Executive Summary

1                   Volunteers are expected to play a significant role in future public service reform. Available evidence strongly suggests that this is only possible if the existing knowledge about volunteer involvement is used and built on to support effective and sustainable volunteer efforts. This need was thrown into sharp relief during the COVID-19 pandemic. To realise a significant strand of the learning from the COVID-19 pandemic, in terms of preparedness, addressing inequalities and increasing democratic involvement as an opportunity for public service reform, it is strongly recommended that government should work with social scientists in a concerted effort of volunteering research, to apply and strengthen the knowledge base.

2                   The evidence provided in this submission to the Select Committee will focus on three key issues related to the role charities, volunteers and community groups played and play during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Learning for preparedness

3                   The evidence available to IVR strongly suggests that the UK was not well prepared and did not make effective use of existing knowledge on the role of voluntary action in response to disasters and the need to co-ordinate the relationship between national and local agencies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic; in particular, how local authorities could work collaboratively with charities, volunteers and community groups.

Addressing inequalities

4                   Parliament is already undertaking three inquiries into the unequal impact of coronavirus. [i] The evidence IVR received over the last three months points to concerns about the negative impacts on volunteers who have had to give up volunteering. This means that potentially five million volunteers, often older or vulnerable people, have been put at additional risk[ii]. Concerns have also been raised about increasing inequalities within and between communities and increasing social exclusion, particularly in terms of availability of and access to community assets and people’s capacity to help others. 

Strengthening democratic involvement, supporting public service reform

5                   An analysis by IVR of current policy discourses points to an emphasis on a ‘service’ paradigm in which volunteers and the associations and organisations they form are seen to be simply delivering a ‘needed service’. Our analysis suggests that such a single focus may be counter-productive, for example, by putting people off volunteering in the long term. It may also conflict with other current policies, as for example, the NHS plan to increase both diverse volunteering and patient and public involvement. However, the scale of response to the pandemic by people offering to volunteer or help their neighbours directly, may offer a basis for strengthening active community participation in public services, if it can also strengthen democratic involvement.

Brief introduction about yourself/your organisation and your reason for submitting evidence

6                   IVR was set up in 1997 to undertake high quality research on volunteering. It was created, in association with the University of East London, as a department of Volunteering England in 1997, became part of the research department of National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) in 2013 and moved to the University of East Anglia (UEA) in 2019. During the last 20 years, IVR has played a leading role in applied research on volunteering and volunteer involving organisations, and their relationships with the public and private sectors, and national and local government. The new home for the IVR in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at UEA helps flag the notable contribution of millions of volunteers in today’s health and social services in the UK. IVR has collected evidence about the role of volunteers in society for over 20 years which is available at the British Library Social Welfare Portal.[iii]

7                   The evidence provided in this submission directly emerges from IVR’s work to realise its vision and mission, in particular to support and conduct high quality volunteering research and to disseminate knowledge gained from its research in accessible formats for a range of audiences. IVR has evaluated numerous national policies and volunteering programmes; including a current Evidence Review commissioned by the What Works Centre for Wellbeing.


The evidence

8                   The evidence for this submission was collected by IVR between the Prime Minister’s announcement 12 March 2020 and 26 June 2020, from volunteer managers, volunteer involving organisations, local and national volunteering infrastructure organisations, national researcher networks and international collaborators.



9                   More than 70% of adults in the UK have volunteered through organisations or clubs at one time in their lives[iv] and even more are known to be active in less formal associations and neighbourhood hyper-local activities, such as social media and mutual aid groups. An estimated 10 million people volunteered at least once a month through an organisation or a club in the UK before the COVID-19 pandemic. Initial findings suggest that this number has halved during lockdown because many of the most regular volunteers are either in at-risk groups or because their usual volunteering activities are suspended. Even with many volunteers having been stood down, there has been no shortage of existing volunteers to meet the novel demands of the pandemic. However, the challenges have been to co-ordinate the volunteering effort with governmental responses and to match would-be volunteers to demands, as well as to adapt volunteering roles so that they can still be undertaken within the restrictions.


Learning for preparedness

10              The evidence available to IVR strongly suggests that the UK was not well prepared to co-ordinate the relationship between local and national services, in particular the role of charities, volunteers and community groups in responding to the emergency. The stated plans of the Government’s programme for volunteering to assist in the COVID-19 crisis strongly indicates that it has neglected the knowledge gained from research and experience of previous large-scale disasters and emergencies, for example, the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire[v], Hurricane Katrina in the USA [vi] or the widespread flooding in England[vii].

11              Despite some reporting of positive effects most evidence IVR received about national (English) interventions, such as the NHS Responder scheme, suggest that such interventions had limited impact, were not aligned to locally organised and co-ordinated responses and overall made a limited positive difference. Indeed, the scheme is perceived by some as having a negative impact both in England and in the three other nations of the UK.  For example, reported in The Guardian, the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) stated:

12              With many care operators working with 10% to 20% of their staff self-isolating and therefore stretched, ADASS said it was “shameful” that the creation of the National NHS volunteer scheme had not been done in collaboration with councils and it had “diverted 750,000 volunteers away from supporting local communities and left them with nothing to do for the first three weeks of the epidemic”.[viii] 

13              Individuals reported to IVR how they applied to the NHS Responder scheme and others, but were never asked to volunteer:

14              One frustrating thing is that I have registered as a volunteer for the NHS Responders, Red Cross and Age UK (for shopping, dog walking and telephone befriending). All of them have acknowledged my application but no specific requests yet. The impression I get is that they all have more volunteers than they need.[Anonymised A]

15              “One thing we hadn’t accounted for was Mr Hancock’s call to action for 250,000 extra volunteers... To do what exactly? It doesn’t appear that any CCGs, STPs or NHS Trusts were consulted prior to the announcement so we were all a bit stunned! Now they've received over 800,000 offers and don't seem to be able to deal with the numbers because we're receiving high volumes of calls moaning to us that they've registered but heard nothing... At the moment we are avoiding any extra non-essential people in the building so we have no choice but to reluctantly direct these offers back to the community via the app or other community voluntary groups but we know we’re just sending them round in circles… Not good for the reputation of the volunteering profile ...” [Anonymised B]

16              IVR has no direct access to the monitoring data from these programmes. However, reports in the media and from our conversations indicate that the programmes have low rates of conversion of volunteering offers to placements and have potentially divided efforts rather than co-ordinate them[ix]. The latest figure received by IVR was that by 18 June 2020 in total 370.000 tasks had been allocated through the NHS responder scheme, with numbers rising. This should be seen in the context that over five million people are estimated to have continued to volunteer throughout the pandemic, for example, by online help through the organisation they regularly volunteer with and through COVID-19 related emergency help, for example, with food aid. As publicly reported, and given previous research findings on volunteers’ dissatisfaction with having their time wasted[x], the low conversion rate of hastily introduced unplanned responses, could have serious negative consequences for future recruitment of volunteers especially in the public sector. 

17              Evidence received by IVR also suggests great variation between local authorities in the systems for collaborating with local community action and volunteer involving organisations. Efforts, often linked to the statutory resilience forums, emerged at different times and demonstrated wide differences between local authorities, including whether central or leadership roles were taken in local government or in voluntary sector infrastructures. There is an urgent need to examine in what ways and in what circumstances different local systems proved effective in working with volunteers and in meeting the needs of local people.


Addressing inequalities

18              National policy and regulations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have reduced the abilities of volunteer-involving organisations to address diverse needs among volunteers and their beneficiaries, according to reports received by IVR. Conclusive evidence is not yet available.  At this point in time, IVR raises specific and increasing concerns, drawing on our research-based knowledge, as hypotheses which need to be urgently investigated to ascertain the impact of public responses to the pandemic in widening inequalities in meeting basic needs.

19              An estimated 4-5 million people aged 65 and over who regularly volunteer have been excluded from their volunteer roles because they have been ‘shielded’ and because volunteer-assisted activities have been closed. For example, as IVR sets out this evidence the guidance from DCMS is still that over 70s should not volunteer outside their home and charity shops or heritage visitor attractions remain closed. While restrictions will be lifted, future risk assessments are expected to affect this age group disproportionally hard. Given the significance of older people’s volunteering on their social contacts and their sense of belonging in the community, this is likely to be having widespread, but as yet uncharted, effects on their mental health and social participation and validation.

20              Individuals’ involvement in volunteering – and hence their capacity to help other people - is related to their economic and educational background and the level of social exclusion they experience[xi]. Thus, it is likely that already-disadvantaged members of the community have been further disadvantaged by the increased focus on volunteering as a positive feature of communal responses to the pandemic, for example, the creation of mutual aid groups seems linked to the economic prosperity of localities[xii].


Strengthening democratic involvement supporting public service reform

21              Amongst many observers the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) suggests that “People who use services must be placed at the heart of this process, with coproduction and person-centred care at the core. [xiii] Experts reporting to the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology suggest that there could be an erosion of trust in democracy and democratic institutions, especially if the public take the view that the COVID-19 outbreak was mishandled. Others suggest that there could also be an accompanying mistrust in science and scientists [xiv].

22              This danger directly extends to the public’s perception of failings, if volunteering is increasingly ‘instrumentalised’ at the expense of purposeful involvement. This danger is amplified given service providers’ expressed commitment to significantly increase the volume of volunteering activities, indeed to “double the number of NHS volunteers over the next three years[xv].

23              Our analysis of current policy discourses suggests that the focus on a ‘service’ paradigm in which volunteers and the organisations they form are simply delivering a ‘needed service’, for rather than with organisations is obscuring the key contribution of and motivation for volunteering as a form of public involvement in policy-making: of making a difference.

24              There is a need to explore with volunteers and individuals who unsuccessfully offered their voluntary service, their perceptions of how public services, notably in social care, could be improved. The at least 750,000 people who joined the NHS Responders programme and mutual aid groups, as well as the un-recorded numbers who directly helped neighbours and friends, all demonstrate widespread willingness to help other people. There is a need to examine if and how this signals a pathway to ensuring that social care and other public services can be more rooted in communities.





The need for further evidence

25              Despite the facts, that more than 70% of adults in the UK have volunteered through organisations or clubs at one time in their lives, and that volunteering is expected to play a significant role in public service reform, there is currently no research infrastructure to collect data and provide evidence at a critical time like the pandemic, and at different life stages. National surveys, like the Citizenship Survey (2001-2010), Community Life Survey, Time Use Survey have reduced both their focus and reliability over the last decades. Moreover, current requests from IVR and others to include questions relating to the impact of the pandemic in the ‘Understanding Society’ panel survey (UK Household Longitudinal Study) were not taken up. In other key areas such as Public Health or Public Safety such an absence of research infrastructure would be unacceptable.

26              Bodies committed to voluntary action, such as the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), the Association of Volunteer Managers (AVM), National Association of Volunteer Service Managers (NAVSM), the Voluntary Sector Studies Network (VSSN), the Association for Research in the Voluntary and Community Sector (ARVAC) and IVR, have collectively and individually taken initiatives to assemble and analyse research evidence which can contribute to policy and practice. However, they do so in the face of what seems to be a lack of government commitment to understand a widely-shared activity and resource that affects all areas of our society in normal times and, as this evidence shows, with particular demonstrable impact and consequences in times of crises and disaster.


Based on the available evidence, IVR makes the following four recommendations to support the learning from the COVID-19 pandemic.


RECOMMENDATION – 1 Learning for preparedness:

27              Government departments to work with national community funders to immediately commission a systematic review of evidence on the roles of effective community organisation and action in crisis and disaster preparedness.


RECOMMENDATION – 2 Addressing inequalities:

28              Government departments to work with national research funders to immediately support a “mass observation” study to collect the experiences of a wide range of citizens with a view to capture the comparative learning about diverse and varied effects of COVID-19 pandemic and the responses to it.


RECOMMENDATION – 3 Strengthening democratic involvement supporting public service reform

29              Government departments to work with health and social care providers, public health researchers and other social scientists to plan and conduct research and evaluation to strengthen volunteer based democratic involvement in health and social care delivery and monitoring.


RECOMMENDATION – 4 Mainstreaming volunteering research into policymaking

30              Government departments to work with social scientists to support a concerted effort of national longitudinal volunteering research, including regular national surveys and a cohort for an on-going panel survey as well as regular co-ordinated collaboration with sector specific volunteering research such as in health, sport, education, heritage, justice and social care.







[v] [now par 10]


[vii] DEFRA (2015) Spontaneous volunteers: Involving citizens in the response and recovery to flood emergencies Final report FD2666 July 2015








[xv] NHS England (2019) The NHS long term plan. NHS England (p:90)