Community standing outside in circle laughing

Building on strong foundations: the volunteer response to the pandemic in Wales

Published: 05/11/20 | Categories: Author: Fiona Liddell

Emma Taylor-Collins and Hannah Durrant from Wales Centre for Public Policy, and WCVA’s Helpforce Cymru Manager Fiona Liddell look for a pattern in recent volunteering success stories from across Wales.

Over the past few months, we’ve heard a lot about the significant volunteer response to the pandemic. As in the rest of the UK, volunteers and the third sector in Wales have responded nimbly and innovatively. In May 2020, over a third (35%) of people in Wales looked after or gave help or support to family members, friends, neighbours or others – an increase from 29% in the previous year.

But it is unlikely that this response has sprung out of nowhere. Keen to understand what the pre-conditions might be that made this response possible in Wales, we examined a range of case studies on volunteering and Covid-19, collected by WCVA. We looked for the enabling factors which seem to lie behind them.

SUPPORT FOR STATUTORY PROVISION

Several volunteering schemes were set up to provide intentional support to statutory services. The local County Voluntary Council (CVC) in many cases appeared to be a vital link between the local authority, community organisations, and volunteers.

For example, early in the pandemic Denbighshire County Council recognised its need for additional capacity to meet the needs of shielded and vulnerable people. From the outset it discussed with its local CVC how volunteers could help, with the CVC setting up and running a referral scheme for coordinating a community volunteer response.

Volunteers were recruited via the Volunteering Wales website, and either referred to other organisations or matched with requests for support, such as shopping, prescription collection, and dog walking.

In this way the community response was organised in line with safe practice for volunteers and those they supported, and linked in with local voluntary and statutory provision, aiming to ensure the most effective use of volunteer resources.

BRINGING THE COMMUNITY TOGETHER

In Briton Ferry several community organisations came together to form a coordinated network in response to the pandemic, drawing on their particular services and expertise.

Just before lockdown, the conductor of a local choir instigated a meeting with representatives of local community groups including elected members, businesses, social services and the local CVC. They put in place systems aiming to help the most vulnerable community members through the crisis and help to ‘take the strain off the NHS’ if the situation worsened.

Individual organisations offered their resources and engaged volunteers to provide services. For example, the community hub became the distribution point for essential supplies; the foodbank expanded its service to include weekly deliveries; another set up activities to support women’s mental and emotional wellbeing; and the Boys and Girls Club developed and distributed activities for children.

ADAPTING TO MEET NEW NEEDS

Llandegla Community Shop and café has been run by volunteers and two part-time paid staff for several years. The cafe had to close during the pandemic, the shop operated reduced hours and there was risk of using up financial reserves just to keep running. Since the nearest shopping town is a round trip of 18 miles, the shop is vital to the local community and especially so during lockdown.

A small emergency grant from a local business, administered by the CVC, enabled them to continue and to develop their service, including providing home delivery to isolated individuals and a prescription collection service. The group is looking at how to sustain these newly developed services in the future.

WHAT MIGHT HAVE MADE THIS RESPONSE POSSIBLE?

From these and other case studies collected we identified four factors which seem to have been especially important in enabling the volunteer response to the pandemic in Wales.

  • Local knowledge

Place-based organising, with knowledge of the local area, was important for identifying local needs and for understanding how those needs changed in relation to the pandemic. Recent literature on community organising in the pandemic suggests local knowledge has enabled a speedy community response in other parts of the UK.

  • Resourcefulness and flexibility

Having a strong volunteer base already in place – with the capacity to be flexible in terms of the services they provide – enabled a rapid pivot from existing to new activity in response to the pandemic. Angus McCabe and others refer to this as ‘resourcefulness’ rather than resilience to shift focus away from the idea that communities are responsible for ‘coping’ with a crisis and towards the idea that with limited but essential resources communities can respond effectively.

  • Relationships

Most of our case studies showed that effective working relationships between bodies seemed to result in a joined up and speedy response. We saw these relationships manifest through, for example, joint calls for volunteer recruitment between councils and CVCs and joint or coordinated delivery of services. These demonstrated an ability to pool resources and signpost to redirect support where it was needed and could be accommodated.

  • Infrastructure and support in place

Digital infrastructure was already in place to support voluntary activity through the all Wales  website www.volunteering-Wales.net. Existing infrastructure in the form of local authorities, health boards, CVCs, town and community councils was also important in coordinating and facilitating the response.

WHAT CAN THIS TELL US?

Our review of the case studies in Wales suggests that across different geographies, types of activity, and stakeholders, there are some similarities in the existing networks and practice which may have helped enable the volunteer response to the pandemic. We also saw some of this earlier in the year, before the pandemic.

The community response to the floods in Wales at the start of 2020, though reacting to a different kind of crisis, also drew on the established local knowledge, relationships, and infrastructure, and demonstrated flexibility in responding to local need (see for example stories on the Storm Dennis response in Rhondda Cynon Taf).

This suggests that maintaining these conditions will be important not just in responding to future lockdowns or pandemics, but also in responding to the increasingly common environmental crises we’re likely to experience in future.

What we don’t yet know is what other factors might have facilitated the volunteer response to the pandemic or crises such as the floods, or what might have hindered it. We also don’t know enough about how effective the response has been, and what needs might have gone unmet over the past seven months. Greater understanding of this might help to identify what we might put in place now to address anticipated need in the future.

Emma Taylor-Collins is Senior Research Officer at the Wales Centre for Public Policy.

Fiona Liddell works for WCVA as Helpforce Cymru Manager.

Hannah Durrant is Senior Research Fellow at the Wales Centre for Public Policy.