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Re-appraising volunteering in the light of Covid-19

Whist the theory that COVID has changed volunteering for good probably overplays its significance, we can certainly say the landscape has undergone a real shift, especially across the balance of formal and informal volunteering we’ve witnessed.

Longer-term trends may still be emerging but its clear volunteerism needs to take account of and respond to this shift, whilst making the most of the fresh attention paid to its power and value, in order to seize this rare moment and advance its understanding and potential applications more broadly.

Developing national strategy and policy interventions

With this in mind, since July 2020 I’ve been working within the Volunteering Strategy Team at the Office for Civil Society (DCMS), assessing our recent experience and what opportunities this presents. As Head of Place, I’m leading evidence analysis, strategy drafting and Place-Based Social Action interventions. Key emerging themes include the role of local social capital in volunteering, efficiencies in national brokerage systems, the need for better audience management and boosting wellbeing by reducing barriers to entry for traditionally excluded groups.

Supporting local partners to pivot

Across the same period, as a freelance consultant, I’ve been helping local areas to re-assess what COVID means for their volunteering operations. One inner-city Local Authority client found themselves with a surge in volunteers at the start of lockdown and wanted to know how they could sustain that energy and community cohesion, to increase resilience longer term.

I prepared a series of roadmaps for them - development options for a range of volunteer mobilisation scenarios - looking at future civil contingencies, enhanced supply roles for the local VCSE and corporate sectors in more normal times, and options to encourage Council staff to radically scale-up use of their corporate volunteering leave. These included bespoke analysis of each market, assessments of different digital platforms, models of volunteer management and risk and resource profiles for each.

How has COVID changed corporate giving?

I spent the early months of lockdown developing and running Charity Connect, a co-ordination initiative brokering corporate volunteering offers for charities coping with the pandemic, on behalf of a national group led by Volunteering Matters and working closely with Government to assess need and coordinate demand and supply across England. Collectively we fielded over 200 complex packages of corporate giving, brokering a supported connection with around 50% of charities coming through the platform.

Innovations in volunteering

Building the social legacy from London 2012

A lot has been written about the legacy of our last Olympic and Paralympic Games, not much of it particularly positive. One aspect deserving of greater recognition is the social legacy. Originally a LOCOG-led community participation project nestled between the Olympics and the Paras, Join In span out of the Games into its official volunteering legacy charity, employing commercial marketing approaches to successfully recruit and retain 100,000 volunteers a year for community sport in the UK between 2013 and 2016.

As Join In’s Head of Partnerships, my role was to help ensure the volunteering legacy was felt across the voluntary and community sector; I worked with numerous charities to bring them into our campaigns and ensure they could access the new volunteering market that we stimulated. As well as it’s numbers, Join In secured significant commercial and media partnerships and, in Hidden Diamonds, pioneered ground-breaking research into measuring volunteering’s social value that’s still a sector-leading benchmark today.

Volunteering as a unique medium for delivering social change

As Volunteering Matters’ Head of National Programmes I gained valuable operational and leadership experience across a diverse portfolio, collectively supporting c5,000 volunteers a year with a combined budget of c£2m: our Full-Time Volunteering programme brought young people from overseas into the UK for up to a year, providing befriending and companionship to enhance the quality of life for vulnerable adults; with seed funding from Nesta I oversaw rapid growth in the award-winning Grandmentors programme, matching older volunteers with care-experienced young people transitioning to independent living; and in our corporate (employee) volunteering services I landed new clients, led commercial services turning over up to £500k p.a. and undertook a wholesale review of business performance.

But possibly the most innovative of the programmes on which I worked was GOGA (Get out Get Active) - a national, inclusive physical activity programme funded through the Spirit of 2012 Trust. As a National Partner, Volunteering Matters used its vast experience of engaging c20,000 volunteers a year to provide consultancy support to local delivery areas developing their own programmes. What we supported went far beyond the traditional workforce model, where volunteers’ roles start and stop with delivery and provision. GOGA’s inclusive, values-based approach meant it was extremely successful in engaging people with disabilities and long-term health conditions, as both participants and volunteers, and often in unique blended roles. These deep, highly-integrated forms of engagement taught me much about the psychology and dynamics behind different volunteering audiences, and how to go ‘beyond workforce in considering the impact volunteering programmes can achieve.

Re-thinking volunteering within your organisational strategy

Learning from GOGA continues to provide fuel and inspiration for my freelance activity. A recent commission for a national museum, opening a new site and seeking a much deeper connection with its local community, gave me the opportunity to develop strategic volunteering opportunities as (naturally) part of the workforce, but also as immersive services connected to customer experience and for volunteers as cultural ambassadors, building on their personal identities and networks to help attract new audiences.

So what’s so special about volunteering?

If you’ve read this far, chances are you don’t need me to convince you of volunteering’s unique value. But since we’re here, it’s worth unpacking this slightly weird and extremely potent asset a little further.

For me, the value of volunteers lies in their triple bottom line - as vital members of your workforce (they help you to get things done), as your customers (they come to you for an experience, or with some other transaction in mind) and also your ambassadors (they represent you out in the world, with significant implications for your reputation).

Though combinations of these drivers exist at different levels across individual volunteers, this basket of dynamics makes volunteering a rare mineral, requiring careful handling. The best Volunteer Managers understand all of this nuance intuitively, holding this space in ways often poorly-understood beyond their immediate circles. This may explain why investment in volunteering is so patchy, and interest in fully understanding its value so scattergun, even within charities with large pools of volunteers.

We’ve only begun here to scratch the surface of what latent possibilities exist in volunteering, particularly for social impact, community cohesion and personal wellbeing. What we can say though with certainty, is that in an era of finite resources and acute social needs, we cannot allow this unique asset to stagnate, remain under-employed and occupy at best an only marginal role in social investment and public policy.

Helping organisations to realise the full value of volunteering, and to bring that value to wider audiences, is my personal mission and prime motivation for continuing to work in the non-profit sector.


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