Volunteers step up again to provide critical support to those in need

Volunteers and community-based working groups that were mobilised during the pandemic are still providing critical support to those facing food and fuel poverty as the cost of living rises – according to research from the University of Hull.

As more and more families and communities turned to charities for support during what was termed an ‘impossible’ winter, the mutual aid groups – many of which were formed in response to the needs of their communities during the pandemic – stepped up to bring much-needed relief to those in need. As the cost of living is set to rise with increasing fuel and utility costs, it is likely more families will reach out for help.

Mutual aid groups are self-organising groups of people who come together to address challenges in their communities, through mutual support. This type of support came to the fore during the pandemic.

Mutual aid is distinct from traditional charitable models, focusing on building bottom-up structures of co-operation. They are recognised as providing support with humanity and without judgement.

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

Co-investigator on the project, Professor Joe Cook, said: “Informal volunteering and ‘good neighbourliness’ were key to providing support and serving communities during the pandemic and now we are seeing this kind of support meeting essential poverty-related needs proliferating in their communities.

The nature of their work has changed from providing food parcels and access to medicines, to trying to deal with huge uncertainties around food and fuel as people face reduced income and the cost of living increases. But should these groups be taking responsibility in this way?

Professor Joe Cook

As inflation is expected to rise to 8% in April, economists predict that the cost of everyday goods – including food and other essentials – will leave some families forced to make difficult choices in the coming months. Exhausted volunteers are continuing to plug welfare gaps for fear that if they withdraw their support, people will fall through the cracks of statutory support.

With recommendations for national government, local authorities and the voluntary and community sector (VCS) the final stage of the University of Hull’s research project titled: Mobilising Volunteers Effectively (MoVE) highlights that there are vital lessons for policy makers as mutual aid provides a template for engaging communities in a more meaningful way. They organise flexibly and informally, make decisions in a non-hierarchical way, and collaborate and link in with existing community resource, driven by their values of solidarity and kindness.

The project, which has brought together experts from the universities of Hull, Sheffield, and Leeds over an 18-month period, has examined the new ways of working that flourished during the pandemic.

The project – which is supported by funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of the UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19 – worked with local authorities and VCS organisations in England, Scotland and Wales. It examined how community support was coordinated during the pandemic and produced a series of reports reflecting key innovations that shaped new collaborative ways of working.

The Models and Frameworks for Coordinating Community Responses during COVID-19 and Building Local Responses to Identify and Meet Needs During COVID-19 reports explored the innovative ways in which local councils worked with VCS partners and citizens to coordinate and wrap support around community responses.

The findings emphasised the learning from the first national lockdown and the need to hold onto the new ways of working that were enabled by the crisis. The latest report to be published focuses upon the significant contribution of mutual aid.

Recommendations are far-reaching, offering a blueprint for bringing critical welfare support to struggling communities and providing guidance for how national policymakers, local government and the VCS can best support the vital work of these groups.

Principal Investigator, Dr Jon Burchell from the University of Sheffield, said: “While these community, mutual aid groups have plugged large gaps in welfare provision, these informal groups must not become a sticking plaster for wider societal problems.

The value and contribution of the volunteers who provided an essential and caring support during the pandemic must be recognised, and welfare support must be strengthened in the face of the cost-of-living crisis. In this way, we can learn from the experiences of the pandemic to tackle whatever challenges lie ahead.

Dr Jon Burchell

The MoVE team is hosting a webinar on the 26 April at 2pm with mutual aid groups, local authorities, VCS and policy makers to discuss moving the findings from the research into policy and practice. You can register here.

The report highlights a series of recommendations for organisations to consider:

Recommendations for local authorities include:

Recognising and respecting the autonomy of mutual aid groups: Central to respecting the values of groups is developing an organisational culture that is trusting, flexible and able to engage with the diverse voices that exist within communities. Mutual aid groups should be seen as a valuable complementary resource and not a potential appendage to existing services.

Local authorities looking to play a facilitative or enabling role for mutual aid should reach out to informal groups to ask whether and what support they might need.

Recommendations for the voluntary and community sector:

Supporting mutual aid: The lessons outlined above for local authorities regarding recognition, respect and support, are equally applicable to VCS organisations that may wish to work with or support informal community groups. The mutual aid experience highlights the importance of infrastructure organisations in supporting grassroots, community-led groups and organisations.

Offer more flexible volunteering opportunities: A key lesson for volunteering organisations wishing to encourage volunteering and attract a more diverse group of volunteers – as mutual aid groups did – might be to embrace a more flexible approach by dismantling bureaucratic barriers to voluntary action.

Recommendations for national policymakers:

Invest in place: The experience of the pandemic has created a renewed focus upon communities, with the UK government announcing a policy agenda to give more power to communities (Kruger, 2020). However, community action does not exist in a vacuum.

This research has demonstrated the way that groups have drawn upon existing local resources and infrastructure. Any serious commitment to devolving power and decision making to communities and ensuring that the collaborations that have been built can be sustained will necessitate the funding of community infrastructure and the channelling of resources to grassroots groups.

Address socio-economic inequalities: Mutual aid groups have plugged large gaps in welfare provision, but informal community groups must not become a sticking plaster for wider societal problems. National policymakers should focus upon addressing socio-economic inequalities, to create the space for mutual aid groups to focus upon building relationships and harnessing the skills and assets of their communities to contribute to a more connected and cohesive society.

Find ways to support informal volunteering: The mutual aid response was facilitated outside of traditional, established volunteering infrastructure. The mutuality, flexibility and informality at the heart of these groups cannot be ‘harnessed’ through national volunteer platforms or volunteer passports, which seek to create a reserve ‘army’ of volunteers.

Rather, support should focus on localised capacity building and build upon the flexibility and informality that encapsulates this type of volunteering. Central government could support this by ensuring that volunteering policy and funding facilitates, embeds and enables these diverse, informal and flexible forms of engagement rather than restricting volunteering into a homogenous framework.

For details of additional recommendations, please refer to the report.

The University of Hull is committed to social justice and building an inclusive society. Driven by its vision to create a fairer, brighter, carbon neutral future, the University is to working towards widening social inclusion – shaping a society that is built on equity, integrity and respect, tackling inequalities and ensuring that every member of its community feels, valued, respected and supported.

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