Charities need to create more flexible and easier ways to access volunteering opportunities in order to capitalise on the willingness of people to get involved, experts say.
Over a million people have signed up to various volunteering schemes during the coronavirus crisis. Charity leaders have said this highlights the need to make sure charities and voluntary organisations ensure it is as simple as possible for people to continue to engage once lockdown measures start to ease.
Karl Wilding, chief executive of NCVO, Paul Reddish, chief executive of Volunteering Matters, and Tiger de Souza, volunteering, participation and inclusion director at the National Trust, all participated in a webinar hosted by the non-profit education body Aspen UK to discuss volunteering.
Wilding said that too often discussions about volunteering focus on the idea of a “supply and demand mismatch” and trying to get more people to volunteer.
However the current crisis shows “there’s always enough people that want to get involved”, and that the real challenge is to coordinate it well.
He said this highlights that “we need to invest in volunteer management”.
‘We’ve got to keep this going’
Reddish highlighted that many issues volunteers are responding to, such as mental health and food poverty, pre-dated the coronavirus pandemic.
“We have got to find a way of keeping this going,” he said.
“It is going to be tough for a lot of people,” he said, so charities need to “keep responding to this long beyond when the government starts to ease lockdown”.
Wilding highlighted that while some volunteering roles are oversubscribed, he is “coming across examples where there are shortages of volunteers”.
He urged charities not to be too possessive of their volunteers: “Remember that they are not our volunteers, we are their voluntary organisations.
“We have to try to send them to where they are most needed rather than just worrying about whether they will come back to us.”
De Souza agreed that the sector needs to make it easier for volunteers to move between organisations.
“We have evolved a model that depends on picking one organisation and volunteering with them for a long time,” he said.
He added that the emergency responders scheme set up by the British Red Cross was a good start but there is a need to go further.
‘Challenge our thinking’
Panellists also discussed the need to make volunteering easier and more accessible for people.
In March Volunteering Matters launched a matching service to link up businesses with spare capacity and charities in need of help.
Reddish said this has been “inundated with businesses coming forward”, which has “challenged our thinking about how skills can translate”.
Wilding said: “We have got to think much more about what that coordinating role looks like.”
He suggested the sector think more of “actively brokering”.
“People care about causes. They want to do stuff, they want to change the world. We can stand to one side and say ‘here are these 10,000 roles’, or we can actively try and help them.”
‘On their terms’
Reddish suggested the sector needs to address the admin burden that puts people off volunteering.
He said safeguarding processes are necessary, but that the “reality is that all puts people off.”
The NHS Volunteer Responders app shows how volunteering can be coordinated quickly, he said, adding that there is an “opportunity here not to waste all that innovative thinking”.
He urged the sector to think about “how we make it really easy to help on their terms”.
De Souza agreed, saying: “Within organisations we can get wrapped up in process and structure – the things that give us confidence.”
He said charities need to make it “easy for the end user rather than thinking about it from our perspective”.
Creating a model that others can ‘pick up and use’
Also taking part in the webinar was Mary Ellen McTague, a restaurateur who has set up a project with others in her industry distributing meals to NHS staff, homeless and other vulnerable people during the crisis.
“People are desperate to be of some use to someone somewhere,” she said.
Prior to the current crisis she had thought she was too busy to volunteer, but now plans to continue.
The project, Eat Well Manchester, is being registered as a community interest company to continue to link up chefs with others in the community.
“I’m getting such joy from doing this,” she said, and added that it gives her a “sense of purpose”.
“It was something that we all thought we were too busy to do before, and there wasn’t the mechanism,” she explained.
She added that she hopes other areas will be able to learn from her experience: “What we want is a model that others can pick up and use.”