Virtual volunteering: How has the pandemic impacted the UK’s voluntary sector one year on?

Written by Izzie Pridmore

“We saw a massive influx of people wanting to volunteer, wanting to get involved, so we had to adapt and improve our process with online training, telephone interviews, webinar training.”

Next Tuesday marks a whole year since the beginning of lockdown restrictions, the day we entered into a new world of separation from loved ones and had to move our work and social lives online. For the UK’s voluntary sector, these disruptions created both difficulties and new opportunities.

At the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, 10 million people across the UK were volunteering within their communities, according to a study by Legal & General last May. One organisation which experienced a flood of volunteers applying over the course of the pandemic was Yorkshire-based domestic abuse charity IDAS (Independent Domestic Abuse Services).

Volunteer organiser with IDAS, Alison Maynard said: “We saw a massive influx of people wanting to volunteer, wanting to get involved, so we had to adapt and improve our process with online training, telephone interviews, webinar training, getting to know the volunteer post-training interviews and then how to carry out shadowing sessions, you know that type of thing online.”

“I’ve absolutely seen an increase because with people’s change in their employment circumstances and there was a lot in the media about domestic abuse throughout lockdown. I think it was the second day of lockdown there was a domestic homicide in Wales and when that hit the news and the media, it became very important that people wanted to use their free time to do something good.”

“We’ve seen a lot of students wanting to get involved as well, so students really wanting to upskill themselves and get work-based experience. So previously students might have been able to get involved in social clubs or had less time. Now, we’re finding students wanting to diversify their skills, wanting to get diverse work experience.”

Alison Maynard, Volunteer Organiser with domestic abuse charity IDAS.

Now run almost entirely online, the virtual and remote delivery of IDAS’s volunteering service has hugely facilitated people who want to give their time but could not do so under regular circumstances.

“Remote working models have massively improved our training reach, they have improved who can get involved, mums especially. Our lead volunteer was recruited from the volunteer service to come in and help me in my role. She’s a mum of three. If that was a role where she had to go to an office so many days a week, she wouldn’t be able to commit to it. The remote working model has given her career progression, as a student, as a mum of three,” Ms Maynard added.

According to a study by charity Belong and the University of Kent, volunteering during the pandemic has also been shown to have added benefits for those giving their time. Volunteers have reported feeling a greater connection with their family and friends, a more optimistic outlook for the future and a higher subjective well-being than non-volunteers.

Yet not all organisations offering voluntary services have benefitted from recent changes, with the transition to virtual systems hampering the face-to-face interactions crucial for several support groups. “Unfortunately, and sadly we’ve not been able to have the volunteers in and they’re so valuable and they miss us as much as we miss them,” said office manager Helen Lowry of St Wilfrid’s Centre in Sheffield, a day centre supporting homeless, vulnerable or socially excluded adults.

“We’ve not been able to use the building because of the amount of people you’re allowed to have in a space at one time. We’ve got a very small team, quite a few of them were on furlough so we’ve been managing to run the organisation either over the phone or opening up a partial service.”

Finding the online delivery of their service similarly challenging is Sheffield-based charity Chula, which focuses on empowering young women. Founder of the education centred group, Sarah Godfrey said: “We are unable to support our beneficiaries face-to-face and working online can make certain aspects of our work a lot more tricky. We used to run workshops in the city centre to get our young people out of the community and allow them to explore different spaces of Sheffield, which we can’t wait to do again.”

Only having started recruiting volunteers in October 2019, Ms Godfrey added: “We had to move entirely online, meaning that I still haven’t met the majority of our volunteers in person! However, we still try to keep a really close group and make it as personal as possible for people. We can’t wait to get together over a coffee.”

With such mixed experiences from volunteering organisations over the last year, it seems likely the sector will embrace its new online delivery of services whilst gratefully returning to face-to-face support.

Written by Izzie Pridmore

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