Published On: July 1, 2021

This paper by Stephen Dunmore OBE, Chair of the Royal Voluntary Service, examines the current and potential roles of the voluntary and community sector (VCS) and, in particular, volunteering in building resilience and delivering an effective response when major crises occur, whether they be natural disasters, pandemics or terrorist attacks.

Help at hand

There can be little doubt that the VCS, alongside the public and private sectors, is an essential partner in a ‘whole-of-society’ approach to preparedness, resilience and response. Convincing evidence of this has come through the many ways in which the VCS has responded effectively to the Covid-19 pandemic:

  • About 12.4 million volunteers have stepped forward during the pandemic, with 4.6 million being volunteers for the first time (Together Report).
  • In order to provide support for vulnerable and shielding members of the community (the NHS Volunteer Responders Scheme) and, subsequently, for stewarding in vaccination centres, the Royal Voluntary Service recruited in quick time and managed over 470,000 volunteers via the GoodSam Using the same app, St John Ambulance recruited and trained 30,000 volunteer vaccinators.
  • Local VCS organisations and mutual-aid programmes have also provided volunteers, often in partnership with local authorities, the Local Resilience Forums (LRFs) or primary-care providers. Inevitably, the local response has been variable, depending on the strength of the local sector, the financial resources available to the local VCS infrastructure, and the quality of relationships with local authorities and each other.
  • The British Red Cross has piloted a community resilience programme in six London boroughs that has involved local groups and communities to explore what people need during emergencies and to help them map assets, share knowledge and link with local authorities and LRFs.
  • The National Emergencies Trust has raised funds and distributed them to national and local charities to support people affected by the pandemic in a wide range of ways such as emergency food, health and well-being support, safe spaces to live, and specialist telephone and web-based advice services.
  • The National Voluntary Sector Emergencies Partnership, consisting of 230 national and local organisations, has facilitated the deployment of over 3,000 volunteers, setting up five multi-agency cells across England to bring together local, regional and national organisations to share intelligence, support and resources. They have provided a range of opportunities for VCS leaders and government partners to come together.

However, there is some evidence to suggest that not all communities have benefitted equally from these initiatives. The pandemic has exposed inequalities in resilience: those communities with greater social and economic resources were better able to weather the storm while others struggled.

Building back stronger

The challenge is how we can build on and sustain this success to create a legacy that will make civil society stronger for all communities, ensuring continued VCS support for pandemic recovery and preparedness of the VCS for the next major crisis. Three initiatives relevant to this challenge have emerged in the last few months.

First, Shaping the Future with Volunteering, launched by 18 national charities including the Royal Voluntary Service, Scouts, St John Ambulance and the British Red Cross, is a practitioner-led coalition of volunteers. Led by the CEOs, it aims to respond to the impetus for volunteering created by the pandemic so that these charities are better able to respond to societal needs. Their action plan includes: focus on the development of a more diverse volunteer base; better use of technology and digital to make access to volunteering easier; commitment to ensuring personal development; the ability to offer a wide variety of volunteer roles; and a commitment to share relevant learnings with government, business and other agencies.

Secondly, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, Volunteering Matters and the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action, in partnership with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, have launched a Vision for Volunteering project intended to ‘fully integrate volunteering into the post-Covid recovery, harnessing the skills, experience and enthusiasm of volunteers’.

Thirdly, the Royal Voluntary Service, British Red Cross and St John Ambulance, building on learning from NHS Volunteer Responders and vaccination volunteer schemes, are working together to take forward the recommendation in the government’s Kruger Report for a Volunteer Passport. Designed to make it easier and quicker for volunteers to operate in different volunteering contexts, the aim is to present a ‘Proof of Concept’ later this summer, with an operational plan to be tested in the autumn should funds be available. The initial focus will be on the NHS and wider healthcare systems with a view to addressing the winter pressure/surge response in 2021/22.

The future

Both the various VCS responses to Covid-19 and the new initiatives described above paint a positive picture of the ability and potential of the sector to play a key role if and when future major crises arise. This should not be allowed, however, to conceal the tensions and challenges that have emerged over the past 12 months. The development of national and local approaches and provision (both are, of course, necessary) sometimes led to division rather than collaboration. The Pro Bono Economics Charity Tracker surveys have highlighted the considerable financial hardships the sector is facing against a backdrop of enormous demand for its services. At the same time, the most recent Pro Bono Economics survey (May 2021) found that 42% of charities believed they had ‘collaborated more with other charities’. Although much of this appeared to be driven by financial necessity, it has the potential to strengthen the sector longer term.

The VCS rightly values independence both of the sector itself and of individual organisations. However, that independence may on occasion become an obstacle to working in partnership, subscribing to a shared framework for action or developing a coherent sector voice in dealings with government.

The fundamental question which now needs to be considered and answered is how can the VCS’s key role in preparedness best be co-ordinated, resourced and supported, both by central and local government and within the sector itself. When the next crisis hits, the VCS needs to be ready with a fully integrated sector response and volunteering offer at national and local levels.

Share this story

Related posts