Published On: July 20, 2023

In this article for the NPC, Professor John Drury, University of Sussex and Dr Evangelos Ntontis, The Open University summarise the key findings from their recent research on the factors that support mutual aid groups to continue to support communities and build local capacity beyond the support they provide during and immediately after a crisis. The research highlights how sustaining mutual aid and similar community groups requires action and efforts from different parties, whilst understanding and respecting the needs and identities of the volunteers, as well as the communities they support.

A visible and hugely positive feature of the onset of Covid-19 was the blooming of thousands of mutual aid groups across the country, providing a way for individual volunteers to meet the needs that suddenly arose in their communities. As the pandemic becomes an increasingly remote memory it is important that we continue to learn lessons from the experience, to better prepare for any similar disruptions in the future. Professor John Drury (University of Sussex) and Dr Evangelos Ntontis (The Open University) have researched the factors that support mutual aid groups to continue beyond the immediate crisis. Their article provides links to some insightful research findings.

In 2020, tens of thousands of people got involved in Covid mutual aid and similar community support groups, with over 4,000 new groups forming in Spring 2020.

Many of those participating were new to volunteering or community action. Some groups were repurposed pre-existing community groups. Groups tended to be informal, distinct from the existing voluntary and charity sector, and with no formal constitution. Some groups later applied for charitable status to access grants more easily. Local communities with more social capital tended to have more mutual aid groups.

The main activity of these mutual aid groups tended to be shopping for those people who were self-isolating or shielding. They also engaged in other community support activities, including fundraising, providing information, dog-walking, mental health support, running food-banks, gardening, posting letters, and collecting prescriptions. Some argued that mutual aid groups were crucial in the UK’s pandemic response – many people could not have sustained the long periods of self-isolation without their support (recognising that supermarkets could not meet the sudden demand for grocery deliveries early in the pandemic). Later, many of the groups sought to respond to other community needs beyond Covid-19, including food poverty and supporting refugees, as well as setting up community gardening and tool sharing groups.

Understanding what sustains mutual aid groups in a crisis and beyond

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded a programme of research to understand how Covid mutual aid groups sustained themselves over time. Following the initial upsurge, participation in mutual aid groups dropped, particularly after lockdown restrictions eased, and furlough ended for some people (removing a supply of volunteers). For example, activity in Covid mutual aid Facebook groups, where many groups operated, dropped by 75% by June 2020 – from the high point of March 2020. As well as the practical reasons for the decline in volunteers, some volunteers left because they felt let down by local authorities, needed greater logistical infrastructure, felt overwhelmed, lacked capacity, or lost motivation due to return to ‘normality’. For those groups that continued, there was a need to sustain themselves and maintain volunteers’ engagement over time. When the second Covid-19 wave struck in Autumn 2020, there was no corresponding rise in mutual aid group activity.

Similar to what happens after a flood or other natural hazard, the initial outpouring of spontaneous social support in the community declined, and yet the needs of communities continued. Our previous research on flood-affected communities found that complete decline of community support groups is not inevitable, however. In our study of the flood-affected community in York, we found that organisers and other community members took various actions to keep groups active. These included everyday actions such as conversations with neighbours, and more organised activities such as meetings, and commemoration events to celebrate the community’s recovery after the flood. For some of the people affected, the shared experience of the flood itself, or the common experience of subsequent stressors, served as the glue that made them feel part of a group in the months that followed the flood.

In the case of Covid mutual aid groups, we carried out interviews with organisers and volunteers and a two-wave survey of volunteers to understand the factors that sustain such groups over time, and the kinds of actions that organisers could take. The studies were co-produced with members of Covid mutual aid groups, and initial findings were shared in a dialogue event with groups as a way of boosting the validity and usefulness of the research.

The research indicated three types of factors that helped sustain groups over time. First, there was what can be called group scaffolding. Organisers said that to simply function as a group they needed basic infrastructure such as access to funds, space for meetings and storage, computing facilities, and transport. They also needed relationships with other groups and organisations – e.g., local charities, local authorities and others – who could help them by providing these basic resources (or show them how to do it themselves).

Second, there were group experiences which arose from participation and motivated further involvement. Volunteers described stressful and distressing experiences when delivering food and other help in their local communities, (i.e., there was a risk to themselves and others, and they were exposed to others’ suffering); but being involved in the mutual aid group also offered psychological benefits, including a sense of identity, wellbeing, empowerment, and sense of purpose. In addition, some people reported skills acquisition.

Finally, organisers employed various group strategies to enhance a sense of belonging, motivate volunteers and encourage continued participation. These strategies included fostering a culture of care (so that volunteers did not feel overburdened), holding social events, a flexible leadership structure (allowing volunteers to input into the organisation), and regular communication (listening to people as well as keeping them informed).

Implications for policy and practice

The research findings described above have practical implications for community group organisers, central government, local authorities, and local infrastructure organisations.

Groups should use flexible or horizontal forms of organisation to help retain volunteers who might become disillusioned if they are unable to input into group decision-making. Organising social events for volunteers is also an effective strategy, particularly for those with previous experience of community participation.

We found that building alliances with other groups was a key predictor of sustained participation. This points to the ways that local authorities and the formal voluntary sector can all help scaffold the group processes that sustain mutual aid groups. A key point is that most mutual aid and similar groups are informal – they have no constitution, legal status, or bank account. Local authorities and local infrastructure organisations can help scaffold their local mutual aid groups by providing financial and practical support, as well as guidance and support in applying for funds, which they could lead. These other groups can also help provide access to space (for meetings and storage) and legal advice.

It is important that no strings are attached to this external support, however. Mutual aid group participants have been clear in their feedback that they value their position as grassroots organisations and have resisted institutionalisation. It is precisely the identity of mutual aid groups as independent and informal that makes them trusted by communities, more so than many local charities. Sustaining mutual aid and similar community groups therefore requires action and efforts from different parties, whilst understanding and respecting the needs and identities of the volunteers, as well as the communities they support.

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