How did relationships affect volunteering during Covid-19?

Immy Robinson, co-lead of The Relationships Project, speaks to Melissa Moody about how the Covid-19 pandemic encouraged more people than ever to volunteer and suggests ways of keeping them engaged.

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Melissa: What is The Relationships Project and what changed for it over the pandemic?

Immy: The Relationships Project is a small team on a mission to build a better society by building better relationships. We began our journey in early 2019 and we have since been focusing our efforts on building a body of knowledge; co-creating tools; and training and igniting connections.

In early March 2020, we began to anticipate some of the possible social consequences of the pandemic and its likely effect on our relationships. After consultation with our network we established The Relationships Observatory - a collaborative space for gathering examples and insights and using what we learn to help sustain and develop the positives beyond the crisis.

Melissa: What have you noticed about the community response to Covid?

Immy: Two things have really stood out. The first is the sheer number of people who got involved in community activity, many for the first time.

At the end of September 2020, YouGov took a snapshot of the Covid volunteering effort for us. They surveyed 3,478 people and found:
• 8.95 million people (17% of UK population) got involved in some sort of community activity
• 39% had done little or no volunteering before the pandemic
• 70% plan to continue doing the same amount or more once the pandemic is over (that’s 6.27 million)

Ministers call this a “volunteer army” but few describe themselves as volunteers and they are certainly not an army ready to be redeployed - there is no structure, no formality, no rules. They are willing citizens making an individual commitment.

The second thing is the relationships that underpinned this community activation. The forms of care, contribution and involvement that we have seen over the past year have been reinforced by a set of changing relationships.

Any recovery and attempt to build back better must understand this new web of relationships and put them at its heart.

Melissa: Who got involved in helping out over the pandemic?

Immy: At the end of 2020, we did a deep dive into the motivations, needs and energy of those who have cared together through lockdown, burrowing into the stories that lie beneath the statistics. Through this research emerged a set of ‘personas’ - clusterings of behaviours, experiences, motivations and needs.

The persona groups that we present are not meant to be restrictive categories, and some people will identify with more than one persona, others will move between groups at different points in time as their circumstances shift and change.

The five active neighbour personas that emerged through our research are:

1. The Visionary Disruptor: The big picture thinkers striving for a new way of doing things. They are excited by the potential of grassroots community organising to generate change. Curious about new possibilities, they're interested in the theoretical and strategic dimension of community organising and challenging the status quo. They see grassroots activism and bottom-up organising as a way of starting to build a society that works better for everyone and believe that now is the moment.

2. The Everyday Carer: The old hands who provide care to someone close to them. Looking after others is a core part of the their identity. Often stemming from a belief system rooted in upbringing or faith, they haven't made new choices in the pandemic, and instead done more of what they already have been. ‘Everyday Carer's’ don't seek reward or recognition and they don't typically see themselves as 'volunteers'. Instead, they self-organise, working with those they care for to identify and meet their needs and as such are unreliant on formal structures and schemes.

3. The Neighbourly Empathizer: The sociable companions who have found meaning in new neighbourhood connections. These sociable neighbours often made their way into volunteering as ‘Practical Taskers’ but found purpose and fulfilment in the new relationships they formed. A degree of 'officialdom' and the sense of 'permission' this provides is important in giving ‘Neighbourly Empathizers’ confidence to push past social reservedness and offer up their support. The satisfaction and reward that they get from supporting others in their community has whetted their appetite and they now seek opportunities to provide longer-term support.

4. The Practical Tasker: The busy doers new to volunteering who thrive on getting tasks done. They were inspired to offer up their support by (social) media coverage of acute need and heroic acts. Looking for tangible, time bound tasks they could fit around existing commitments, they signed up to NHS GoodSam and various local groups, eager to do their bit. The practical, flexible nature of these tasks opened up a more accessible dimension to volunteering, and any future involvement will rely on these characteristics as they’re wary of being tied down or being asked more than they can give.

5. The Community Weavers: The connectors and organisers building platforms for others to get involved. Leading the local response, ‘they build the platforms, infrastructure and connections which enable others to get involved in helping their community. ‘Community Weavers’ are a central figure in their community and know the who's who and the what's what. They join the dots between different entities, helping things work smoothly and effectively. Fuelled by self-confidence and an abundance of energy, they're full of ideas and are leaders who aren't afraid of taking responsibility and trying out new things.

Melissa: How can we encourage people to carry on?

Immy: It’s common, in the aftermath of a disaster, to see an upswing in community support. United against a common enemy or by a shared experience, neighbours help one another out and communities come together to rebuild. But experience shows that this so-called honeymoon period is short-lived. Social capital surveys in the US in the months following the 9/11 attack showed a 6-month shift from Me to We. Then, just as quickly, back again.

Our research with YouGov shows that the appetite and energy is there for community support to continue - 70% of those who got involved in the height of the pandemic say they want to carry on in the future - but this energy needs to be carefully nurtured.

Trying to catch and preserve the spirit of the 9m with systems and structures is like trying to catch a butterfly in a jam jar – there is a likelihood that we kill or damage that which makes it beautiful. We must nurture an ecology that enables it to survive and thrive without owning and constraining. Relationships not job specifications are the secret of sustainability. To this end, we think there are a few things that can help sustain community support:

1. Information sharing: The needs of communities were often easy to identify at the start of lockdown but have become increasingly difficult to diagnose and engage with. Safe information sharing between local authorities, local organisations, and local community groups can help surface need and point ‘Active Neighbours’ in the direction they can be of assistance

2. Removing barriers: The barriers and bureaucracy commonly associated with traditional volunteering were stripped back in the early days of the pandemic. Nimble, new groups rooted firmly in the local community quickly emerged, organising via simple and widely accessible technology. People could dip in and out, signing up to do simple tasks that fit around their commitments. This ease of access must be woven into future opportunities to sustain involvement levels.

3. Peer support: Many people got involved through a sense of obligation, inspired by heroic acts heralded in the media, but stayed involved because of the new connections they formed and the sense of belonging they fostered. Relationships must be at the heart of efforts to sustain community activity.

4. Hibernating well: Some local areas responded to the social need in their communities much faster and more effectively than others. The most comprehensive and successful social responses have emerged in areas where there were pre-existing structures and relationships. Even if community activity recedes in the next stages of the pandemic, this new social fabric can enable a swift and effective response to future crises. To do so, they must feel their contribution has been needed, recognised and valued. Taking time to celebrate and thank all those who have stepped up must be a priority.

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