Volunteering during the COVID-19 Crisis

For #VolunteersWeek 2020, our Local Implementation Lead, Harriet Ballance looks at the incredible way volunteers and local communities have come together during the COVID-19 crisis.

Harriet Balance

Harriet Ballance, Local Implementation Lead

In the Foundation’s Development Directorate, we’re carrying out a long-term piece of work with six places across England and Wales - Bolsover, Great Yarmouth, Halton, Telford, Merthyr Tydfil, and Redcar - to transform and strengthen small and local charities and the communities they serve. 

In its broadest sense, this work is about how the whole system comes together to deliver services to people who need them. By the whole system we mean, the way organisations and actors work together to address issues in people’s lives. Volunteers are integral to this; by becoming motivated or empowered to take action in their communities they play a role in the system and are better able to affect things.

Since the start of lockdown, we’ve been communicating virtually with our local partners, listening to how things have developed, the ways they responded to the needs in their communities, and the practical demands of working during the lockdown. 

What’s emerged during such an incredibly challenging time is the strengths in each community and the incredible way people have come together to support one another.

In the six communities we’re working with, there are two aspects to what we’ve seen:

 

  1. The existing strengths and assets in a place that have been revealed during this time –brilliant local organisations, ways of working, relationships and partnerships that have come into their own during a crisis and been there for people who need them.

For example, community development approaches have supported the coordination of responses in Great Yarmouth, and the small community-based groups and organisations that have been key to reaching those most in need in Merthyr Tydfil, Telford, Halton, Bolsover and Redcar.

 

  1. The other is the way communities have pulled together and people have stepped forward to help others in their local area. In some places, existing community organisations have been hubs for the distribution of hot meals and food parcels to people in need and shielding, making phone calls to people isolating alone.

In others, new groups have formed, bringing together people entirely new to taking part in volunteering and community organising.  Across the piece, brilliant specialist organisations have continued to deliver their services – with the support of their existing long term volunteers - under the restrictions of lockdown and social distancing. 

Trustee boards have often come into their own, supporting leaders and staff teams and steering their organisations through the challenges of increased demand and lost income. Local authorities have redeployed staff and engaged in new ways of working with their communities, and it’s been a time of organisations and sectors coming together in different ways to work towards a common aim.

 

Communities coming together

Alongside what I’ve witnessed through my work with the Foundation, I’ve also seen first-hand what’s happened where I live. 

During the week or two leading up to the official lockdown on the 23rd March, mutual aid groups sprung up across the community I live in, leafletting and organising in preparation for a lockdown.  The speed with which this took place is testament to the power of what can be achieved when people pull together around a need.  Before long, help was being provided to people who had run out of essentials, with volunteers going to pick up shopping within a couple of hours of requests going out.

Looking at the COVID-19 Mutual Aid map gives some idea of the scale at which this has happened across the country during the crisis.  In many cases, there have been more volunteers than opportunities to help, which whilst frustrating for those looking to help, presents a significant opportunity to engage a new wave of volunteers in the longer term. The new wave of volunteering during the pandemic may well continue as people who have stepped forward seem highly motivated. 

The reason I particularly wanted to highlight all of this during Volunteers’ Week, is that these stories can be lost in the moment if we don't reflect on them. These strengths, relationships and people will very much be needed as we begin to recover and build back. 

What is significant about all of this is that we have perhaps learnt what is possible in our communities, what we can do together and how to work together in new ways and to change systems so that they work better for people.  In the midst of such tragedy, and such a time of need, we must remember this and build on it.

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