The importance of celebrating and sustaining volunteering beyond Covid-19
by Phillip Vincent,

The importance of celebrating and sustaining volunteering beyond Covid-19

Coronavirus has shone a rare light on the significant contribution volunteers are making to communities – from supporting activities that help people feel connected to each other, to practical support for vulnerable residents. Phillip Vincent, ACRE’s Public Relations & Communications Manager, reflects on #VolunteersWeek and argues that as the effects of Covid-19 begins to subside and public interest in the virus wanes - the efforts of volunteers must not be forgotten.

Recent interest in community responses to coronavirus and the new volunteers that have come forward has potential to breathe new life into rural civil society. But how can this be sustained?

There’s been some incredible stories about volunteers coming forward in response to Covid-19 – from the 750,000 who signed up to the NHS Volunteer Responder Scheme at the beginning of lockdown to the countless local mutual aid groups that sprung up almost overnight. The shared experience of the virus has in many ways bought people closer together, particularly at a very local level.

As part of Volunteers Week 2020, we’ve been celebrating some of the great work that’s been done by volunteers across rural England. Many ACRE Network members are supporting good neighbour and village agent schemes that are delivering prescriptions and essential supplies to people self-isolating. In some instances, this volunteering activity has saved lives. In Washingborough, Lincolnshire we heard that volunteers raised the alarm when couldn’t get hold of a chap they made regular contact with on a Monday – and when police arrived, they found the resident unconscious and requiring immediate care. There are befriending schemes too where volunteers are making phone calls to residents who are feeling lonely, as well as virtual talking cafes’ such as those being piloted in Somerset.

Of course, volunteering is nothing new in the English countryside. Volunteers have long been the glue binding rural communities together. They manage village halls, organise local events and celebrations, run errands for those who need a little extra help and even keep local services and businesses going when public and private investment has failed.

There appear to be two new facets to Coronavirus volunteering in rural communities, however. Firstly, many of our members are reporting an increase in the number of people volunteering. Secondly, and perhaps most significantly, the volunteers coming forward to help do not fit the usual demographic. Typically, many groups such as village hall committees rely on retired volunteers who work tirelessly in the background keeping things ticking away. But some of the volunteers who have come forward in recent months have been students returning from university digs, young professionals spending more time in their community because of home working, and children who’ve been encouraged to get involved in initiatives such as the intergenerational befriending ‘Pen Pall’ scheme in East Lindsey.

Recent interest in community responses to coronavirus and the new volunteers that have come forward has potential to breathe new life into rural civil society. But how can this be sustained?

The long experience of the ACRE Network which spans nearly 100 years shows that volunteering does not happen in a vacuum. Groups need support and encouragement to get going and keep going. Groups also need specialist advice when it comes to planning projects, governance, raising funds and the management of volunteers themselves. That is why we would like to see government thinking beyond the immediate response to Covid-19 and taking a longer-term view to supporting charities that already do a great job of supporting community-led volunteer projects.