This chapter outlines the context of civil society in Wales during COVID-19. It begins by outlining the situation of civil society at the onset of the pandemic, and noting the challenges faced up to the beginning of the first lockdown, including longer-term challenges such as austerity, volunteering gaps and limitations and more immediate difficulties such as the impact of floods in early 2020 on some organisations.
We frame our chapter as a response to the pandemic, acknowledging the agency of volunteers and coordinators in unprecedented circumstances. This response was seen as exceptional for both informal and formal forms of volunteering. Informal, hyper-local associations often ‘popped up’, particularly during the first lockdown in spring 2020, facilitated by social media, while more formal organisations adapted their practices and focus to mobilise to support pandemic efforts (Boelman, 2021). However, to suggest that the voluntary sector in Wales is without issues is a misconception. In acknowledging the remarkable response and the broader reliance on voluntary activity, we also highlight its precarious condition through longer-term structural challenges of austerity and funding arrangements. We also highlight the divergent responses in Wales, with very different outcomes for organisations and volunteers.
The data discussed in this chapter were collected from two methods. First, a survey was conducted between April and June 2021 to understand the experiences of infrastructure organisations, such as County Voluntary Councils (CVCs), local authorities (LAs) and voluntary and community organisations (VCOs). The survey was designed to avoid duplication of other surveys undertaken in Wales around the same time, as well as enabling comparison with the other UK nations taking part in the study. The recommendations made in the Welsh Parliament report, ‘Impact of COVID-19 on the voluntary sector’ (Welsh Parliament Equality, Local Government, and Communities Committee, 2021) were also used to provide a framework for the survey. Most of the questions allowed for open-ended responses, which were then coded and analysed qualitatively with the aid of NVivo software. The survey was available in English and in Welsh. Sixty-four responses were received. Second, five semi-structured interviews were conducted with key stakeholders in August and September 2021. These stakeholders were involved in CVCs or LAs across Wales. They were invited due to their in-depth knowledge of voluntary sector infrastructure and delivery in Wales and asked to reflect on their experiences from March 2020. Interviews were conducted via Zoom: virtual fieldwork had been planned due to COVID-19 restrictions. The interviews were transcribed professionally and coded with NVivo software.
We begin by discussing the voluntary sector landscape in Wales in early 2020. We acknowledge the sector’s ability to support a great deal of activity while faced by substantial economic challenges. We then proceed to focus on the response of the voluntary sector in Wales to the pandemic. We illustrate the different responses to COVID-19, which show that the growth in volunteering was not a universal experience. Building on these experiences, we reflect in the fourth section on the lessons to be learned from the pandemic. More ‘blended’ activities incorporating increased online presence, the inclusion of the voluntary sector in emergency planning, returning and new volunteers, and more sustainable funding appear as key issues. We conclude by outlining voluntary mobilisation; the diverse volunteering profile, and the challenges of ensuring that there is a cohesive response to emergency planning for the sector in crisis situations in the future.
6.2 The sector in 2020
Wales Council for Voluntary Action’s (WCVA) submission to a Welsh Parliament call for evidence, 2020, provided a range of quantitative data, outlining that there were some 32,000 voluntary organisations in Wales in the years leading up to the pandemic: 7,300 of these were charities. 938,000 volunteers were estimated to contribute 145,000,000 hours/year in voluntary action, worth £1.7 billion, around 3.1% of Wales’ Gross Domestic Product (WCVA, 2020, p 3). However, these contributions are not limited to financial value; volunteers also provide broader societal benefits that are less easily quantified, including ‘individual wellbeing, social cohesion, inclusion, economic regeneration, and the development of social capital’ (WCVA, 2020, p 3).
Those 7,300 charities typically reported lower turnover than in other parts of Great Britain. Fifty-three per cent were classified as ‘micro-charities’, with an annual turnover of less than £10,000: the largest share in Great Britain. Another 32 per cent were ‘small charities’, with an annual turnover of less than £100,000. Charitable income per head at just under £400 in Wales is half of the level in England or Scotland, at around £800. However, many larger, UK-wide charities operating in Wales are usually registered outside Wales, leading to some under-counting (WCVA, 2020, p 2).
There is a need to avoid projecting an image of the years preceding 2020 as stable. The voluntary sector in Wales was already in a precarious situation due to austerity, competitive tendering arrangements, shorter funding periods, and the unfolding, uncertain impacts of Brexit. Before we move to discuss these challenges, however, we outline the relationship between Welsh Government and the voluntary sector in Wales.
The relationship between the Welsh Government and the voluntary sector is often described as unique due to the constitutional obligation placed on the executive. Section 74 of the Government of Wales Act 2006 ‘requires Welsh Ministers to make a scheme setting out how they propose, in the exercise of their functions, to promote the interests of relevant voluntary organisations’ (Welsh Government, 2014, p 3). This is the Third Sector Scheme and is operationalised as the Third Sector Partnership Council (TSPC), which is the Welsh Government’s ‘primary mechanism for engagement with the Third Sector’ (Welsh Government, 2014, p 13). WCVA facilitate members’ elections, with a view to reflect the voluntary sector’s broad range of interests and activities. The partnership was seen as valuable in fostering connections between the sector, government, and other bodies (Welsh Parliament Equality, Local Government, and Communities Committee, 2021).
The Welsh Government briefing, the Third Sector Scheme (2014) outlines the value of the voluntary sector to ‘the long term economic, social and environmental well-being of Wales, its people and communities’ (Welsh Government, 2014, p 8) in a context of austerity. While emphasising its legislative and policy primacy, it notes the value of ‘volunteering as an important expression of citizenship and as an essential component of democracy’ (Welsh Government, 2014, p 17). This more organic, subsidiarity approach evident in Wales is contrasted with the more ‘top-down’ approach experienced in England over the last decade (WISERD, 2020).
Several challenges faced the voluntary sector in Wales prior to 2020. First, funding presented considerable multifaceted challenges. Austerity policies meant a reduction in public funds available. Government funding for the voluntary sector decreased from 55 per cent of its income in 2010–11 to 46 per cent in 2015–16, with Welsh Government grant funding declining from £350 million in 2010–11 to £257 million in 2016–17 (WCVA, 2019, p 3). Similarly, Welsh Government contract funding has reduced from £71.5 million in 2014–15 to £42.5 million in 2016–17 (WCVA, 2019, p 3). While legacy funding increased in this period, from £11.2 million in 2010–11 to £26.5 million in 2015–16, this only accounted for a small increase from 1 per cent to 2 per cent. The decline in public funding was met with an increase in public giving, from £295 million in 2010–11 to £416 million in 2015–16, accounting for 35 per cent of charities’ income (WCVA, 2019, p 9). VCOs also moved towards more revenue-generating activities, such as training and room-hire (WISERD, 2020, p 3): activities which were severely impacted by the pandemic. While funding opportunities have reduced, operating costs have not fallen: indeed, many costs, such as fuel, have increased. Many charities in Wales were in a vulnerable position related to absorbing these costs: ‘The Centre for Social Justice estimates that 24% of charities with an income of less than £1m have NO reserves, making their ability to survive and adapt during this time less likely’ (WCVA, 2020, p 6, original emphasis).
Second, the nature and structure of funding created problems: ‘Inadequate funding was an issue for many third sector and community groups going into the crisis’ (WISERD, 2020, p 3). More project-focused and competitive tendering processes and shorter-term funding periods were viewed as focusing too much on specific, narrow targets and less on local needs and the broader societal benefits of services or projects. These approaches were also seen as creating competition rather than collaboration between organisations (WISERD, 2020). Similarly, a focus on short-term funding was critiqued as ‘undermining organisational stability, for example due to high levels of staff turnover, limiting the ability to undertake forward planning, and placing constraints on joint working with potential partners across sectors’ (WISERD, 2020, p 1). Many organisations spoke about a ‘patchwork’ approach to funding, drawing from several small pots. While this provided some resilience, it also challenged stability: ‘the loss of one small pot of funding can have a disproportionately large impact on the overall project, since the cost of insurance and fuel etc. does not fall in equal proportion to the size of the funding’ (WISERD, 2020, p 3). The reporting process was also considered prohibitively bureaucratic: ‘many funding opportunities feature reporting requirements so time-consuming that many small organisations cannot even consider bidding for them, given their stretched capacity’ (WCVA, 2019, p 6).
Third, the uncertainty around Brexit represented a challenge for the voluntary sector in the late 2010s. Alongside the loss of EU funding streams, uncertainty around the nature of any deal and a timeline for its implementation, and the nature of any replacement initiatives lasted for several years: ‘Concerns remain about how EU funding may be replaced, with a lack of clarity around of its proposed successor, the UK Shared Prosperity Fund’ (WCVA, 2019, p 7).
Finally, many UK-wide charities did not have structures which reflected the devolution arrangements in the UK. While Chaney and Williams (2003) report that organisations had begun to revise their structures to include a specific Welsh dimension in the early years of devolution, many Wales-specific roles had been reduced in the intervening years, often amalgamated into one role with responsibilities for all the devolved nations. This restructuring occurred as more powers were devolved, and frequently in organisations working in devolved fields, such as health, education and housing. As the Welsh Parliament’s Equality, Local Government, and Communities Committee note, ‘a lack of a Welsh expertise will affect the sector’s ability to contribute to policy development as well as ensuring such policy is co-produced’ (2021, p 13).
Having outlined the fragile position of the voluntary sector in Wales prior to 2020, we move now to consider the response of the sector during the pandemic.
6.3 The sector in the pandemic
Little did we think at the time of lockdown in late March 2020 that at the time of writing in February 2022 we would be continuing to live with the challenges of the pandemic. Indeed, we should take care not to homogenise the pandemic as one constant experience. New waves of infection and new strains of the virus emerge, lockdowns become shorter or more locally focused, COVID-19 passes are introduced, frequent testing is encouraged; masks are worn, hands are sanitised, vaccines are given; schools and universities return to teach in-person, and social distancing arrangements lead to a ‘new normal’. Some changes have been gradual and may be temporary measures; others may persist. As rates reduced and increased over time, restrictions were loosened and tightened. While we talk of one pandemic, it has many dimensions. Table 6.1 seeks to capture how voluntary action changed in Wales between March 2020 and June 2021.
Different typologies of voluntary activity during the pandemic in Wales
First lockdown (March 2020 – 31 May 2020)
‘Stay local’ 1 and lifting of restrictions (1 June 2020 – 7 September 2020)
Local lockdowns and firebreak (8 September 2020 – 19 December 2020)
Lockdown 2 (20 December 2020 – 12 March 2021)
‘Stay local’ 2 and beyond
(from 13 March 2021)
Decline in existing volunteers, but growth in new volunteers. Move online. Befriending activities.
Decline in volunteers as furlough ends, with previous volunteers continuing to shield.
Further decline in number of volunteers, although more activities resume ‘in-person’.
Voluntary action focused on vaccine roll-out.
Focus on vaccine roll-out continues, but assumption of declining need for support.
Decline in existing volunteers; restrictions limit new volunteers. Limited online action.
Limited volunteers in a socially distanced setting.
Some stability in volunteer numbers. Local restrictions may affect activities.
A further decline in volunteers.
Return of some volunteers and new volunteers.
Move online, with regular support sessions.
Continuing online presence. Asking volunteers to focus on organisations’ activities.
Some interest in volunteering, but doesn’t translate into new numbers. Rolling back online support sessions.
Group reflects on outreach activities. Planning more online activities.
Considerable interest in volunteering, but again doesn’t translate into new numbers. Embedding online activities into practice.
Stagnation and decline
Reduction in numbers due to social distancing.
Move towards online activities.
New volunteers, revising practice.
Volunteer numbers decline.
Further decline in volunteer numbers.
Steady volunteer numbers, but lower than pre-pandemic.
Exhausted members and volunteers.
Drawn from survey responses of VCOs and CVCs, the table highlights a range of experiences of the pandemic in Wales. The prominent narrative of voluntary participation during the pandemic suggests that many existing volunteers, who are often older people, shielded following government advice. This trend was met with more people volunteering, many of whom were furloughed, bringing a younger and more diverse profile to volunteering. As the infection rate reduced and furlough came to an end, these new volunteers returned to work. However, our research identifies more complexities, which we explore in this section. We follow six organisations to understand the different ways voluntary action changed through phases of the pandemic. Exploring these experiences from the ground up is useful in understanding how challenges are experienced and responded to differently.
6.3.1 U-shaped response
The first response is termed a U-shaped response, as it has a steep decline and a longer period of limited activity. This response is exemplified by survey response (011), a VCO in Neath-Port Talbot, a relatively deprived industrial area with a significant semi-rural hinterland. The VCO is specifically involved with an industrial heritage site. During the first lockdown of spring 2020, there was “no action on site”. As restrictions began to be lifted in the summer of 2020, there was some volunteering on site: “The number of volunteers stayed the same and maintained the monument – grass cutting etc.” (Respondent 011, survey). The profile of volunteers was bimodal: four teenage men and a mixed-gender group of six over-60s. Voluntary action was largely limited to the maintenance of the site, which continued during the autumn of 2020, including a period when local restrictions, which effectively prohibited entering the local authority area for non-essential reasons, were applied to Neath-Port Talbot, as well as the national ‘firebreak’ between 23 October and 9 November 2020. The respondent also highlights some diversity of the volunteer pool at this stage in terms of age and gender, but also homogeneity in terms of race.
A second national lockdown in Wales took place between 20 December 2020 and 12 March 2021, with “no action on site” during this period (Respondent 011, survey). This inactivity may be due to the minimal ground maintenance required during winter months, but it is also notable that no forms of action, such as a focus on online activities or diverting focus, took place. Finally, as the second lockdown ended on 13 March some restoration work took place: “work was carried [out] only by the Trustees mid-week and only in small numbers … a couple of weeks ago – beginning of May [a] complete team of volunteers met” (Respondent 011, survey). The complete team of volunteers meeting shows a steep return to pre-pandemic volunteering levels, completing the ‘U’ shape.
This example is useful to understand the specific experiences of volunteer activities in a particular post-industrial area, as well as forms of activity tied to site-specific participation. Such sites may be particularly important for localities, possibly serving as hubs of social activity or conveying a sense of place important for local communities. Such site-specific activities may also be related to individuals’ wellbeing. In the case of industrial heritage sites, volunteers or their family members may have worked there. However, there is no suggestion here that volunteer efforts were directed towards other forms of action related to the pandemic effort.
6.3.2 Online shift
The second vignette is from an organisation (012) supporting carers. During the first lockdown, efforts were made to look after the wellbeing of volunteers through an online support group. The group realised that “the volunteers were all feeling helpless but at the same time were struggling with the situation so we started an online weekly support group for them to come along and talk to us about their fears” (Respondent 012, survey). Only “an average of 10 people who came along each week out of our bank of 140 volunteers” (Respondent 012, survey) but these continued through the pandemic. The group was proactive in reaching out to those didn’t attend through personal calls. The support group continued after restrictions were eased during the summer of 2020, but by autumn the demand had reduced, and its frequency rolled back, meeting “twice a month instead of every week as it was not a good use of staff time to be online for two hours with only three people” (Respondent 012, survey). The group took the step of asking “all our volunteers not to go out into the community to do any volunteering and we adapted our roles so that they could use their experience and skills to carry on their volunteering role online” (Respondent 012, survey). Thus, the group sought to retain their volunteer pool, but with a refined online focus. By autumn, the group reported considerable interest from new volunteers:
‘We had a lot of enquiries about online volunteering, however the success rate was two out of every ten and they were not totally committed to the volunteering role as the restrictions came and went and the messages were confusing, so we found that we were very quiet around this time.’ (Respondent 012, survey)
The challenges in recruiting volunteers continued into the spring of 2021: “We had over 26 enquiries for volunteering in this period so far and only three have come forward with enthusiasm” (Respondent 031, survey). This experience contrasts with the experience of one CVC in southern Wales (031), that there are more volunteers than opportunities: “Priority is being given to existing volunteers so there is still a shortage of volunteering opportunities. Some volunteers are still too nervous to undertake activities in the community so they are choosing to do roles that can be done from home” (Respondent 031, survey). The prominent narrative often overlooks the mobilisation and sustenance of voluntary action after the initial end of furlough in 2020. Some fields, particularly those less directly focused on health and wellbeing, often faced continued restrictions or had difficulties in adapting for social distancing and took longer to return to being open to volunteers. Consequently, there are situations where people may have been, or are continued to be, denied volunteering opportunities. These differences suggest significant geographical or sectoral differences in returning to accept volunteers.
The winter lockdown of 2020–1 was a “very quiet time” and saw a change of emphasis to “concentrate more on how we could reach out to carers in the community online rather than the volunteering side” (Respondent 012, survey). By the spring of 2021, the group had consolidated its online presence, reviewing its activities with it: “We have had more time in the last few months to make changes to the way volunteers are inducted, how we can make the roles interesting but safe and how we can reach out to and support the volunteers” (Respondent 012, survey). As we discuss in the next section, more integrated use of online activity appears as an important issue for VCOs’ future practice.
Three organisations spoke about a decline in voluntary activities during the pandemic. We turn to each of these in turn. First (013), a food bank in Neath-Port Talbot reported a decline at the outset of the first lockdown as the premises closed. A core of five volunteers maintained activities during this time, but could not be in the building at the same time. Easing of lockdown saw an increase in volunteers, with some new approaches to collect donations: “Our volunteers increased during this time and we introduced new roles for volunteers to collect from local donation points” (Respondent 013, survey). However, volunteer numbers declined during the autumn and winter when restrictions were tightened. As they loosened with the spring of 2021, there was little optimism that the organisation would see pre-pandemic volunteer levels: “The number of volunteers is still the same as lockdown 2 as some are still not confident to return to our setting” (Respondent 013, survey). While the initial reduction of restrictions in early summer 2020 brought some optimism, further restrictions and a decline in volunteers led to a more pessimistic account.
Second (026), a VCO focusing on mental health and wellbeing and operating throughout Wales gave a very concise account: “The workplace closed in March 2020 and is still closed.” The organisation would have been closed for a period of 14–16 months when the survey was completed. Restrictions meant that the site initially had to close. For whatever reason, the organisation did not move services online. The site remained closed and no voluntary activities took place during the periods when restrictions were lifted and the infection rate was lower. Consequently, there is a question as to whether volunteering will ever resume, and in what form.
Finally (037), a VCO focusing on women’s welfare, reported how they operated throughout the pandemic. Initially, the group didn’t see a significant impact on their activities: the only significant change was pausing in-person support groups from March 2020. However, by early summer of 2021, the organisation reflected that:
‘We have noticed that there is general fatigue among our members and volunteers. It has become more challenging to get them involved in activities due to worsening health conditions and life pressures as a result of the pandemic, including expectation to participate from external stakeholders/agencies, like Welsh Government.’ (Respondent 037, survey)
There are several points to note here. First, is that while many organisations reduced or paused activities, others continued. As the comment about pressure to engage with external bodies illustrates, some VCOs and their volunteers may be as busy, if not busier than ever, without the time-spaces to switch off and decompress. Second, the specific work undertaken by the organisation often meant volunteers and members reliving past trauma or engaging in distressing situations: “Just because these meetings have moved online and therefore don’t have travel expenses, our volunteers are regularly reliving their trauma for the benefit of public bodies and their work going forward, and they should be compensated for that” (Respondent 037, survey). The lack of in-person support groups may also have accentuated wellbeing issues for volunteers. Finally, the continued engagement with online technology and working and volunteering from home means that life balance can be compromised. Stacked online activities, with a limited change of scene from a home context, which itself might be distressing, can reduce morale.
Writing on women of colour’s activism, Emejulu and Bassel (2020) advance a politics of exhaustion. Exhaustion arises from unsustainable practices, primarily through care work, and taken as form of solidarity or emphasising collective needs over that of the individual’s wellbeing. For Emejulu and Bassel, ‘extreme tiredness and demoralisation are both the signal that activists are doing meaningful work, but also the breaking point that stops them from containing with their activism over the long term’ (2020, p 401). Under the pressure of the pandemic and its restrictions, and the longer-term strain of austerity, as well as prejudice such as racism and misogyny, it may be that key individuals for many organisations take a decision to step back. Rather than a ‘defeat’, such decisions emphasise self-care and can function as ‘an endpoint and gateway to withdrawal, but also a moment of reflection and rebirth’ (2020, p 406).
Having outlined the diverse voluntary experiences during 2020–1, we now move to consider the lessons learned by the sector in Wales.
6.4 Looking forward
Four major themes emerge in thinking about lessons for the future from the voluntary sector response to the pandemic in Wales: more blended ways of working, incorporating online and offline activities; the involvement of the voluntary sector in emergency planning; strategies to encourage and sustain volunteering in the future; and funding for voluntary action. We consider each of these in turn.
6.4.1 Blended approaches
The pandemic and the subsequent restrictions saw more activities take place online. Some were new initiatives responding to the situation, such as online check-ins with members and volunteers to ensure their wellbeing. There were also many instances of already existing activities moving online, including training and induction, which had often been streamlined where appropriate to speed up volunteers’ uptake of roles: “We adapted our system as quickly as possible, but it would have been good, on reflection, to offer more remote options for volunteering and volunteer induction, even before COVID-19 to make volunteering more accessible” (014, VCO, Monmouthshire). Organisations reflected on the potential for moving other activities online in the future, such as meetings: “We have also saved around £10,000 in travel expenses and will wherever appropriate, continue this [virtual media] way of working” (036, VCO, northern Wales). In this case, the potential for online meetings meant that time and money could be saved through not having to travel for relatively short meetings, and diverted elsewhere. It is important to note the potential significance in Wales, where there are relatively poor transport links within the country, particularly outside the M4/A48 corridor in the south and the A55 in the north.
However, digital ways of working present challenges. First, digital deprivation and the prevalence of broadband ‘not-spots’ in many parts of Wales, particularly rural western Wales, are well-known, and present barriers to participation. Second, physical presence in localities is particularly useful in helping give visibility to action, potentially recruit volunteers or raise awareness, and contribute to a sense of community. Many organisations noted that while more online presence, where appropriate, was a priority, it would not mean a wholesale abandonment of ‘offline’ activities. The closure of many community buildings over the last decade or so poses challenges for such approaches:
‘[I]n a lot of instances, the focal buildings that people met all closed down … if communities don’t have a focal of some kind, whether it be the school, whether it be the local church, chapel those are the types of things at a local level that actually still keep people gelled together.’ (CVC officer, northern Wales, interviews)
Consequently, many organisations see the need to develop and embed blended approaches to volunteering to ensure opportunities and ways of working are accessible and inclusive.
6.4.2 Involvement in emergency planning
A second aspect reflected on by stakeholders was the involvement of the voluntary sector in emergency planning. A pattern emerged in the data, whereby areas affected by extreme weather events, such as flooding in Rhondda Cynon Taf and Conwy LAs in early 2020, had already brought together a range of emergency-focused bodies, while areas which hadn’t been affected by extreme weather to the same degree seemingly took longer to make those connections and develop those relationships: “We know those community groups now. We know those volunteers now. We know those venues now. We didn’t for Storm Dennis. We absolutely have nailed this now” (LA officer, south-eastern Wales, interviews).
Involvement of the voluntary sector in emergency planning was seen as useful in two ways. First, organisations can share their knowledge and expertise of their communities. Second, contact was made with a range of useful and related bodies that could be mobilised. One interviewee reflected that involvement would “help us develop their policies and their procedures with that voluntary and community aspect in mind, it would help us to put our own processes in place so that if we get the call we know exactly [what to do]” (CVC officer, mid Wales, interviews). For another respondent, involvement at a regional scale within south-eastern Wales was particularly helpful in bringing together relevant bodies around a ‘mezzo-scale’ that was neither too localised nor too broad.
Voluntary sector involvement ensured that important information was cascaded to relevant organisations. One respondent reflected on the value of having information available in an accessible, clear manner: “They just wanted to receive some information, such as safe volunteering, safeguarding. Just the basic information and up-to-date COVID-19 information. So they found us to be that trusted source of information for them” (CVC officer, mid Wales, interviews). Involving the voluntary sector in emergency planning thus allows an exchange of information that can be communicated, and the mobilisation of relevant voluntary groups.
6.4.3 Sustaining voluntary action
Respondents reflected on the challenges of sustaining voluntary participation in the future. As we noted in the third section, there is a general shortage of volunteer opportunities. Some organisations are, at the time of writing, still operating in a limited or scaled-back manner due to the pandemic; this more limited presence may continue after restrictions are lifted due to a lack of volunteers, including those previous volunteers who may continue to limit their social interaction. Others are prioritising returning or existing volunteers, potentially at the expense of younger volunteers:
‘[T]hose who volunteer as part of their college or university course may not be able to achieve the requested amount of volunteering hours, those that use volunteering as a stepping stone to employment may find that they struggle to get the appropriate experience they need for their career choice and those that use volunteering to get out of the house and make new friends could find themselves at home becoming isolated or lonely.’ (Respondent 031, Local infrastructure organisation, Neath-Port Talbot, survey)
These young people may miss out on beginning their volunteering journeys as part of youth citizenship schemes (Mills, 2013), such as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, or as part of a qualification. Indeed, opportunities for enrolling on such schemes were reduced during the pandemic (Boelman, 2021).
Yet, the mobilisation of volunteers in both formal and informal settings during the pandemic, and the appetite to volunteer, is something organisations wished to build on. Respondents reflected on the potential for workers, such as those who had volunteered at the outset of the pandemic, while furloughed or afforded more flexible home-working arrangements, to be given time off work for volunteering. Other respondents, however, wished to see more strategic contributions, reflecting on how workplaces could support voluntary action in a more sustained manner:
‘Incentivise in a way that actually encourages more professional people to take up assisting the community sector with Trusteeships. Having that link as well into business where business could actually be they offer time as volunteering … but offering that as a Trusteeship, rather than a bunch of staff going for a day to clear a woodland or something like that.’ (CVC officer, south-western Wales, interviews)
While the commercialisation of VCOs, who are called to act more competitively to succeed in neoliberal and austere contexts, has been critiqued as moving the focus away from solidarity and support (Bassel and Emejulu, 2018), this is not to suggest that trustees are solely drawn from private enterprises, or adopt neoliberal mindsets. Rather, other experiences and transferable skills from their employees may be useful, as well as bringing back reflections to employers on their own practices, values and corporate responsibilities.
A final reflection is around removing the potential financial barriers to participation. In a study of young people involved in the National Citizenship Scheme, Mills and Waite (2018) note the challenges some people faced in being able to participate through ‘hidden’ costs. The impacts of COVID-19 on personal finance through job losses or the prospect of reduced work, as well as the sharp increase in the cost of living in early 2022 may bring further barriers to participation. One respondent reflected that covering volunteers’ expenses would be helpful to remove this barrier, as well as giving recognition to volunteers for their efforts:
‘[S]ometimes people think of volunteers as, oh unpaid. Don’t need to worry about it. They’ll just do it and I think we need to shift that mindset really, but volunteers will do it. Sometimes they just need a little bit of financial help to get them to where they need to be.’ (CVC officer, mid Wales, interviews)
Highlighting this contribution would also further demonstrate the significance of voluntary activities for Welsh society, as these costs of volunteering would be more visible to policy-makers. As the interviewee reflected, the unwaged labour given is sometimes taken for granted. Reflecting on the skills brought by volunteers, as well as the value of their efforts and the costs borne by them would give more recognition to its value.
Finally, a significant issue identified by interviewees was around the sustainability of funding. Echoing points made in the second section, where projects are tendered on a competitive basis, smaller organisations feel that they lose out to larger organisations with more resources to target grant capture: “I don’t think we should be put in the statutory pots so much, so that we’ve got to basically fight for a share of that pot. You know, very often our small organisations haven’t got the time or the capacity to put funding bids together” (CVC officer, south-eastern Wales, interviews). Bassel and Emejulu (2018) note, however, that these larger organisations are less likely to tailor their needs to minority and marginalised groups, who can be further impacted by less prominent consideration of their requirements and input.
Shorter grant periods have also meant less time to build and consolidate relationships: “[E]verybody else is annually funded through grant. That can’t be right. You can’t build those trusting relationships that are required. We definitely need to have an influence over policy funding decisions and make then five years I think as a minimum” (LA officer, south-eastern Wales). Respondents identified longer grant periods and more collaboration between organisations as approaches that could contribute to more sustainable voluntary action.
We have recounted a range of responses to COVID-19 by voluntary organisations in Wales. The often-informal, hyper-local response, including ‘pop-up’ responses facilitated by social media, allowed immediate needs to be met in spring 2020. These mobilisations, often characterised as ‘neighbourliness’, filled a gap as organisations responded to the restrictions and reduction in volunteers who were shielding. The lockdown and furlough saw newer volunteers emerge, who contributed to a more diverse volunteer profile. However, there needs to be caution in heralding the pandemic as ushering in a new era of volunteering. As we have noted, different organisations operating in different fields report very distinct experiences in relation to volunteer opportunities. Some experienced a shortage of opportunities despite many ready volunteers. Other organisations reported a shortage of volunteers, or, even when there were volunteers, a sense of reluctance, leaving a volunteering gap.
Many responses also highlight fatigue. The pandemic brought new challenges and new approaches. Adapting practices to allow for social distancing, incorporating new online activities, or including new initiatives such as befriending, as well as a continuing or increasing demand meant that the voluntary sector had an even busier time than ever. Several organisations also had the impact of extreme weather events to deal with in February 2020 and January 2021, placing additional strain. However, these challenges exist atop long-standing challenges for the voluntary sector.
There are ongoing, longer-term structural issues facing the voluntary sector in Wales. A decade of austerity policies, competitive tendering processes, short-term grant cycles with more project-focused calls and the related reporting has created difficulties in planning, sustaining and focusing voluntary efforts. While there is little doubt that the Welsh Government recognises the value of the voluntary sector, and its approaches to fulfil its constitutional obligations are taken seriously through the TSPC, addressing concerns on funding would enable more sustainable practices that recognise voluntary activities’ significance in Wales. This includes more strategic revisions around the nature of funding processes to longer-term, multi-year grant periods, as well as removing barriers to volunteers, such as allowing volunteers to claim expenses. Broader policy discussions around work–life balance and social justice are also opportunities to consider volunteering’s role in society.
Finally, more considerations could be given to integrating the voluntary sector into emergency planning. The agile response of the voluntary sector in meeting immediate needs at the outset of the pandemic, continuing its usual work alongside new initiatives, and mobilising to support the pandemic effort, such as the vaccine roll-out, demonstrates it value. While the next crisis may not be one around public health, evidence shows that areas that suffered flooding in early 2020 had established a solid working relationship between various actors, demonstrating the transferability of the voluntary effort during different kinds of emergencies. Where those partnerships already existed before the pandemic, information could be shared and volunteers mobilised more effectively.
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