Success of COVID-19 volunteer working holds key to future community support

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in successful collaboration, community-based working and mobilisation of volunteers that have driven significant change within communities and can offer a new blueprint for social action – according to new research from the University of Hull.

The 18-month research project, titled: Mobilising Volunteers Effectively (MoVE), has brought together experts from the universities of Hull, Sheffield, and Leeds. This is the second of three reports, from the first phase of the project which began in June – which explores the models and frameworks that were used by local authorities and their community partners, to coordinate vital community support.

At the start of the project – which is 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 how they coordinated community support during the national lockdown period and to help researchers identify the next phases of the research. The latest report is entitled Models and Frameworks for Coordinating Community Responses during COVID-19.

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The pandemic can offer a new blueprint for social action.

Professor Joe Cook and Dr Fiona Walkley are co-investigators on the project. Dr Walkley said: “Our second report identifies three main frameworks that were used to coordinate volunteer and community support. We identify the key foundations on which these models were developed, the distinctive types of models being used, and what lessons can be learned from these which might help shape post-COVID models of social action and community partnership.

“It’s remarkable what has been achieved under the common goal of creating a fast and effective response to meeting the needs of communities during the pandemic. Underpinning these models has been more collaborative, open and shared form of local decision-making.

We’ve seen the strength of voluntary and community sector organisations and the importance of pre-existing commitments to partnership working and co-production.

Dr Fiona Walkley

This report also highlights the significance of hyper local, informal volunteering and good neighbourliness, as demonstrated by the rise of groups like mutual aid, something explored in the first report, Lessons from lockdown.

Dr Walkley said: “The report suggests that it is important to ask the question why, when faced with such a significant crisis, did these forms of local collaboration come to the fore as the preferred models for enabling effective community support? If these models were deemed to be the best option under such challenging circumstances, why have we been so reluctant to work in this way before?

“Our challenge now, is learning from what has worked well during the national lockdown and beyond and understanding what is needed in order to harness and build upon these developments as we move forward, rather than simply retrenching into conventional ways of working.”

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A summary of the findings includes:

  • Rapid community responses to COVID-19 have been built upon growing relationships between LAs and voluntary and community sector (VCS) organisations.
  • By building upon pre-existing levels of trust and collaboration, groups were able to coordinate a quick response and share roles and responsibilities.
  • In most cases coordination of the community response was based around cross-sectoral response cells.
  • These were often multi-agency collaborations with members coming from a broad range of organisations and departments, representing a transition from traditional silo working towards a place-based response.
  • A key aspect was the ability of groups to work collaboratively, to be flexible in requirements and to be prepared to share information and resources.
  • LAs often recognised that they were not always best placed to provide support and ceded control and devolved responsibilities to VCS organisations.
  • National response strategies were criticised for failing to understand local needs and resources, and for being too slow due to excessive checks and procedures.
  • Relationships with informal groups, like mutual aid, varied significantly across locations.

Read the latest blog post about the research.

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