Volunteering and community spirit: “the silver lining”

By Jo Ash, HIWCF Trustee 

As we entered 2022 I have been helping draft a Volunteering Strategy to support Southampton’s City of Culture 2025 bid, so have been thinking very deeply about volunteering and how it has evolved and changed since I first become involved in the voluntary sector over 50 years ago – first as a volunteer and then later as a manager.

The adaptability and creativity of volunteers, and the voluntary sector in response to new and emerging needs has always inspired me. This has been reinforced during the challenging period of the Covid pandemic as people and organisations have adapted to work in different ways under the ever-changing rules and the ‘new normal’ to help their neighbours and local communities.  Indeed, the one silver lining of the pandemic has been the spontaneous upturn in community spirit, voluntary action and mutual aid as people pulled together to overcome lockdown constraints and supply shortages to help each other out. 

As a trustee of HIWCF and member of its grants panel it has been wonderful during the past year to read so many applications from projects which reach deep into our local communities in such effective and meaningful ways.  We are pleased to be able to support many of these with our funds although even with additional funding through the National Emergencies Trust the pot is finite, so it has inevitably meant we have regretfully had to say no to many worthwhile initiatives. One thing I particularly look at in considering applications is how volunteers are involved and supported within the projects as they are the lifeblood of voluntary groups and our communities – so good practice to support and sustain their involvement seems crucial to me.

Just as there is a ‘long Covid’ impact on people, so too is there profound impact on local organisations and volunteering which is yet to be fully assessed. During the crisis phase we saw groups completely change delivery modes including scrambling to adapt to online digital delivery though often not with a fully formed plan of action; as the reboot ‘new normal ‘ phase came in those adjustments evolved towards blended working with a mix of socially distanced face to face contact and just as we thought things were settling down the new variant has again rattled confidence and created greater frustration and anxiety about what we could and should be doing or how.

The much-publicised devastating impact on lost income from all forms of fundraising has been huge with consequences such as service reductions, closures and depleted reserves which will need to be replaced for the next rainy day when it comes along.  It remains to be seen how much will be recovered going forward although there is evidence of some bounce back in the charity shop sector as they are bulging with donated goods from the mass cupboard sorting during enforced home time.

Less reported has been the overall impact on volunteering and its likely profile going forward. Covid saw many older volunteers – who are often the backbone of local groups – having to pull back due to health risks while others who were furloughed stepped in to some of the crisis support activity but perhaps now are withdrawing as the usual demands of life return. The move to online delivery and connectivity has again opened up new opportunities for participation for some whilst digitally excluding others who can’t or don’t want to engage virtually.  Undoubtedly the pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing trends towards more short term, episodic and micro volunteering in which participants can engage intermittently when available without having to make a long-term commitment. New opportunities of this sort have opened up through the extensive involvement of volunteers in the mass vaccination and test centres and we need to be thinking how that engagement and good will can be further harnessed and tapped into when eventually those opportunities reduce.

Those voluntary organisations which take the time to think through their approach to volunteer involvement and to finding creative ways of making their volunteering offer more flexible and responsive to a wider array of people will be best placed to flourish in the future. Volunteers are not only the givers of time to beneficiaries, but they are (by word-of-mouth to their wider network and contacts) also your most effective ambassadors and publicists as well as supporters of your fundraising activities now and in the future. A good experience will win you a lifetime supporter and a bad experience will leave a taint forever which they will share with others.

A thoughtful approach to volunteer involvement and a well-structured volunteer journey pathway can pay dividends in terms of investment of time and money to ensure volunteers are welcomed and well received, safely and effectively managed and utilised, recognised and thanked for their contributions. Too many voluntary organisations pay little heed to supporting and managing their volunteers effectively and then moan that no-one wants to do anything to help.  Paid staff in voluntary organisations can often see having volunteers involved alongside them as a bit of a nuisance or a threat to their jobs – forgetting of course that their trustees and organisational roots will be from volunteers in the first place.  With a few notable exceptions even where there is a designated Volunteer Manager support role it is often tacked on top of several other things and rarely given much resource or training to ensure it is integrated and effective within the overall organisational operation.

Volunteers can add so much to the work of local groups and we should be doing all we can to support and celebrate their contributions – so I am delighted that HIWCF are doing so through their grant funding. There is also some strategic grant funding available specifically for development of volunteer management .

Those of us who have worked in this area know that managing volunteers requires as much, if not more skill as managing paid staff not least because you don’t have the usual contractual expectations, carrots or sticks that comes with paid employment so you really have to understand people’s motivations, fulfill their expectations and reward them in non -monetary ways. But oh, how great is their additional contribution when you get that right.

So, let’s say a huge THANK YOU to all those wonderful volunteers already busy helping our local communities and make it our collective new year’s resolution to widen and improve that volunteer involvement in 2022.

Good luck and keep up the good work.