Volunteering in – and out of – a pandemic

“The world is hugged by the faithful arms of volunteers” – Terri Guillemets

I love volunteering. Some of my richest, and proudest, memories have come from my volunteering experiences.

Sitting in a pub – sandwiched between Elbow’s Guy Garvey and the rapper and former child soldier Emmanuel Jal – celebrating the completion of War Child’s award-winning second album Help! A day in the life

Listening to the breathtaking harmonies of the Fron Male Voice Choir putting on a private concert for the residents of the sheltered housing facility where I was a befriender…

OK, so I would happily forget the intense camera angle when I appeared on the ITV London news as a (frankly enormous) talking head for the homeless charity Crisis. Still, my humiliation was all for a good cause!

There are many reasons why people volunteer, but it is often born out of a strong desire to make a difference to other peoples’ lives. And in my experience, it will almost always enrich yours too. Whenever I’m gripped by anxiety, or rage, or despair at the challenges the world is facing, I have to act, to do something to feel better about the world – and my place in it.

So, when the Coronavirus pandemic hit, I put my hand up for everything: from my own networks to local groups, regional schemes, and national calls to actions. And I wasn’t alone. Fuelled by adrenaline, community spirit, and the need to take purposeful action, millions of new volunteers stepped forward. Some 750,000 people signed up to the government-led NHS volunteer scheme alone. In fact, over 10m volunteered to join the collective effort to

combat the virus, according to research carried out by Legal & General and the Centre for Economics and Business Research. As Dr Justin Davis-Smith, senior lecturer in voluntary sector management at Cass Business School commented: “It’s by no means unique…There’s a real tradition of volunteering, which comes out of national stress and tension.”

Alongside the formal, organised schemes, multiple informal ‘good neighbour’ groups emerged to protect the vulnerable in their local communities. Charities had to rapidly adapt and innovate to the changing environment. Alongside increased demand (the Trussell Trust reported an 80% increase in food bank usage), charities had to move services online, manage huge income drops, and find ways to protect their workforce (including the more vulnerable among their volunteer community).

In my case, the over-subscription of the national and local schemes meant that I wasn’t called on until weeks after I’d offered help – at a time when the demands of home-schooling had conclusively swallowed my initial burst energy and enthusiasm. So, I didn’t end up joining any organised schemes, but instead, I did what I could – on my own terms: shopping for vulnerable friends and neighbours, calling isolated family members, and continuing to support the fundraising efforts of Wycombe Refugee Partnership.

The Coronavirus crisis undoubtedly strengthened community bonds and shone a light on our collective compassion. But it also highlighted deep, social inequalities and tipped many into positions of vulnerability they could never have previously imagined. And as we confront another rise in the virus, charities are likely to need volunteers more than ever before. The challenge will be to harness the goodwill in the long-term, build capacity, and attract volunteer skills that meet each charity’s specific needs – so that everyone benefits.

With looming redundancies and huge competition for new jobs, volunteering can be an amazing way to develop new skills, experience different environments, and boost self-esteem. And there are so many ways to get involved, from offering physical help to befriending; from becoming a trustee to dipping into micro-volunteering.

What will the next year hold for volunteering? What will our individual and collective capacity be for taking on new challenges? I’m certainly re-evaluating how I want to volunteer next year and beyond. Has the pandemic changed your approach to volunteering?

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