Jul 23, 2020 | by Amy Finch

Can the spontaneous community response to Covid teach us anything about designing volunteer programmes?

In the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games, 70,000 people volunteered in a movement that was widely regarded as one of the major successes of the Games. When Spirit of 2012 was set up, one of its founding objectives was to fund activities that used events to create sustained volunteering. 

Some people doubted whether people captured by the ‘glamour’ of an international sporting event would be interested in volunteering long-term. But the inspirational effect of an event can spread much more widely than those shepherding lost visitors at national stadia. 

The power of local connection

The volunteer programmes associated with the Rugby World Cup (2015), Athletics World Championships (2017) and Cricket World Cup (2019) were all rooted in local community activity – capitalising on a spike in media attention to draw in people, particularly young people, who would not have thought formal volunteering was for them. As with the pandemic, people may have been galvanised to action by a national event, but it is the power to make a difference at a local level that keeps them engaged.

Intention and action to volunteer

It is not a process that happens automatically. In our early days as a funder, we gathered data from people who attended a wide range of events – National Paralympic Day, local Women of the World Festivals, the Commonwealth Games. They showed high levels of intention to get involved – but without proper structures and signposting to support people to take the next step, this energy can dissipate quickly.  This is important, and we looked at what structures help people show up in previous research.

Importance of local volunteer infrastructure

The Hull 2017 volunteering programme is a shining example that people are willing and eager to continue giving back to their community long after the glamour of an event has passed. Three years after the City of Culture, volunteers have mobilised in a wide variety of ways to support people most in need. 

This has been replicated informally in many places across the UK, with mutual aid activities springing up in hundreds of thousands of neighbourhoods. Yet there are clear advantages to the local volunteering infrastructure already being in place. The volunteers are a recognised and trusted ‘brand’ in the city, able to start providing support from Day one, with the council and other local community organisations knowing who they could draw on for support. 

Volunteering takes skill and confidence

The UK Youth and British Red Cross EmpowHER programme has supported girls in the North West, Midlands and South West to identify the issues they feel passionately about in their own community and take action to change them. Initially a programme inspired by the Centenary of Women’s Suffrage in 2018, the girls involved in EmpowHER are equipped with the confidence to respond to the new reality of lockdown by delivering food packages and producing campaigns of support for key workers.

Evidence from our project evaluations chimes with the Centre’s review on Places, Spaces, People and Wellbeing which points to the powerful role that events can play in increasing pride, improving social relations and increasing civic participation. And we already knew that tragic events could galvanise people just as much as positive ones. 

We recently awarded a £1 million grant to the Jo Cox Foundation, who have made it their mission to ensure that there is a positive legacy from her murder. Since 2016, thousands of people have been involved in delivering community events inspired by Jo Cox’s belief that people have ‘more in common than what divides us’ – many of these people were completely new to community organising before her death.   

Volunteering and community self-help initiatives have exploded in the wake of the pandemic, and fascinating research is going on to understand what types of people are volunteering and how likely it is that they will continue to do so over the longer term.

Unlike many of the structured community programmes that have been built around national sporting or cultural events, many of these volunteering efforts have been hyper-local spontaneous responses to the situation, largely self-organised with the purpose of looking after people who are shielding

We are beginning to see evidence, through our Moment to Movement research, to be published later this summer an evaluation that although volunteering generally has a positive correlation with wellbeing, there is a subset of lead volunteers who can become overburdened by their responsibilities to others.

Paid volunteer managers or central organising teams often have a vital role to play in maintaining momentum, providing recognition and taking on some of the administrative burden. Within the more organic system, it will be interesting and important to explore the overall impact on volunteer wellbeing, and what networks of support are available for people taking a lead in their communities.  

Interested how volunteering affects us?

More about our upcoming research collaboration on the wellbeing impact of volunteering

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