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Volunteering shoots up across 2020 but experts fear a winter slowdown

Volunteering skyrocketed in the first six months of the pandemic, along with vulnerable Brits’ need for help, but experts fear a slowdown over Christmas.

People choose to volunteer for a variety of reasons and causes, whether it’s identifying a real and urgent need in the community, a seasonal feeling of warmth for humankind or just wanting to do something to get out of the house.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought all of those reasons into sharp focus. An estimated five million people are predicted to fall into poverty as a result, according to the latest figures from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, including a million children. The Trussell Trust says 2,600 food parcels were provided to kids every day in the first six months of the pandemic. And homelessness charity Crisis estimates 200,000 households will be homeless this Christmas.

The need has inspired a wave of people-powered support, helping vulnerable members of society safely navigate an unprecedented situation.

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For organisations like FareShare, which redistributes surplus food to frontline charities, demand for services has doubled in a year. They’re now distributing enough food across the UK for 2 million meals a week, with volunteers doing the lion’s share of the work.

“The range of volunteers we’ve seen are people who access food from charities we supply and want to give back, to furloughed executives who arrive in Porsches to help in the warehouse,” senior press officer Christie Garratt told The Big Issue. “The pandemic probably made people feel helpless, or not have much control – this lets people feel they are helping in some way.”

As a result, FareShare has seen a 33 per cent rise in regular volunteers, from 1,500 last year to just over 2,000 in 2020. 

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Reach Volunteering, which connects volunteers to good causes, is expecting to hit 10,000 registrations on its platform by the end of the year, compared to 4,662 people last year. And charity organisations on the platform have received 15,800 applications from willing volunteers, while 3,300 confirmed matches have been made, compared to 2,000 in 2019.

But these lockdown-inspired surges may not ring true across the entire voluntary sector. Sarah Vibert, director of membership and engagement at NCVO, senses it’s a more complex picture.

“Many older people are not able to volunteer because they’re shielding,” Vibert said. “We also know that it’s potentially older people who are less able to access digital opportunities and a lot of volunteering has moved online.”

The surge of support in the spring is also estimated to have slowed down. Pro-Bono Economics suggests there were six million fewer people volunteering in the second lockdown compared to the first. 

“One reason could be the ‘six month wall’,” Vibert  said. “Six months after a crisis starts is when people feel fatigued and the initial enthusiasm has worn off. It could also be the time of year. Where people were happy to pop to the shop at 8pm to get food for a neighbour, they’re less willing to go in the dark and in poorer weather.”

The rapid digitisation of many voluntary roles and the rise in “micro-volunteering”, where people carry out small, time-limited tasks, could help sustain the momentum for volunteering into 2021, Vibert said, allowing people to give back within their own routine.

“The rise in more flexible volunteering means that it’s potentially easier to engage with and sustain volunteers beyond the pandemic,” she said, “but I do think volunteer priorities are going to shift. There will be hard economic times ahead and people have to be able to afford to volunteer.”

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