Volunteering: The Impact of the Cost-of-Living Crisis
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Volunteering: The Impact of the Cost-of-Living Crisis
by Andrew Hanna, Research & Information Officer, Volunteer Now
Volunteer Now is currently undertaking a 9-month study designed to understand the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on volunteering This is a particularly timely study, given the challenging environment facing not only volunteering, but the Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) as a whole. We have chosen a group of organisations representative of various parts of the sector and plan to talk to them 3 times over the next 9 months. A summary of our initial conversation is set out in this blog.
SUMMARY OF FINDINGS
The first series of interviews paints a stark picture, with a range of complex challenges affecting volunteer involvement, staff morale and organisational productivity. The emphasis and frequency with which volunteer recruitment was raised by interviewees was concerning. The current environment means that volunteer managers must look after their own mental health, and they also have to be prepared and confident to support their volunteers comprehensively.
Furthermore, with volunteering now facing even greater competition, there is perhaps an even greater onus on volunteer managers to support and create a nurturing environment for their volunteers. However, this is increasingly difficult due to limitations with staff resources and time. Service demands continue to increase as more and more people in communities need support, and these demands are becoming more difficult to meet.
With many organisations struggling to recruit volunteers, there are many (under-represented) groups ready and willing to volunteer. Providing the necessary resources and support to promote involvement within these groups would be a very progressive and positive step.
There is still cause for optimism. Despite the immense challenges, people are stepping forward to volunteer and continue to do an incredible job. The recovery from covid is underway. There are opportunities to learn from informal volunteering and become less bureaucratic and more responsive, which will aid that recovery.
It will be interesting to touch base with the interviewees again in February and get a renewed picture of how things have been over the Winter months.
WHAT DID WE HEAR?
- Volunteer recruitment and retention
Almost all interviewees highlighted challenges with recruitment, with only some very small community-based organisations not feeling the pinch. Some interviewees attributed this struggle to ‘greater competition’ with other commitments or hobbies, while others suggested it may be because of depleted emotional reserves or exhaustion.
Exhaustion and burnout are particularly relevant to those volunteers who have been heavily involved since the outset of the pandemic. Two organisations stated that they hadn’t fully recovered post-covid, which heightened the issues of recruitment and retention.
Another concept coming through was the variability in recruitment depending on geographical location. Regional organisations highlighted how some areas are strong in terms of volunteers stepping forward, while at the same time, other areas are struggling no matter how much is done with targeted recruitment and profile raising.
All interviewees highlighted the immense pressures they are facing as a staff team, not only to offset the volunteering gap, but to meet increasing service demands. There is an even bigger proportion of time and resource needed to fully support groups of volunteers, so it is no surprise that staff resources are being stretched.
In addition to other pressures, leaders in the sector also mentioned difficulties with retaining staff. This is because it is difficult for VCS organisations to maintain staff on a reasonable level of pay (matching inflation).
Ultimately, one interviewee summarised by saying “if we had a bigger team, we could do much, much more.”
- The Challenging Environment
The current environment is creating challenges across the sector. For a start, ‘the shifting sands have made it extremely difficult for us to plan, as we continually have to adapt and change approach.’ Times continue to be difficult for everyone, and appreciation must be given to those volunteers who have been heavily involved from the outset of the pandemic. Many interviewees did highlight that they are taking more steps now to monitor mental health and wellbeing of their staff and volunteers, again leading to pressures on resources. An encouraging sign emerging in this set of interviews is that the majority of organisations reported no visible mental health concerns. However, there is a fear that it is too early for the true impact to surface.
In addition, volunteers appear to be engaging less with volunteering as a whole, but also with training and face-to-face get-togethers. Interviewees suggested that this could be because of a change in perspective post-covid (new hobbies, etc.), while others speculated that it could be due to the cost-of-living crisis. It appears that volunteers and volunteer managers are facing a very challenging environment which is affecting volunteer numbers and engagement. “That sense of altruism…people just can’t commit to it at the moment.”
Finally, the environment has impacted organisations directly. Increased running costs have been particularly damaging and disruptive for the sports sector, but this can be seen across the entire VCS too. Furthermore, organisations who rely heavily on fundraising have also seen significant reductions in the success of fundraising events.
Service Demands and Volunteer Commitment Levels
The majority of interviewees suggested that their demand for their service had increased, with no one indicating that their demand has decreased. In fact, where interviewees suggested that service demand remained consistent, it was followed up with statements like ‘our volunteer numbers are too low anyway’.
In terms of commitment levels, many volunteers have tended to rally and ‘dig in’, but that is much more likely to occur with long-standing volunteers than new recruits. Furthermore, there were suggestions that the ‘we can do this’ attitude so apparent during lockdown is decreasing gradually and there are fears amongst most interviewees that volunteers will begin to take a step back.
A number of support needs were identified by the interviewees, and these have been categorised into four separate sections.
Funding to increase staff capacity and in essence to recruit dedicated volunteering support staff. Investment to train staff on all aspects of volunteer management, but, especially how staff can better support volunteers and themselves in these pressurised times.
Difficulties of short-term funding were also noted. For example, ‘short-term funding has made it extremely difficult to establish meaningful partnerships.’ Longer-term, more accessible funding would allow organisations to ‘get on with the job’ and make real change in communities.
- Supporting under-represented groups
Some organisations interviewed in this study support and work with people from groups under-represented in volunteering, e.g. those who are unemployed, asylum seekers and refugees, and people with hearing or sight loss. There were conclusive suggestions that more resources and support for these groups would allow them to take up volunteering in a more meaningful way. A practical suggestion was to have an equivalent to the ‘access to work scheme’ for volunteering.
- Training, recognition and other incentives
“We should reward volunteers for their time, and ensure they are confident and competent in their role.” Group training (on wellbeing), accredited training and other incentives were mentioned as important. A number of organisations suggested that external support in offering these would take some pressure off, as they are no longer in a position to place suitable emphasis and focus on these aspects.
- Volunteer Management support
Interviewees were quick to highlight what would help them within their role (as volunteer managers). Key themes emerging were for more networking and shared learning; support to update policies and procedures to reflect the current environment; and more targeted recruitment campaigns.
There is still clearly reason to be optimistic moving forward, despite the hardship. However, this will require a proactive and forward-thinking approach.
- Recognition of volunteering
“Life would be difficult to survive without volunteers.”
There was conclusive evidence that as a sector, we should more publicly celebrate the impact volunteers are making. Communicating and quantifying the social value of volunteering and the potential returns on investment are also important to strengthen how volunteering is viewed by government.
In conjunction with this, a couple of organisations suggested there is an opportunity to review the Volunteering Strategy (2012) to reflect current trends.
There were calls for updated research on barriers to volunteering, as well as attitudes and motivations for volunteering in the interviews. Having relevant research evidence would help the sector address issues and make volunteering more accessible and appealing to people, by meeting their needs.
- Partnership Working
The benefits of partnership working were noted by several interviewees, confirming that partnerships added a new dimension to their organisation, making ‘impossible’ tasks possible. While partnership within the VCS has become integral, there is an opportunity for cross-sectoral planning and learning.
- Continuous learning
As is well documented and evidenced, informal volunteering has grown in recent years. A few interviewees highlighted the opportunity to learn from this and become less bureaucratic where possible.
Furthermore, when speaking about the younger generation, they “want to get involved immediately and require an instant response.” The sector must learn from this, and take the opportunity to become more responsive and appealing. This trend will only become more common as individuals grow up with instant messaging applications and other online developments.