How will the coronavirus pandemic change volunteering?

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Introduction by Nikki Walker, Chief Operating Officer of QCS

There are over 21 million volunteers in the UK. According to The King’s Fund, around three million of them play a crucial role in supporting the social care sector, helping service users in care homes, home care, palliative care and mental health care settings.


In addition, many companies run Corporate Social Responsibility schemes which enable staff to put their skills and experience to good use volunteering in all sorts of different ways.

At Quality Compliance Systems (QCS), we actively encourage staff to use three paid days a year to volunteer locally.

During the coronavirus pandemic, and in more normal times, many of our team have not only used their three-day allocation to give their time to those in most need – like so many others in the UK – they’ve also volunteered their free time.

Many have shopped for older and vulnerable people who haven’t been able to venture out. Others have given up their time to phone or write letters to those shielding, while some have put their culinary skills to good use to cook for those who are self-isolating.

While we’re exceptionally proud of our employees, we would expect nothing less of them. That’s because altruism and kindness is part of who we are at QCS. Our vision is to create a fairer and more compassionate world. In striving to do so, our core values which are weaved deep into the fabric of our working culture empower staff to always ‘do the right thing’, to ‘make it (the workplace) better’ and always to ‘play for the team’.

An incredibly positive aspect born out of the pandemic is that millions of others – both young and old – share this vision. The NHS volunteer scheme is a great example. When the NHS called for people to help, it hoped that 250,000 people would sign-up. However, 750,000 people subscribed to the app in less than a week. This is a great illustration of many people’s overwhelming desire to not only do good, but to put the needs of those less fortunate than them first.

But that’s not to say that the voluntary sector hasn’t experienced monumental challenges in the coronavirus lockdown. It has.

With last month marking Volunteering Week, in this article, QCS, explores the challenges faced by volunteer organisations during the crisis and asks industry thought-leaders to predict the future of volunteering.


View from the frontlines

Valorum Foundation is an organisation which works closely with QCS and seeks to enhance the lives of people with physical and learning disabilities, for example.

Its Managing Director, Simon Buxton says that during the lockdown its regular volunteer workforce has been unable to visit services.

He explains, ‘The majority of our 300 volunteers, who between them donate 15,000 volunteer days a year to 17 different services across the Valorum Group, haven’t been able to see the people we support during lockdown. That’s not just because many of our clients have underlying health conditions, but many of our volunteers, who are pensioners, are also vulnerable and at risk. Many have been shielding or self-isolating during the crisis.’


The growing role of technology in care

Mr Buxton, who joined Valorum Foundation two months ago, says that as a result his 13 volunteer co-ordinators, and two new regional co-ordinators, have worked tirelessly and innovatively to ensure the people that Valorum Foundation supports continue to live enriched and fulfilling lives.

‘Our organisation has really embraced technology during the crisis. Video conferencing platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams have proved invaluable in helping families keep in virtual contact. But we also appreciate that not everyone is able to operate the technology. So our co-ordinators have been keeping in touch with volunteers using more traditional methods also, like telephone calls and texts and WhatsApp. However, it’s been difficult to train volunteers to use video conferencing platforms as many of them don’t own laptops.’


Tackling and overcoming digital exclusion

Mr Buxton recognises the scope and limits of technology too.

‘We care for people with a range of complex learning disabilities and not all of them can benefit from video conferencing or social media platforms. Even when technology make a difference, it’s also important to realise that not everyone wants to communicate in that way. For some it’s about picking up the phone or writing a letter.’


Future Directions say a flexible approach is required

For Jennifer Neville, a Project Manager for Future Directions, which looks after 350 people with learning disabilities and/or complex needs, says its co-ordinators have experienced similar challenges.

She says that lockdown has meant that many volunteers haven’t been able to meet with people in the usual way. She adds, ‘A few volunteers, who were due to start in March, decided to wait until things return to ‘normal’.’ But, on the upside, she says that technology and an outpouring of public goodwill has helped to fill in some gaps.

‘The great thing about volunteering at Future Directions is that we are able to be flexible and have therefore been using technology such as Zoom and have been phoning people we support, where appropriate, to keep in contact. And we have a new volunteer driver join us who takes supplies to the houses (whilst maintaining social distancing) to support the [volunteering] teams where people couldn’t get to the office to pick up supplies.’


The national picture

But are the experiences of Valorum Foundation and Future Directions representative of the national picture? Liz Jones, Head of Policy for the National Care Forum (NCF), which works closely with QCS, thinks so.

‘In the pandemic, technology has been a huge benefit. Not only has it helped people using care services to stay in touch with their families and friends, the feedback that we have received is that it has greatly aided providers to plan and deliver activities and connectivity in real-time. Whether it’s online discussions, activities such as quizzes, singing, dance classes or yoga classes, providers are sharing their ideas online. This means that people using services have been collectively engaged and stimulated to a much greater degree than if the technology platforms weren’t there during the time of lockdown.’

While Simon Buxton agrees that video conferencing technology has proved its worth in the crisis, he says that it’s no substitute for activities involving face-to-face contact.

‘It’s really important that people can experience the great outdoors and mix with the local community who live there. The people we support really enjoy gardening. Working with experienced volunteers in the fresh air, tending to plants is spiritually enriching for many people, not to mention a good source of exercise.’


Testing is the key

Mr Buxton is not sure exactly when life will return to normal, but he says that Valorum Foundation ‘will be reviewing its visitation process in July’. However, he says that even when services receive visitors again, ‘it will be phased over several weeks.’

Testing may help expedite the process, especially given the fact that the government has now widened its testing programme to care homes for those of working age, with learning disabilities, physical disabilities and other vulnerabilities.

However, Liz Jones, says that there are a wide range of other settings, such as supported living, and other important services, who also need access to the Government’s testing programme as a matter of urgency.

She says, most crucially, that there is a very urgent need for a comprehensive routine testing programme to be in place now, to give volunteers and care settings the confidence they need to resume regular volunteering.

‘The question is, will they want to be tested themselves? And will the home they visit want them to be tested before letting them in? However, without systematic testing and a world-class track and trace programme in place, it will be challenging for community volunteering to return to pre-pandemic levels.’

This lack of vision around testing remains a source of frustration for many volunteer organisations. But it is clear that testing is an essential part of the jigsaw of support needed to help care settings and services operate in the new COVID reality.

Simon Buxton says that his volunteers are champing at the bit to return as soon as a safe testing programme is implemented.

‘We’re keen to resume work on several outdoor projects too, such as building a pontoon in conjunction with an angling club at John Masfield House (Oxfordshire) and constructing a small caravan park for people with disabilities at Oaklands Care Home in Garstang (Lancashire).’


The future

Nadra Ahmed OBE, Executive Chair of the National Care Association, thinks that this crisis has shone a spotlight on the sector, which she hopes will effect positive change in recognising the value of our workforce and the service.

Nadra, who has worked in social care for over 38 years, believes that coronavirus may give rise to a new generation of volunteers who will be willing to look at options in care services.

She says, ‘The pandemic has brought a much greater awareness of social care to a whole new generation of volunteers. Millennials, in particular, have suddenly woken up to the myriad challenges that the social care sector wrestles with every day. Many don’t like what they see on their TV screens, and have actively started to make a difference in their communities.’


Harnessing the nation’s positive energy

But how does the social care sector ensure that that this positive volunteering narrative, which has captured the national zeitgeist over the course of the last few months, does not tail off as the virus recedes?

Nadra says that in the short term the nation’s appetite for volunteering must be underpinned by an accessible and robust testing landscape to safeguard the services.

‘The key to controlling the virus is to be able to manage risk effectively. In the volunteering sector, several organisations such as the ones listed in this article do that very well, but in the future – especially in care homes – volunteering will need to be risk assessed in much greater depth than it is now.’


Long-term goals

And in the long term, she says that governments, businesses and community organisations must play their part to fund local and national initiatives.

‘Firstly, we must remember the millions of unpaid carers in the UK, who are looking after their loved ones with little to no help from the state. In this crisis they have not been recognised at all. Many have given up their careers to do so and the government, through local authorities, needs to provide them with more help and support.’


Volunteering needs to start early

Secondly, Nadra says that volunteering needs to start at school and involve national organisations. She points to a joint initiative run by the Scouts and supported by the NCA, which saw Scout movements across the UK collectively do 100,000 good deeds for those living in care homes.

Thirdly, she suggests that the government should introduce a form of non-compulsory community service.

‘When I was 17 or 18, I’d settled for a career in law because I thought it was what I should do. But like many teenagers, I had no idea if that was what I really wanted to do. A volunteering experience as a sixth former changed all that. I volunteered to accompany an elderly lady to London and help her with shopping. I really enjoyed the experience and realised that I could embark on a career working with older people. That experience, I think, sowed the seeds for a career in the social care sector although I did not take that path at the outset. Looking back, I have no regrets.’

Looking to the future, if the government introduced a national volunteer programme, not only would young people be more invested in their local communities, but if Nadra’s experience is anything to go by, it might bring more people into the sector. It could also leave a lasting legacy, something which many previous government initiatives have failed to achieve.

Quality Compliance Systems (QCS) is the leading compliance management system for the UK care sector. 

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