Who Volunteers During A Pandemic?

Finding the right people to contribute to your project is difficult.

Whether you are recruiting for a piece of research or a grassroots community project, you’ll run into similar issues as you try to make sure your message is reaching the right people, at the right time, in a way that calls to them.

Yet since March, we’ve heard countless accounts of communities coming together to fill the gaps left behind by closed services and shielding restrictions. Stories of people stepping up to help at a time they would have every reason to feel overwhelmed.

So why did they volunteer? What did they need in order to stay well? And what advice would our participants give to others who found themselves trying to support others during the pandemic?

Feeling Called to Action

Most people we’ve spoken to remember the shift into lockdown very clearly. It was the moment that we moved from thinking about restrictions that might be put into place to dealing with the reality of our “new normal”.

For some this meant learning to work while services around them closed, while others faced the sudden shift into working from home, or not working at all as hundreds of thousands were placed on furlough. Even retirees, who had already escaped the daily grind, found themselves without their usual pastimes as lockdown hit.

That’s when it started – reports of communities coming together to fill the gaps left behind as services withdrew. We heard about neighbours fetching shopping for one another and checking on older people around them. We heard about Whatsapp groups that grew to include everyone in the street so that people could check in on one another and reassure everyone around them that they weren’t alone.

And we also heard about initiatives like this. I’ve pulled the next section directly from our interview data – so I’ll let our participants speak for themselves.

We identified […] that some of the individuals who were receiving statutory carer’s support, this was not happening because […] carers went off sick. So, we thought, oh my goodness. What we did then was we explored setting up a soup and cake run to deliver to those people that we knew [… and] the first week there were 44 people that we delivered soup and cake to.

So we used the volunteer force (the existing volunteer force […]) to actually work differently in a community […] We managed to engage a local café owner […] and she was delighted that we had asked her. All her staff were furloughed, so her staff agreed to volunteer to make the soup and the cake. So that was pivotal, because that got us around all the environmental risk assessments of dealing with food. All we had to do was make sure we were transporting the food safely in as best manner that we could. […And] now we are delivering 212 soups a week to 106 people. […] Then the local laundry […] they handmade us all masks and gave us the masks.

But Volunteers Needed Support Too

But changing situations brought with them different challenges. New volunteers needed training and support. Everyone needed PPE. Guidance had to be created about who would meet, when, and where.

Faced with a sudden outpouring of need, volunteers needed help to identify how much they could do, and how they could do it. Organisers talked about the challenges involved in supporting volunteers to work in a way that fulfilled them, rather than pushing them to work in a way that added to the stress of the pandemic.

The volunteers that we have also need a lot of support, as well. Some of them have their own problems that, as much as they have hearts of gold and they are the most wonderful people on the earth, they have also got their own problems and they need support as well.

And this was not only true for new volunteers stepping in to help with new services, but existing volunteers suddenly thrown into the digital age of video conferencing and befriending by phone when they were used to working directly with older people. As another participant told us:

Before lockdown I had never used a video conferencing tool, not even face time or anything like that, I had not really needed to use it. Everything had been, for me, really face to face. That was the main [method], so you could not get further away from it, really. Yes, so everything [we did] was around being present with somebody, and it is hard when that is – and I can understand where volunteers are coming from, as well. You do it because [it is something] thing that is important to you. It is the kind of being present with the other person…

Hints and Tips for Supporting Others

Having open and honest conversations became key to looking after volunteers and friends as the pandemic developed. Supervisors, coordinators, and colleagues reached out to one another regularly, and made a specific effort to create a space where people could share their personal struggles as well as challenges at work.

The advice below comes directly from one of our interviews, and captures this brilliantly.

Talking to people [is important] it is breaking that barrier down to make sure that they speak to you, because we are all very good at hiding it, putting it away and being very polite. […] I think everyone in their life must go through some stage of mental health, that they go up and down, whether it gets bad or whether it just keeps a moderate or a mild one, that is that person, but I think everyone goes through it – we just do not like to admit that we go through it. […]

[Y]ou say to them, this is what I would advise you to do: keep healthy; keep active and keep your job going.

If you are having a bad day, then have a bad day, because everyone is entitled to have bad days. You do not have to be happy every single day. We are all entitled to that bad day, and it is not bad to have a bad day. Just make sure that they understand that it is not bad to have bad days.

And if something goes wrong, you have a team to back you up – you are not on your own. I think that is what a lot of people forget is that they might think that they are on their own now, but they are not. The team is still there […] they are always at the end of a phone – they are always there. It is just getting that across to everyone.

That is why I phone my [volunteers] as well. Some of them do not phone, some of them email, some of them text, but I always respond back to that to let them know that they have got somebody there – I never ignore them. I let them know that they have somebody there, even if it is just a ‘thank you, that is brilliant’ – there is always a text goes back to them, and just keep safe. That is the new saying now – ‘keep safe’.