March 2020 marked the beginning of a period of vast change for the voluntary sector in Wales. A report by WCVA’s Natalie Zhivkova captures learning for the future.
In March 2022, two years on from the start of the COVID-19 crisis, we came together with key stakeholders to review everything that happened during the pandemic. We reflected on the changes in how the voluntary sector operates, how we interact with others, how we are perceived, and even – who we are. We asked what it means for our future, and the future of volunteering in Wales.
Our new report, The future we create: lessons from pandemic volunteering in Wales, aims to present the views and attitudes in the Welsh voluntary sector two years on from the first national lockdown, compare them to existing research, make recommendations for future development and support needs, and highlight opportunities and potential challenges in the near future.
Here we explore the main findings from the report:
STEPPING UP WHEN IT WAS MOST NEEDED
At a time of great need, the sector delivered. Communities came together and volunteering became widely recognised. Partnerships and collaborations were formed and solidified, funders put more trust in us, other sectors saw us in a new light and with a new appreciation for what we can bring to the table.
Our limits were tested, our ways of working changed, we learned thousands of lessons, we started thinking in new ways. As voluntary organisations often do, where there was an enormous challenge and with many more challenges lying ahead, we saw an opportunity.
INFRASTRUCTURE AND COLLABORATION
We should continue collaborating on all levels and lean on each other’s expertise. The public, private, voluntary sector and communities need to build on the relationships made during the pandemic and work together to achieve recovery and sustain resilience into the future.
Risk is an integral part of collaboration. We should be open to calculated risk-taking which enables us to innovate, experiment and resolve long-standing problems. Strong partnerships are built over time and require the investment of staff resource to sustain. Building trust, familiarity and understanding when collaboration is optional pays off in the face of crisis, when it becomes inevitable.
The voluntary sector infrastructure plays a pivotal role in promoting and enabling partnerships across the country.
Informal volunteering across communities in Wales became very prominent during the pandemic. It’s scale and impact have been staggering and a source of inspiration for formal institutions. Where the voluntary and public sectors collaborated with community groups, that has generally been mutually beneficial. Informal volunteers acted as an important link to communities, provided timely indicators of need and honest feedback on statutory and voluntary sector services, in return they received guidance, training and resources.
Informal volunteers are typically not interested in becoming part of a formal structure and adapting to our more rigid way of working. Their strength is in their adaptability and speed of action. The voluntary sector shouldn’t look at assimilating them but collaborating with and learning from community volunteers, whilst offering a helping hand.
Digital technology is our friend – we should continue the progress made during the pandemic, using technology to streamline processes, facilitate collaborations, and offer more flexible volunteering opportunities. However, we should take great care not to leave behind those who may not have access or the skills.
We also shouldn’t forget the benefits of in-person interaction for all involved. A hybrid approach with both online and in-person training, services and volunteering opportunities will enable us to be inclusive and welcoming to the widest possible audience. The sector continues to explore purpose-made digital tools and eagerly follows the implementation of Welsh Government’s Digital Strategy for Wales.
BUREAUCRACY AND FLEXIBILITY
We should all be seeking to reduce bureaucracy, not just as a crisis measure, but to optimise our everyday work. The voluntary sector, public bodies, and funders should learn from the progress we have all made during the pandemic and continue regularly reviewing bureaucratic procedures. Administrative procedures proportionate to the activity make volunteering opportunities attractive to more people, intra and inter-sectoral collaborations more accessible, and funding more timely.
A NEW LANDSCAPE
The voluntary sector landscape has changed – all sectors need to adapt to it. The pandemic has brought in new types of volunteers and necessitated the transformation of many ‘traditional’ volunteering roles. Social distancing restrictions meant digital opportunities had a huge raise in prominence, and so did micro-volunteering.
Prospective volunteers now have an expectation of flexibility and versatility for the roles offered and the sector needs to continue delivering options to sustain the wider set of individuals we were able to attract during the pandemic.
The sector is in danger – with high incidence of staff and volunteer burnout, continuously high demand for services, and reduced funding. Volunteering recruitment and retention is a pressing issue – thorough understanding of what motivates volunteers, emphasis on the wellbeing benefits for all involved, and capitalising on the raised profile of volunteering to engage the private sector will all be part of the solution. However, targeted investment in the sector to help address high service demands will also be needed.
POLICY AND FUNDING
All of the experiences we have had and the progress we have made in the face of adversity should not go to waste. Lessons from cross-sectoral collaboration, shared training and recruitment practices, connections with community groups, and response to crises should be used to build frameworks for the future.
Proportionate administrative and funding bureaucracy should be sustained through frequent evaluation and adjustment. Funders should continue offering small pots of flexible funding encouraging innovation and collaboration, alongside core funding opportunities. Volunteering should be on the agenda of senior leaders across sectors in Wales.
We will only be able to implement the lessons we’ve learned from the pandemic if there is a buy-in across all levels of operation and a clear mandate to:
- Build an enabling environment
- Seek opportunities to promote volunteering and collaboration
- Create opportunities for volunteers to get involved