At the beginning of March this year I met up with some friends in Sheffield. We had all been involved in a project on poverty some years ago; as often happens, we had become friends and had kept in touch over the years. We are all women aged over 60, from different places, different work and experiences, but all still volunteering.
The news on Covid-19 was starting to ramp up, and it was suggested that people aged over 70 might have to stay indoors. Annette, who is 80, then asked what would happen to their local food bank in an extremely poor part of Glasgow, as she organised it and all the volunteers were aged over 70, with the oldest being 90.
Sadly Annette’s fears came to pass, and in late March I was made aware that several of the existing local volunteer-led food banks had closed as all the volunteers were over 70. This was at a time when the need for food banks was growing rapidly.
At the same time many people were suddenly furloughed with time on their hands, and a growing number of students had come back to Newcastle to stay with their families and also wanted to help out. The West End (of Newcastle) food bank is the largest in the UK, and it very quickly developed a waiting list for people who wanted to volunteer to help out.
In those strange days of late March and early April, many people wanted to do good, and used their initiative to set up local action groups, based on recognised neighbourhoods; these were known as Mutual Aid groups. They are not charities, businesses or formal organisations, but collections of people who came together spontaneously. The element of mutuality is important: being involved isn’t just as a recipient or giver of help and support, as we all need help at some point. Next came the charities, several of whom actively work with volunteers. Then finally came the statutory response through local councils and the national NHS Volunteer Responder project.
Literally thousands of Mutual Aid groups have emerged and developed to support the most vulnerable people in our societies. They are supplying food and clothing, connecting with food banks, collecting medicines, engaging with people who are isolated, providing information and support. They link with other Mutual Aid groups and existing organisations and charities that are often hidden.
Mutual Aid groups have been criticised, often by local councils and some traditional charities, for their lack of structure, for not insisting on vetting volunteers (there have been a tiny number of frauds) but probably mainly because they are a challenge to the accepted way of doing things. They don’t need money and are not beholden to funders; they are fragile and depend on the goodwill of volunteers. Central government finds them hard to connect with as they are small-scale and very local, and don’t have representative spokespeople. The clever charities have actively contacted Mutual Aid groups and see them as active partners.
In 2019 the National Council of Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) published a report on volunteering experiences called Time Well Spent. It showed that people often wanted to volunteer, but didn’t know how. Organisation was sometimes poor and people were concerned their volunteering was becoming ‘too much like paid work’. There were fewer opportunities for younger and disabled volunteers. There were relatively few opportunities for digital and spontaneous volunteering. Public-sector volunteers often found their volunteering experience was ‘too structured or formalised’. Unsurprisingly people want to volunteer locally, in their own neighbourhoods, and for causes where there is a strong connection.
Clearly many charities, faith groups and organisations have well thought-out strategies, and when we think about volunteering it is charity shops, Citizen’s Advice and fundraising for good causes that usually come to mind. Equally, there are many charities that don’t involve volunteers, and in some cases volunteer roles are quite rigid. The problem has never been with attracting volunteers, it has been with the lack of appropriate volunteering opportunities.
As a response to Covid-19 in Newcastle, around 1,500 residents offered to volunteer through the City Lifeline programme, and 750,000 people initially registered to become NHS Volunteer Responders. In both instances, only around 20-30% of volunteer offers have been taken up. The NHS has quickly realised that the micro-tasks of shopping or collecting medicines, rather than staffing specific shifts, are more attractive and engaging to volunteers.
There are new ideas emerging: a volunteer app called onHand is going to be trialled in Newcastle soon. This will involve local, vetted volunteers being matched to people that need help.
One of the key concerns throughout Covid-19 has been the issue of isolated people – not just older people but people in mental distress, people who can’t or are too frightened to go outside, and often those caring for others. GP practices know there has been minimal contact from many of their former, regular patients.
Mutual Aid groups have been a significant feature of our response to Covid-19, particularly in relation to shielding and poverty: they showed how communities could respond. But they also offer a challenge to current, more formalised systems. However they should never be seen as a substitute for properly funded services or a way of plugging the gaps left by austerity programmes.
Their beauty and complexity lies in their size and being hyper-local. They cannot be ‘scaled-up’ to fit neatly into government boundaries and programmes. They are classically bottom-up, facilitated by dedicated volunteers.
As furlough comes to an end, and in some instances turns sadly into unemployment, how can we capture and harness the goodwill of people to keep on doing good? Will more flexible working and working from home give working-aged people more time to volunteer? There are calls for a shorter working week and the introduction of a universal basic income, but no evidence that the current Cabinet is listening to these.
How to attract people to this cause? Maybe volunteering is the wrong word, but being neighbourly doesn’t attract people either. People don’t usually say they want to volunteer, they say they want to help.
‘Being kind’ sounds old-fashioned, but the last few months have shown everyday kindness is important. There has been a realisation that our neighbourhoods and communities matter, that identity and place are important, and that we want to contribute to make society better. We can’t and won’t now simply press the reset button and forget all that.