Volunteering truly is the heartbeat of kindness and compassion and that heart is beating soundly in the UK. According to NCVO’s latest Civil Society Almanac, 19.4 million people volunteered through a group, club or organisation during 2018–2019, whilst in the same year more than half the population volunteered in informal ways. Whilst both are impressive snapshots of a generous population, the latter got us thinking — are we missing out on the diversity and brilliance that’s present in those informal volunteering efforts?
Of course, that’s not to take away from formal volunteering programmes — we know they work; there have always been examples of formal programmes creating impact — for example, how the British Red Cross coordinated with the community around Grenfell to provide support to over 1700 people in the area. Or how the Alzheimer’s Society’s A Million Hands programme turns Scouts into Dementia friends. Or how Refugee Action is building a network of 3,000 Asylum Guide volunteers to support every asylum seeker in the UK. Or how GoodGym brings exercise and community support together. There are so many examples but there are two glaring elephants in the room — diversity and the untold stories of those that are not present in those volunteer bases. What talent and initiatives are we missing out on?
To reflect on this, we got to exploring what was happening on the ground over the last few months and what we found was fascinating — it wasn’t just the countless small unlisted community-led organisations, it was also the individuals and groups who were going above and beyond; The former prisoners taking it upon themselves to mentor young people on their estate, the kids swapping tips on how to care for their ill parents, the teenage girls using Whatsapp to support other girls who may be in abusive relationships, the community leader not only organising food donations but also showing people how to make healthy meals during lockdown. There were just so many stories of kindness, generosity, and creativity.
And it’s not that these stories go untold, it’s that we don’t normally hear them because we don’t go looking for them. Imagine if we could and did? Imagine tapping into that energy without taking away from it? How could we do that and give those people more power? How could we do things in a way that built up those communities and furthered the social impact we seek?
That knowledge, experience, and creativity is so critical in our efforts to tackle society’s greatest challenges. The last few months have laid bear just how fragile our system is, from the inequalities in exposure to COVID-19 to the underlying structural unfairness that exposes so many to so much pain — 1 in 3 children living in poverty, domestic abuse increasing by 49%, 280,000 people living homeless, the list is endless. If there was a lot to do before the pandemic, there is even more to do now and resilient and effective volunteering is crucial to it. The thousands of informal mutual aid groups that have organised across the nation have been absolutely critical in the response — as shown by the New Local Government Network’s latest research, their local knowledge and fluid structures, meant things just got done quickly and well.
Of course, whilst a lot of the limelight has been on those mutual aid groups, what hasn’t been shown as much is just how much minorities have been at the forefront of the response. For example, the Halifax Opportunities Trust worked with the local community (and businesses) to make sure the diverse local community received essential supplies and medical advice that translated into first languages. However, we cannot take this for granted. Earlier this summer, Ubele Trust launched a report on the impact of COVID-19 on the community and volunteer sector. It showed a stark reality — 87% of respondents said they did not have enough reserves to last more than 3 months, and were at risk of closing, compared to just 10% of the sector as a whole. If these organisations go, so many communities across the country will be left without support. The incredible founder of Ubele, Yvonne Field, makes it very clear:
“…there are heartfelt stories of community support, innovative and in some cases transformative thinking, heroism and deep love being shown, which in my opinion is what we need. We need to hear such stories and celebrate as they give us hope about the nature of humanity and a small insight into potential individual and collective futures. However, this piece of work into the impact of Covid-19 on BAME led organisations shows struggling BAME organisations without a lifebuoy to keep them afloat. Those few surviving organisations (many which have been in existence for up to four decades) have ended up rudderless without a clear steer as survival beckons. To rescue the BAME third sector, locally, regionally and nationally, we need more than lifeboats — we need a refit; a strong keel, a new rudder for a new direction, an anchor to ride the current and future storms. This report, against such a backdrop of a world upturned from this pandemic, provides an opportunity to reboot and rethink how we recover.”
The more we ignore this, the more risk there is of communities losing trust and initiatives disappearing. What good are brilliant volunteering programmes if communities lose the very volunteers that supported them? Wouldn’t it be a crying shame to standby and see these organisations vanish? Wouldn’t it be invaluable to collaborate with them in ways that work for them?
Communities want to work with those who not only understand and share their values and priorities but as a result, also respect their sense of identity, agency, and dignity. So, what if volunteering programmes truly focused on that and shared power? Think about it like this — they’re not volunteering for you, you’re collaborating with them. With this mindset incredible people in communities can be supported in efforts that totally align with your social mission.
We’ve been pondering about all of this and we came up with an answer that we’d love you to reflect on.
A more inclusive and equitable model for volunteering
As we explored these thoughts, we found that the answer may lie in flipping the volunteering model on its head and having a new approach that augments existing volunteering programmes. Instead of asking people to volunteer for something you’re bringing into their communities or taking people away from their communities, why not bring your volunteers to what they’re already doing and support communities to do what needs to be done?