Preparing food parcels

Power of COVID-19 volunteers shown in new University of Hull research

Volunteers around the country who helped serve their local communities during the recent lockdown formed a crucial part of the national response to the coronavirus pandemic

Informal volunteering and ‘good neighbourliness’ have been key to providing support and serving communities during the COVID-19 pandemic – according to new research from the University of Hull.

From helping to collect shopping and medication for shielding residents, to befriending and transporting patients home who have been discharged by the NHS – thousands of volunteers have been mobilised across the UK – often through informal channels such as WhatsApp and Facebook.

The 18-month research project, titled: Mobilising Volunteers Effectively (MoVE), has brought together experts from the universities of Hull, Sheffield, and Leeds.

The initial findings published this month – from the first phase of the project which started in June – have shown the necessity to ‘free’ local communities to respond quickly to need in their area, empowering volunteers and taking a less bureaucratic approach.

At the start of the project – supported by £382,000 of funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of the UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19 – local authorities and voluntary and community sector (VCS) organisations in England, Scotland and Wales, were interviewed and asked to reflect on key lessons from the national lockdown period and to help researchers identify the next phases of the research.

Professor Joe Cook and Dr Fiona Walkley from Hull University Business School are co-investigators on the project.

Professor Cook said: “During the national lockdown we witnessed a surge of people offering help by volunteering.

“By working with local authorities and the VCS, the new research helps to understand the important role played by volunteers and maximise learning as we head into a second wave.

“In particular, how can we harness the less structured, more informal approach to volunteering, embedded in good neighbourliness, reciprocity and mutuality?

“This flexibility was crucial to the speed and effectiveness of responses, and in many cases challenges the more conventional notions of volunteering.”

Dr Walkley added: “The research on enabling social action argues for an ecological perspective to understanding communities, which recognises the intrinsic value of networks, connections and infrastructure that underpins communities, rather than their measurable value.

“Areas that undertook a whole community approach, had spent years pre-COVID investing in community engagement models that built the trust within and between communities.

“These authorities had worked hard to actively shift decision-making and resources towards the local, which was critical to their response to Covid-19.”

Leaving a delivery at a neighbour's house

The findings are significant following the recent publication of a UK Parliamentary report by Daniel Kruger MP: Levelling up our communities: proposals for a new social covenant, commissioned by the Prime Minister.

In his introduction to the report, the PM & former political secretary states that it “sets out a vision for a more local, more human, less bureaucratic, less centralised society in which people are supported and empowered to play an active role in their neighbourhoods.”

The findings from MoVE project’s first phase offer important insights and caveats around the government adopting such an approach.

Stories of volunteers have hit the headlines on countless occasions since the outbreak of COVID-19.

Nationally, public commitment to volunteer was highlighted by the NHS responder scheme quickly recruiting 750,000 volunteers onto its register, while national platforms in Scotland and Wales were equally inundated with people eager to join the “army of volunteers.”

However, participants in the University of Hull research have reflected on the frustration that many of these volunteers were under-utilised and often never called upon.

Dr Harriet Thiery, MoVE researcher from the University of Sheffield, said: “Underpinning many of the concerns about the national volunteer schemes has been a perception that these processes represented a top-down, centralised response to local challenges.

“Consequently, they were unable to understand and reflect the unique needs, assets and resources of different communities.”

Consequently, Professor Cook argues: “As we seek to capitalise on the flurry of good neighbourliness that we’ve seen during the pandemic, it is important that we do not simply 'offload' responsibility onto communities.

“The findings of this research hold significant implications for policy; if we are to harness the energy and goodwill that communities have shown in the last six months, we will need to invest in our communities.

“This should not be about simply the discharging of responsibility into the community sector nor a return to ‘business as usual.’”

A summary of the first findings of the research include:

  • Local level measures and not national volunteering platforms, have proved vital to responding to community needs during the pandemic.
  • Responses have accelerated existing models of community engagement and built stronger community relations.
  • Existing local infrastructure and community support networks have underpinned successful community responses.
  • Key to these successes are “freeing communities” to respond to local need, and their resourcefulness during the pandemic.
  • The pandemic highlights the need to rethink volunteering so that more informal volunteering and ‘good neighbourliness’ momentum can be harnessed.
  • This is a complex task – which must avoid reverting to type and seeking to formalised this swell of community action.
  • Arguably suggestions emerging around training, passports, paid work are the very mechanisms that discouraged community action pre-COVID, and that actually what is needed is an entirely new approach.
  • Foremost, LAs “who get it” are engaging with communities by respecting their autonomy, and seeking to support rather than institutionalise.
  • Mutual aid group perspectives reflect the centrality of relationships and relational working within informal personal spaces. Others reflect the need for this engagement to be supported and not seen as a quick or free fix for gaps left by services.
  • The VCS has been vital to mobilising volunteers and meeting needs during the pandemic and has proved its worth ten-fold.
  • VCS participants talked widely about their newfound respect and voice in decision-making achieved through their emergency response role and that the challenge now was how to build upon this.
  • One of the great leaps forward from coordinating community responses has been the breaking down of systemic bureaucratic barriers to working collaboratively. Including reducing risk averseness, flexibility in finance/funding and sharing data.
  • Recovery must not therefore be simply a return to “business as usual” and requires an approach to capitalise on the energy of volunteers, not simply to “offload” responsibility and accountability onto communities themselves.

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