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Jun 3, 2020 | by Dr Jurgen Grotz

Volunteering in the time of COVID-19 – five things the evidence shows us

The crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will likely reverberate for many more months, if not years. Volunteering in its broadest sense is often presented as a panacea or a go-to when ‘something must be done’, or a rallying call by governments or communities. But to really make a difference, we must better understand the impact of neighbourliness and local knowledge. We also need to recognise the role of diversity, and be mindful of those at risk of being left behind.

Here are five evidence-based considerations about volunteering in the time of COVID-19.

There is already existing research we can use to understand the impacts of volunteering

Over the last two decades researchers have assembled a huge, compelling body of evidence about the role of volunteers in society. There is also data on the impact of volunteering on the volunteers; the people and organisations they volunteer for; their neighbourhoods and communities; and society as a whole. Organisations can implement these research findings in their own contexts.

In our research project with the Centre on the impact of volunteering on the wellbeing of the volunteers, our recent evidence search found over 800 relevant documents. These same researchers are currently active in trying to help us use the available evidence and to generate new learning about the impact of volunteering on wellbeing in the future. We’ll be sharing more on the findings later in 2020.

Millions are in danger of negative health effects as they are no longer able to volunteer

An estimated 10 million people volunteered at least once a month through an organisation or a club in the UK before the COVID-19 pandemic. Initial findings suggest that this number has halved because many of the most regular volunteers are either because they are in at-risk groups or because their usual volunteering activities are suspended. 

The loss of key social relationships caused by giving up volunteering can be directly connected to negative health outcomes, potentially putting five million, often older or vulnerable people, at additional health risk

Mutual aid and neighbourliness were already here and ready before COVID-19

These groups have responded to the immediate need of those isolated by the COVID-19 restrictions on contact, we have seen a groundswell of neighbourly activities. Flyers have been posted, food delivered and phone calls made. A Community Action Poster in Norfolk captured this well. 

Large-scale initiatives need to value local experiential knowledge about involving volunteers

There have been reports of people wanting to help but not finding out how they could do so for the NHS Responders programme. This has led to some frustration and some observers voicing concerns that the official response did not at first collaborate with local government and the local voluntary and community sector infrastructure. The national programme in England did not appear to take account of important lessons from previous crises, like the Grenfell tragedy in London or Hurricane Katrina in the US. Reports from those crises highlighted the importance of local knowledge and the need to support and resource local coordination and community responses.

Approaches are different in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland

While the situation is still evolving, it is easy to forget that there has not been a coordinated UK-wide official response regarding volunteer involvement in this crisis. This means general reporting and messages from Westminster need to be carefully balanced and to take into account policy and practice divergence in volunteering, as with other non-reserved policy areas. 

We can rely on neighbourliness as a towering force for good. But we need to remember that volunteering – and related impacts – can also exclude people, and create negative effects for health and wellbeing. 

Government responses that take account of experiential knowledge and adequately resource local collaboration are likely to be more successful. 

The Institute for Volunteering Research and other research institutions have begun to capture the latest evidence as it emerges, to inform policy and practice responses to help overcome the crises caused by the COVID-19 virus, and to build a more community-connected response to it. 

In the next few weeks the research team will be searching and analysing the evidence on volunteering and wellbeing, bringing it together along with a theory of change to describe what works and how.

Volunteeting and wellbeing rapid evidence review

Sign up to our evidence alerts to hear about the findings of our soon-to-be published research

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Volunteeting and wellbeing rapid evidence review

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