We’ve heard a lot about the valuable role of volunteering in supporting communities through the pandemic. But when we looked at the evidence base on how volunteering has supported wellbeing during the crisis, we found it mostly focuses on volunteers’ wellbeing, with much less on those being helped or on community wellbeing. And yet we know that charities, funders, and public services have been collecting huge amounts of data in the form of practice-based case studies that provide just this kind of evidence. Here in Wales, bodies like the Welsh Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA) and the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) have collected hundreds of case studies during the pandemic alone.
So, inspired by the innovative case study synthesis approach developed by colleagues at Leeds Beckett University for What Works Wellbeing, we looked to this untapped resource of case studies to understand the relationship between volunteering and wellbeing during the pandemic. We applied the method to 50 practice-based case studies in Wales covering a range of volunteering activities, from befriending services to delivering food and prescriptions, written by charities, councils, and community groups. We took an inclusive view of volunteering (both formal and informal or reciprocal help) and used the definition of individual wellbeing from the What Works Wellbeing review of volunteering and wellbeing and the Well-being of Future Generations Act (Wales) 2015 concept of community wellbeing.
What did we find, and what does it mean for policy makers and practitioners?
- Volunteering had a positive effect on the wellbeing of volunteers and those they helped, mainly related to the social connection developed between them ‘on the doorstep’ during food or medicine deliveries. It suggests volunteering should be an important part of Wales’ wellbeing-led recovery.
- The volunteer response did not spring up out of nowhere. Flexible and emergency funding helped facilitate volunteering, as did existing infrastructure from church halls to town and community councils, contributing to community wellbeing. Ongoing investment in all levels of community infrastructure is needed to build and maintain strong communities that are prepared for future crises, like the climate emergency.
- Effective partnership working between groups and organisations to tackle local needs through volunteering involved a pooling of expertise and enabled knowledge flows, contributing to individual and community wellbeing. These relationships should be maintained to promote future collaboration and encourage shared, cross-sectoral priorities post-pandemic.
- A blend of formality and informality was valuable in providing the help needed. Activities that might be considered informal help – such as shopping for a neighbour – were often facilitated by formal organisations. This blend is crucial to Wales’ volunteering ecology, and needs nurturing if volunteering is to flourish.
- Much of the volunteering aimed to mitigate negative impacts on those most vulnerable. This sought to prevent the deepening of inequalities and was often underpinned by, and helped develop, cohesive communities. Supporting people to volunteer whose wellbeing has been especially adversely affected during the pandemic, in places where community wellbeing needs boosting, could help manage the longer-term impacts of the pandemic.
Ultimately, our work highlights the value of a systematic analysis of practice-based case studies, and feedback tells us it provides useful, timely insight useful for policy makers and practitioners. We’re currently exploring other ways we can use the method in our work at Wales Centre for Public Policy, and in our session at Gofod3 we shared our learning with funders and practitioners in the third sector.