A recent seminar—run in partnership with the Clothworkers’ Company—explored what trustees are and should be doing to ensure their charity is harnessing the power of volunteers. The event was chaired by Lucy de Groot CBE, NPC trustee. Lucy was formerly the CEO of Community Service Volunteers, now Volunteering Matters. Our speakers included Tiger de Souza MBE, People Engagement Director at the National Trust; Nicola Steuer, a trustee of Help on Your Doorstep; and Paul Reddish, Chief Executive of Volunteering Matters.

Charities are looking to encourage and enable volunteering through and beyond Covid-19. Trustees are often volunteers themselves, so they have a stake in doing this well. The pandemic has shone a spotlight on volunteers. There is a sense that more people, and a wider range of people, are volunteering than ever before—but how true is this?

There has been a modest increase in volunteering during the pandemic, in terms of raw numbers. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s Community Life Covid-19 Re-contact Survey found that 9% of respondents were new volunteers and 6% were already volunteering pre-pandemic and had increased how much they did.

But, as Paul Reddish stressed at our event, it can be difficult to compare the numbers of volunteers giving their time before and during the pandemic. We’ve heard so much about ‘new’ mutual aid groups, but in many cases these supposedly new organisations already existed before the pandemic and simply stepped up to help with the crisis. These volunteers would have already been active in their communities, volunteering in other settings.

If there has been a surge, it is not in the number of new volunteers but in the number of volunteers coming forward at the same time. Paul found that there was an immediate wave at the start of the pandemic of people wanting to offer support and this put a strain on charities’ infrastructure as they tried to get everyone involved.

A free army of volunteers doesn’t just pop up out of the blue—training, ongoing support and some surrounding infrastructure are crucial for them to be able to make a contribution.

Covid-19 has accelerated some trends that were already in progress before the pandemic, including an increase in engagement of young people with volunteering. At the National Trust, where the majority of volunteers are over 64 years old, Tiger de Souza has seen young people become more keen to engage with the trust, especially with its environmental-based volunteering.

One initial barrier to engaging new volunteers could be the language used—in particular, the implications surrounding the word ‘volunteering’. Nicola Steuer explained that at Help on Your Doorstep, people ‘help out’ rather than ‘volunteer’, because the latter word is seen as too formal. In addition, Paul noted that skilled volunteers, such as treasurers, are more likely to sign up if the role is described as ‘pro bono work’ rather than ‘volunteering’.

Read the full article about volunteerism by Rose Anderson at NPC.