Volunteer Scotland logo

23rd March 2021

The impact of COVID-19 on Scotland’s charities – the challenges and opportunities

One year on - 23 March 2021

It is exactly one year since Scotland entered its first lockdown. It has been a year of unprecedented changes to the way we live, a year of incredible loss for Scotland, a year of unparalleled challenges to society and individuals, yet a year where we have seen Scotland pull together and help one another in incredible ways, with almost three quarters (74%) of the Scottish population volunteering during the first lockdown.

A year ago many of us would not have been aware of the term mutual aid or be aware of what a mutual aid group was, yet within a few short weeks of the first lockdown 220 mutual aid groups had registered under ‘COVID-19 Mutual Aid UK’ and hundreds, and possibly well in excess of a thousand other groups not registered but operating through WhatsApp and other social media platforms had formed. Informal volunteering and the response to helping friends and neighbours was also truly overwhelming.

However, the initial impacts of COVID-19 resulted in a large contraction of formal volunteering due to social distancing, lockdown, shielding and financial challenges. Volunteering organisations have had to move with pace to try to support both their volunteers and their service users. A suite of research studies have examined such impacts on the formal volunteering sector during the first lockdown. However, we know a lot less on what has happened since then. It was therefore great news last week when OSCR published the full results from their November 2020 survey on the impact of COVID-19 on Scotland’s charities. This short paper examines the headline findings from this research relevant to volunteering in Scotland and, where possible, benchmarks against OSCR’s May 2020 survey findings.

OSCR’s Charity Impact Survey - November 2020

An achieved sample of over 2,500 charities provides a robust evidence base to assess volunteering conditions just before the second lockdown. It provides not only an opportunity to consider the changes experienced by charities between May and November 2020 with regard to volunteer engagement, but also the wider challenges faced by charities and society and, more positively, the opportunities that COVID-19 has presented to charities.

Impact on volunteer numbers

OSCR’s November 2020 survey reveals that 41% of charities had decreased their volunteer numbers since the outbreak of COVID-19 with 11% having increased their volunteer numbers – see Table 1. These percentage figures are very similar to the May 2020 survey results of 40% and 7% respectively.

However, a more fine-grained analysis reveals that over the six-month period May – November 2020 there has actually been a significant reduction in the proportion of charities which experienced a ‘major decrease’ in volunteer numbers: from 25% in May to 14% in November. This tells us that although the proportion of charities reducing their volunteer numbers has remained virtually static, there were fewer charities that had seen a major contraction in their volunteer numbers in November, which implies that some charities have started to re-engage volunteers, but not to pre-pandemic levels, which is definitely a move in the right direction. Other indicators of volunteer engagement show very little movement between the two surveys.

Impacts on Health and Wellbeing

Impacts on beneficiaries’ health and wellbeing – in OSCR’s November 2020 survey a new question was included which asked what impacts current COVID-19 restrictions were having on charities’ beneficiaries or service users – see Figure 2. These results reinforce the wide range of evidence from other sources that the ‘Big Two’ negative impacts from COVID-19 affecting society are:

  • Social isolation and loneliness – affecting 51% of charities’ beneficiaries
  • Worsened mental health and wellbeing – affecting 43% of charities’ beneficiaries. In addition, 43% of charities’ beneficiaries were experiencing higher levels of anxiety about the future – with clear linkage to mental health.

The prevalence of physical ill-health and financial hardship also affected around a quarter of charities’ beneficiaries in November 2020 (27% and 24% respectively). Interestingly, the ‘crisis needs’ in society which were centre stage during the first lockdown only impacted beneficiaries for a small proportion of charities:

  • Decreased food security: 12% of charities
  • Increased fuel poverty: 6% of charities
  • Increased housing issues and /or homelessness: 5% of charities.

However, one would expect these proportions to have risen substantially during the second lockdown (Dec 2020 – April 2021).

Impacts on volunteers’ health and wellbeing – there is a range of evidence from OSCR’s November survey that charities are concerned about the health and wellbeing of their volunteers.

This health and wellbeing evidence shows that not only are a significant proportion of charities facing challenges in the health and wellbeing of staff and volunteers (30%), but that many also need support to help them address this challenge (now 18% – future 25%). Perhaps the most worrying statistic of all is the fact that 14% of staff/ trustees/ volunteers are facing fatigue/burnout.

The issues of fatigue, burnout and health and wellbeing cannot be ignored as charities’ staff and volunteers will be crucial as we move into the longer term recovery phase over the next few years.

Role of digital technology

Another new question in the OSCR’s November 2020 survey was the extent to which charities had benefited from positive changes since the start of the pandemic. The top two positive changes relate to use of digital technology.

  • Nearly half of charities (47%) reported improved use of digital technology among staff and volunteers.
  • 28% of charities reported improved use of digital technology amongst beneficiaries.

Further research in this area to understand the nature of these digital applications would be very helpful. For example, we have anecdotal evidence from charities operating in rural areas of digital benefits such as improved frequency of engagement and wider reach with beneficiaries. It is quite likely that the digital ‘lessons learned’ will have an important carryover into volunteering practice post-COVID.

Partnership working and community engagement

Given that so many charities have had to substantially contract, pause or cease operations altogether during COVID-19 conditions have not been ideal for fostering partnership working and community engagement. However, from the evidence in Figure 3 it is clear that for around 1 in 6 charities the pandemic has actually fostered stronger linkages with partners and the communities they support than would otherwise be the case:

  • 16% of charities feel that there has been increased recognition of their work in the community
  • 15% of charities feel they have a stronger connection with their local community
  • 13% of charities have forged stronger relationships with local charities, voluntary organisations and businesses.

OSCR has amalgamated their results to derive an overall engagement figure which reveals that 31% of charities have better engagement with volunteers, stakeholders and the communities they serve.

This is a really positive finding and forms another important building block in how we can use the voluntary sector’s response to COVID-19 to improve partnership working and community engagement. Combined with the positive community level impacts from the growth of mutual aid and informal volunteering there is a real opportunity for society to work together more effectively post-pandemic.

Summing up

Increased loneliness, isolation, anxiety about the future and worsening mental health and wellbeing are the most cited concerns of charities about their beneficiaries. Formal volunteers and charities specialising in these areas have a critical role to play in supporting the Scottish people during the recovery phase and beyond, making it critically important that charities have the certainty to plan for recovery and the resources needed to support the health and wellbeing of their volunteers.

As we move into the recovery phase of the pandemic (outlined by the Scottish Government last week), there is a role for all forms of volunteering to work alongside each other and offer support in differing ways to support the needs of society. Informal and mutual aid are well placed within communities to address immediate needs such as food support and helping to combat social isolation and loneliness while formal volunteers and charities have a critical role in also supporting those with more complex needs that require more specialist support and training of volunteers.

A year since the first nationwide lockdown the way in which individuals, communities, charities and the wider third sector have come together to support Scotland’s people through Covid-19 has been extraordinary. A new model of community engagement which builds on these achievements based on the principle of kindness, working together and reciprocity could deliver a lasting legacy beyond COVID-19.

Feedback to:

 – Volunteer Scotland would like to thank OSCR for seeking our advice in the development of their questionnaires, providing access to their data and for supporting our analysis of their research. All our analysis of OSCR’s May and November 2020 surveys can be found here. Volunteer Scotland’s more detailed analysis of the November 2020 data will be issued in April 2021.