Volunteer centres like ours have never been so busy, like everyone else our relatively ordered worlds have been turned upside down over the last 2 months.
We’ve never before experienced so many people wanting to volunteer. It’s been the perfect storm of our natural urge to offer help in a crisis alongside people finding that they have got time on their hands. One way or another hundreds of people were knocking on our door (virtually, of course) wanting to know what they could do to help out.
We certainly had to act fast and get to grips with how we might respond to this new challenge quickly and effectively, in order to funnel the good will to exactly where it was needed. Most of our local groups were suspending their services due to the risks of infection and so we weren’t able to send people their way. However, a ‘brave new world’ of volunteering was springing up all around that was truly inspiring to see. We were witnessing the community coming together like never before with people helping people directly, and so we were able to direct our volunteers in a different direction.
Community led groups were organising themselves around social media pages asking for people to help with running errands and shopping for those needing to isolate. These ‘mutual aid’ groups as they are referred to were recruiting volunteers in their hundreds. The Warwick and Leamington Group for example received over 1,200 offers of help from potential volunteers in a matter of weeks. Being community lead, they responded in a very direct and intuitive way to the needs of their community and set up a telephone befriending service alongside offers of grocery shopping and the collection of prescriptions. They have responded to over 650 requests for help and are now making use of very up to date technology, with a purpose built app that ensures all requests for help are dealt with quickly and effectively.
The speed and scale of this grassroots response has left those of us that live in a world of ‘policies’ and ‘red tape’ rather mesmerised. It was essential for these groups to do what they did quickly and not to be burdened with our world of bureaucracy, as to have delayed would certainly have cost more lives. The risks posed by the virus far outweighed the risks associated with not formalising in the short term.
Having said all this ‘spontaneous volunteering’ such as this shouldn’t be seen as the normal long term response to volunteering going forwards. It certainly has it’s place when we hit a crisis but at some point soon, when things calm down, we need to get back to a system of ‘checks and balances’ that most of us are used to in the voluntary sector. Years of evolution has seen groups formalise so that they can protect their staff, volunteers and service users through insurance, safeguarding measures and clear rules of engagement. This is the sensible way for things to work under normal circumstances.
Our challenges moving forward, therefore, will be to continue working with any mutual aid groups, who carry on post-crisis, to help them achieve these safeguards. And for those that don’t continue once things return to the ‘new normal’ then our challenge will be slightly different. We will try and engage all their amazing volunteers, many of whom stepped forward for the first time during this crisis, in order that they can continue to volunteer with established groups in their local communities.
One of the few positives to come out of this crisis has been the outpouring of good will. It’s our job to ensure that this doesn’t get lost or forgotten!
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