A new report by the APPG on Social Integration, Building Stronger Communities in Post-Pandemic Britain, examines the important gains for integration from the growth of volunteering during the pandemic. It sets out recommendations to policymakers, business and civil society to help retain the energy of new volunteers, and to promote volunteer opportunities around the UK in disconnected and ‘left behind’ areas.
The pandemic has helped inspire an outpouring of neighbourliness and an increase in new volunteers coming forward to offer their time. Research for Talk/together estimates that 12.4 million people across the UK participated in volunteer activity over the height of the crisis. Of these, 3.8 million had volunteered for the first time and remained interested in volunteering again.
Volunteer organisations, including Independent Age and Near Neighbours, told the APPG inquiry that the pandemic has helped bring together people from different social backgrounds, who were previously less likely to take part in community action. As older and more experienced volunteers were forced to shield, young people took the opportunity to step forward and assist local charities. Volunteer groups have also seen growing interest among people from ethnic and faith minority backgrounds – echoing similar findings in research for the Together Coalition and from NCVO’s Voluntary Sector Impact Barometer.
The APPG notes that this new, expansive and diverse ‘volunteer army’ has considerable potential to help drive social integration as the UK emerges from the pandemic. Evidence highlighted how volunteering brings people from different backgrounds together and can also improve the wellbeing and job prospects of socially isolated groups. Opportunities for community action presents chances for people with limited social connections to meet and mix with others, and to learn new skills which help boost their employability. Volunteering can then prove a useful means for new arrivals in the UK to practice speaking English and get to know their local area better.
Yet with the end of the furlough scheme – and as many employees begin a return to the workplace – there is a risk that first-time volunteers’ appetite to seek new opportunities is dwindling. Indeed, survey research for the RVS found that one in four people who were furloughed or unemployed over the pandemic had started new volunteer activities, compared with one in nine who remained in work. The APPG’s report urges that volunteer organisations and government policymakers help adapt future volunteering opportunities and recruitment strategies to engage people with more time constrained lifestyles, and encourage more diverse groups to offer their time.
It calls for the government to set up a UK-wide online volunteering platform, helping to publicise local volunteer opportunities and link potential volunteers with organisations that need them. A promotional pack encouraging volunteering, sent to all school-leavers, new British citizens and the newly retired, together with a ‘volunteer passport’ to record voluntary activity and offer high street incentives, should also form part of this new push to reduce barriers to volunteering.
In addition to this, the report recommends that volunteer opportunities be made available for all children as part of the curriculum – to help build on the rise in young people volunteering. Research by NCS and YouthSight has found that 67% of 16-19 year-olds were interested in helping their local community through volunteering or social action during the pandemic, but also that 73% did not know how to get involved. This is largely because schemes such as the National Citizen Service and Duke of Edinburgh Award remain optional for schools – leading to inconsistencies in children’s’ opportunities to get involved in voluntary activities. The APPG urges cross-party support to ensure that all primary and secondary school students are given a chance to volunteer, and in turn to learn new skills and give their time to local communities.
Thirdly, the report also calls for policy action to invest in enabling grassroots-based volunteering – focusing on areas with fewer community leaders and poorer social infrastructure. As noted in the APPG’s first inquiry on social connection in the Covid-19 crisis, areas with higher levels of existing social capital and more abundant community assets (such as parks, pubs, libraries and leisure centres) tended to see a stronger mutual aid response to the pandemic than areas with less social infrastructure. This has since been reinforced by studies from Belong – the cohesion and integration network and the APPG for Left Behind Neighbourhoods.
The APPG points to the Government’s Covid-19 Community Champion scheme as evidence of how an agenda to Build Back Better can help nurture grassroots community work –increasing the levels of neighbourliness and trust that characterise socially integrated areas. The £25 million scheme has awarded grants to 60 councils and voluntary groups in England, funding recruitment and training programmes that empower changemakers from socially isolated groups to help bring communities together. Many of these champions have then co-ordinated with local authorities and charities to launch community action projects and deliver public health information, often targeting residents from ethnic and faith minorities, or with disabilities. The report urges investment to continue and develop these schemes beyond the pandemic – to bolster community resilience in the long-term, and to extend the integration benefits of volunteer initiatives more evenly across the UK.
Time to enact these changes and capture the energy of the Covid-19 volunteers is running out, however. Nigel Huddlestone, the new Minister for Civil Society, should prioritise a government strategy that removes obstacles to volunteering – ensuring opportunities are made available and accessible for people from every region, and from all ages and social backgrounds. Amid a dark moment in our collective history, a positive legacy of neighbourly goodwill and social integration is there to be harnessed. But with the end of the furlough scheme, and many returning to their ‘pre-pandemic’ lifestyles, the clock is ticking.