their time for good causes pre-Covid, more than 15 million people. Many of the settings for which they volunteered, such as charity retail, conservation roles and others, stopped overnight because of the lockdown restrictions. The entire sector had to make tough decisions between mothballing services, redesigning services to be safe or increasing capacity to respond to the needs emerging rapidly in front of them.

This created significant shifts overnight in the types of activities we were doing and, by extension, how people volunteered their time.

We just don’t know how many people sought to help in other ways. We need to analyse what the impact of Covid-19 has been in a much deeper way. Have younger volunteers replaced the shielded ones? How many are genuinely new? Will this continue after the furlough scheme ends?

These are the questions we need to answer fast if we are to understand what’s happening in our communities and how that might help us inform the shape the sector needs to take.

I could write whole reams on each of these topics alone, and I’d like to know the answers to the above first! But here are some early thoughts on volunteering.

Mutual aid: what is its role in the future?

People are coming together to support their communities to be better, and that should be celebrated. This crisis would have been a lot worse without mutual-aid groups. We are all here because we want to help tackle inequalities and improve people’s lives.

I know many newly formed groups are now talking about what’s next, including the group I’m involved in. Charities and mutual aid are different in their structures, but common in their ability to give people a vehicle to support others around them. These shared values are a great place to start forming strong relationships to improve the lives of people in communities throughout the UK post-pandemic.

New tech could be here to stay

Much has been written of the NHS Responders scheme, but not much of the commentary to date has focused on the technology. The idea that a local need can be matched with a person within a mile of the task and completed immediately, and that this can be achieved at such a significant scale, could change the way we think about volunteering.

The resources required to coordinate volunteering well have been stretched for some time. This sector is littered with tech that helps recruit volunteers and match them to tasks, but the idea that we can automate the administrative aspects of coordination at scale and pace is exciting. This could free volunteer managers to spend more time really adding value by supporting the volunteers themselves to do brilliant things.

Uniting as a sector

As part of the Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Partnership, Volunteering Matters has played a lead role in coordinating volunteering across the sector and guiding key stakeholders with well thought-out solutions to tricky problems.

As part of that, I’ve had the pleasure of working with many organisations, including Navca, the British Red Cross, the RVS, St John Ambulance, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and many more. It’s enabled us to broker solutions that work. It’s led to innovative connections, such as the National Citizen Service working with the Charity Retail Association to see if young people can play a role when charity shops but many older volunteers are unable to return.

This has led to our Journey Makers scheme, which will be run with the Department for Transport and will fund local volunteering organisations to provide support in busy places, helping to guide the public in new social distancing measures. There are many other examples I could cite, but at the centre of them all is that the volunteering sector has come together to collaborate in a way we never have before.

We have created innovative solutions by looking more widely into the huge resources and skills in our brilliant sector and asking who can help who. Those collaborations are improving the solutions we can provide for the people whose lives we seek to enrich. I truly hope that way of working is one that stands the test of time.

Paul Reddish is chief executive of Volunteering Matters and a member of the VCS Emergencies Partnership. This is the final blog in a four-part series covering the VCS Emergencies Partnership response to Covid-19

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