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16th July 2020

A once in a lifetime opportunity for volunteering!

Matthew Linning, Head of Research at Volunteer Scotland, discusses the implications from the latest research on COVID-19 in Scotland.

It’s fascinating how the available evidence changes our view of the world and our perception of what’s really important. This is as true for volunteering as for anything else.

In Scotland, robust data on informal volunteering was not available until the inclusion of a suite of informal volunteering questions in the 2018 Scottish Household Survey. At Volunteer Scotland we were like ‘kids in a sweetie shop’ when the data was released in 2019. In particular, I had my ‘eyes opened’ in discovering that the most popular activity for informal volunteers was ‘keeping in touch with someone who is at risk of being lonely’ – that’s 18% (or 293,000) of volunteers in Scotland!

We were quick to post the headlines and it was to my amazement that a well-known national charity sent me a LinkedIn message to the effect that had we not got anything better to do than comment on informal volunteering when we should be focusing on the real business of ‘formal’ volunteering.

Well, how things change! COVID-19 has resulted in a large contraction of formal volunteering due to social distancing, lockdown and shielding. The OSCR COVID-19 Charity Impact Survey 2020 of 21,000 charities in Scotland highlighted that 41% had seen a decrease in their volunteer numbers and only 7% an increase.

However, this decline in formal volunteering during this crisis has been more than offset by the appetite of Scotland’s people to help out in other ways:

  • There were 53,000 sign-ups to the Scottish Government’s Scotland Cares Campaign
  • 220 mutual aid groups have been registered under ‘COVID-19 Mutual Aid UK’
  • There are also hundreds, possibly well in excess of a thousand other groups not registered but operating through WhatsApp and other social media platforms
  • And the response to help one’s friends and neighbours has been overwhelming.

Research just published by Volunteer Scotland ‘Impact of COVID-19 on Volunteering Participation in Scotland‘ (based on an Ipsos-Mori survey) shows that informal volunteering has been by far the most popular form of volunteering support during COVID-19, with 35% of us helping each other. In total, around three-quarters of us have made some form of volunteering contribution.

The contribution from informal volunteering, formerly the ‘poor cousin to formal volunteering’, combined with the new kid on the block ‘mutual aid’, have been transformational in society’s response to the COVID-19 crisis in Scotland. The top three volunteering activities from March to June 2020 were:

  • 68% of volunteers – befriending or keeping in touch with someone who is at risk of being lonely
  • 57% of volunteers – doing food shopping
  • 30% of volunteers – helping with household chores such as cleaning and gardening.

In just over three months there has been a sea-change in voluntary engagement. The $64,000 question is whether this can be sustained beyond COVID-19? Is this just a short-term crisis response returning to ‘business as usual’ once everyone’s back to work and the recovery has taken hold? Or will there be a real legacy for volunteering? 

The good news from the Ipsos-Mori data is that more people expect to be volunteering after COVID-19 than before. The graph below shows that compared to the Scottish Household Survey (SHS) 2018 baseline, the volunteering participation rates are expected to be higher across all volunteering categories: 

  • Formal volunteering is expected to increase from 26% to 37%
  • Informal volunteering is expected to increase from 36% to 47%
  • Mutual aid was not recorded in the SHS but is expected to be 32%

Total volunteering is expected to increase from 48% to 59%

Given the unprecedented scale of coronavirus, the long-term societal and economic challenges it presents and the emerging evidence on the amazing contribution of volunteering, it’s not an overstatement to say we have ‘a once in a lifetime opportunity for volunteering’.

Not only can we ensure that volunteering plays its full part in addressing the health and wellbeing and economic challenges identified in the TSI Scotland Network Coronavirus Survey, but we can help achieve a long-term change in society where the intrinsic values embedded in volunteering of reciprocity, mutuality and kindness come to the fore.

As articulated in Communities vs. Coronavirus – the rise of mutual aid, to achieve this goal will require a new approach for community engagement which capitalises on achievements to date and helps deliver a lasting legacy beyond COVID-19.

What do you think? Provide your comments to me or one of my team via research@volunteerscotland.org.uk

– Matthew