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A Bleeding Atlas: How the COVID–19 pandemic affected volunteering in the UK

A Bleeding Atlas: How the COVID–19 pandemic affected volunteering in the UK

George Lapshynov analyses the state of volunteering in the UK and the changing trends from before, during and after COVID. 15/08/2023

The 21st century is now in its third decade, and the voluntary sector in the UK has been in a poor shape for most of it. While the pandemic and subsequent recession were particularly damaging, they are by no means the only challenges the sector has faced in recent times. 

The faith sector is also heavily invested in this issue. In 2016, NPC found that more than one in four charities in Great Britain are faith–based – a proportion that is growing – and that nearly two–thirds of these are Christian. Many of these are either entirely volunteer–led or rely very greatly on volunteers. 

This descriptive article will provide an overview of the situation before 2020, how it evolved during the pandemic, and paint a rather worrying picture of what it looks like now. 

Before the pandemic 

Even before the pandemic hit the voluntary sector, charities were struggling on more than one front. 

The recovery from the financial crisis of 2008 took almost a decade, during which there was a decline in the number of organisations and in their income. (It was not until 2015 that both income and investment values returned to pre–crash levels).[i] 

The lack of diversity and homogeneity also plagued, and still plagues, the sector. There were more charities, both in number and diversity, in more affluent areas than in more deprived ones. People aged 65–74 were twice as likely to volunteer as those aged 25–34. Four out of five charities had a workforce that was not representative of the population they serve, particularly in terms of ethnicity. In other words, those who have the most to gain from volunteering were the least likely to participate, and those who need the services provided by charities the most were the least likely to benefit from them. 

Additionally, the age gap in particular resulted in the sector being unprepared for the pandemic, as the older people on whom many charities depended were especially vulnerable to Covid and unable to volunteer. The sudden loss of this key demographic affected faith groups particularly, and the vulnerable groups that depend on their support. 

UK government policy became increasingly reliant on the voluntary sector. In pursuit of their explicit desire to reduce further and further the size of the state, successive Conservative UK governments left a gap in services that had previously been the sole responsibility of the state, and charities and volunteers were increasingly used as a resource to fill this gap, providing public services in place of the state.[ii] And while governments have cast this increased burden on volunteers and charities in a very positive light, with a narrative of increased social engagement and civic empowerment, the reality is that the charity sector has had to bear the heavy costs of over a decade of austerity. 

It is little wonder, then, that government initiatives such as David Cameron’s Big Society (2010–2015) or the National Citizen Service, which sought to significantly increase the number of active volunteers in the UK, have failed to do so. Instead, national levels of volunteering fell markedly between 2013 and 2020, though formal volunteering in particular took a hard hit. 

(Formal volunteering is defined by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) as volunteering organised within an organisational context, such as by charities, and voluntary and public sector organisations. It is contrasted with informal volunteering which is carried out outside of an organisational context and can include activities such as tidying a local park or driving a neighbour to a hospital appointment.) 

To make matters worse, by early 2020 growth in activity had already significantly outstripped growth in income on average, meaning that the sector would have entered a period of financial instability regardless of the impact of the pandemic. 

Thus, Covid and the ensuing recession have only exacerbated these problems by increasing the demand for services while reducing income and relying on a dwindling number of volunteers. 

Pandemic: First phase – March 2020 to October 2020. 

The conventional wisdom holds that volunteering during the pandemic was a very positive phenomenon that brought the nation together, uniting all ages, genders and races in the face of the “great leveller” that was the coronavirus. And certainly, some of this is true. 

“Neighbourhood” volunteering – a form of informal volunteering – lent itself easily to social distancing and taking necessary precautions. It was social, not very dangerous, and required little commitment. It involved providing local support, such as by shopping, getting medication for quarantined or vulnerable people, or simply cooking meals for those who could not do so themselves. Unlike formal volunteering, it was also more mutually beneficial as it helped facilitate bonding between neighbours and combatting loneliness. It provided a sense of solidarity in a crisis situation, and helped create a shared common goal.[iii] 

The increase in informal volunteering was especially significant in the first weeks of the pandemic, through “hyper–local” informal assistance and support networks. One month into the pandemic, an estimated three million Britons were involved in informal mutual aid groups, and 750,000 signed up to assist the NHS in various tasks – though a much smaller number actually received assignments.[iv] Given pre–pandemic trends, this appeared to be a genuine volunteering revolution. 

More new people than ever got involved. The advent of remote volunteering ushered in by social distancing benefited notably disabled people and furloughed employees. It also benefited people with mental and physical health conditions more generally, who before the pandemic were according to most studies unlikely to volunteer. And the average age of volunteers also dropped during the first months when a new cohort of younger volunteers, likely on furlough, joined the pool.[v] 

Yet, the tremendous volunteer efforts of the first months of the pandemic, though worthy of celebration, were not sustained. 

The “spirit of mutualism” that fuelled neighbourhood volunteering in the first lockdown period did not prove to be a suitable principle for long–term organisation. The informality of the self–organised neighbourhood groups often led to undemocratic dynamics that antagonised volunteers and made larger projects difficult to coordinate. And the structures and safeguards needed to successfully retain volunteers – such as clear boundaries, clear task descriptions, social rewards, and the nurturing of relationships in the longer term – were mostly lacking.[vi] The ability of churches to coordinate informal volunteer groups and to circumvent some of these larger pitfalls should in this context not be underestimated. They offer grassroots and implicit convening power as a community resource and, had the pandemic not forced their closure, could have helped sustain the activity of self–organised volunteers.[vii] 

The mass mobilisation of British society for response–volunteering was merely consistent with the findings of previous studies on volunteer efforts in response to disasters.[viii] In fact, the nation–wide enthusiasm for “hyper–local” informal volunteering fizzled out quickly as the first wave of the pandemic passed in late summer 2020. And while some charities attempted to restart their essential and life–saving activities when restrictions eased, they struggled to bring back their volunteers.[ix] 

Indeed, the literature on the impact of the pandemic on volunteering, focusing on the superficial success of informal volunteering at the local level, often overlooks the many difficulties charitable organisations – or indeed faith organisations – faced at the time. As well as having to reduce their services and ask their volunteers to step back from their roles because of the restrictions imposed by the lockdown, the mainstream charity sector suffered from reduced income and reduced levels of volunteering all while facing increased demand for their services. 

Charities had to simultaneously digitise their services, furlough their staff, and move en masse to remote working – if at all possible, depending on the nature of the services provided – which has had a major impact on their ability to respond more effectively to the pandemic.[x]  

While the sector needed more volunteers to meet the demand for support, more than a third of charities saw their volunteer numbers fall between March 2020 and April 2021.[xi] In a survey of 2000 charities, the Charity Commission found that almost all (91%) participants in England and Wales experienced some negative impact from Covid–19. The most commonly affected areas were service delivery, finance and staffing, with the majority experiencing frustration and uncertainty. 

As efforts in the first months of the pandemic were mainly focused on the delivery of food and medicines and on combating social isolation, specialised forms of volunteering with homeless people, refugees and people without recourse to public funds attracted only a minority of volunteers. And unlike informal volunteering, where many people new to volunteering participated in crisis response, previous volunteering experience remained by far the best predictor of volunteering during the pandemic in formal contexts.[xii] 

Government guidance on how to safely involve, engage and support volunteers during Covid–19 was published in November 2020, but only just as the second lockdown began. In fact, the Respond, Recover, Reset: The Voluntary Sector and Covid–19 research project, led by Nottingham Trent University (NTU), the NCVO and Sheffield Hallam University, found that charities would not report an overall increase in volunteer numbers again until summer 2021, a few months after the third lockdown had eased.[xiii] 

Pandemic: Second phase – November 2020 to June 2021 

The early second phase was characterised by two particular phenomena: the rollout of the vaccine starting December 2020, and the subsequent mass mobilisation of volunteers to support the national vaccination programme from the beginning of the year 2021. Where possible under the new government guidance for volunteering, some voluntary organisations resumed limited or regulated face–to–face activities, while a portion of charities had to continue pausing their volunteering until spring 2021. 

Unlike during the first lockdown period, neighbourhood volunteering did not pick up again on a massive scale. And while the widespread desire to volunteer had not vanished completely, it was certainly less prominent. When in January 2021, the UK Government announced its Covid–19 vaccine delivery plan, only 200,000 people offered to volunteer; a notable decrease from the 750,000 that did so a year earlier. 

In line with the easing of restrictions and the falling number of Covid deaths and cases, the number of charitable organisations reporting an increase in numbers of volunteers started to exceed those reporting a decrease in April 2021. 

Yet, the image for charities remains troubled. Despite the two most acute phases of the entire pandemic being over by April 2021, the charitable sector did not get fully back on its feet. Though organisations indicated an increase in services offered and an overall increase in numbers of volunteers, the sector continued to struggle financially. 

Late–pandemic period – July 2021 onwards 

The “late–pandemic” period comprises the arrival of the Delta variant in the UK in early summer 2021, the subsequent Omicron variant wave, and extends to this day as we live in a late–/post–pandemic world. 

While parts of the country were under different levels of restrictions depending on local infection rates under the “tier system,” the charity and faith sectors have continued to suffer. 

According to the latest Community Life Survey 2021/22, participation rates in formal volunteering in 2022 were the lowest recorded since data collection started. Compared to 2019/20, 4 million fewer individuals volunteered at least monthly and 6 million fewer individuals volunteering at least annually in 2021/22. 

The these trends in volunteering cannot however be attributed solely to the impact of the pandemic and its successive lockdowns and restrictions. Rather, these are signs of a deeper societal shift. 

Indeed, the number of formal volunteers continued to decline until 2022 compared to the first year of the pandemic, even though restrictions were less severe or non–existent. Similarly to how financial insecurity and economic hardship could not fully explain the decline in volunteering which lasted until well after the 2008 recession, so too the pandemic on its own is unable to fully explain the decline in formal and informal volunteering. Rather, this trend appears to fit within a wider “social recession” and unravelling of civic organisational infrastructure and community engagement at work in the UK.[xiv] 

The Community Life Survey further identified three main barriers to volunteering: work commitments (49%), other hobbies (31%) and the need to look after children (23%). The fact that nearly one in two of the 10,000 respondents to the survey said they were unable to volunteer because of workload is a real concern for the nation’s work–life balance, especially as the situation is unlikely to improve any time soon. Although paid work has always been to some extent a barrier to volunteering, with the cost of living crisis, individuals may have to work longer hours or take on additional jobs to pay their bills, meaning they will have even less free time to volunteer. This statistic is all the more noteworthy as the success of the furlough scheme and the volunteering that went with it have clearly shown that, given more free time, there is no lack of willingness to volunteer among the working population. 

If volunteering is indeed the lifeblood of the charity sector, then the dwindling supply of volunteers is certainly a very worrying indicator of its poor health. 

Furthermore, in 2022 rates of monthly formal volunteering were over twice as high in affluent areas as in the most deprived areas, an increase compared to 2019. That the decline in volunteering is more pronounced in socially and economically deprived communities is a sign of the further depriving of those who are already disadvantaged, and the widening of the gap that separates affluent and deprived communities. 

While the pandemic may have contributed to the UK’s deepening social recession, it cannot fully explain this trend. Rather, the pressures it has placed on British society have merely highlighted the existing fractures along socio–economic and cultural lines, and perhaps hastened their widening into chasms. 

Post–pandemic reality: the current state of play

The above evidence strongly suggests that there is a pre–pandemic world and a post–pandemic world in the charity sector, particularly in terms of formal volunteering. However, it would be a mistake to attribute all of the sector’s current problems to Covid–19. 

Even before the pandemic hit in the winter of 2020, the sector was under strain. On the one hand, unsound government policies were driving up demand for services, while on the other, austerity rhetoric was calling for cuts in the public funding on which the charitable sector relies. Neither an increase in income nor an increase in the number of volunteers had kept pace with the growth in demand. And despite national efforts to encourage more people to volunteer, the overall number of formal volunteers had fallen in the decade before the pandemic. 

Then came Covid–19 and the subsequent cost of living crisis. 

Despite the seemingly upbeat picture of a united Britain in the face of unprecedented duress, the reality is more sobering. 

It is true that nearly a million people offered to volunteer through the NHS scheme to help in their neighbourhoods, and thousands of local mutual aid groups were formed within days of the first lockdown. The pandemic even seemed to bring out the unlikely to volunteer: younger people, men and people with disabilities, who are usually under–represented in the voluntary sector. The pandemic also seemed to bring people closer together: the sense of community, of belonging, of being “in this together” and the spirit of mutual aid are repeatedly highlighted as features of the first wave of the pandemic. 

Yet the spirit of mutual aid proved to be sort–lived, and the organised charity sector suffered tremendously. 

While they were the first port of call for the poorest and most vulnerable members of society, charities were also crippled by sanitary restrictions, the inability to hold their usual fundraising events, the need to digitise wherever possible, to furlough staff and to find alternative work for their volunteers working in the field. At the height of the pandemic, when homeless people, refugees and other vulnerable groups were most in need of support, charities overwhelmingly reported a loss of volunteers and funding. 

Even when the restrictions were lifted between the various waves of Covid–19 outbreaks, charities struggled to meet the demand for their services. Many long–term volunteers and supporters were unable to return to volunteering because of health concerns, and many who had lost the habit of volunteering simply decided not to return. 

In addition, early, rather positive analyses of the state of volunteering in the UK during the pandemic failed to capture the long–term “social scarring” that British society would suffer from the pandemic. Although we are now firmly established in a “new post–pandemic normal,” the shadow of Covid–19 still looms large over society. 

The aftermath of the pandemic is even bleaker, because it is much more enduring. In addition to all the pressures the charity sector faced before 2020, all of which remain today, it now has to operate with fewer staff and volunteers, face an ongoing battle with digitalisation, and deal with a difficult post–Covid financial situation. Levels of formal volunteering in the UK are at an all–time low – lower even than during the 2008 recession – public trust in the charitable sector has also fallen, and the gap between more deprived and more privileged areas of the country appears to be widening. 

The ongoing cost of living crisis is just the bitter icing on top of the cake. With inflation and energy costs both draining the sector’s already dwindling resources and impacting on public donations, charities face an almost impossible balancing act, as a recent report by Pro Bono Economics and NTU points out. Not only is the sector itself affected, constantly scrambling for funds to keep the lights on, but it also faces increased demand that it cannot meet. The cost of living crisis, as incisively noted by my colleague, is threatening its own last line of defence.[xv] 

Like an exhausted and bleeding Atlas, the charity sector carries on its weary shoulders the responsibility for many essential public services and for caring for society’s most vulnerable. And if we do not act soon to heal its wounds, then doubtlessly the heavens will come crashing down.


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[i] Hornung, L. (2020) “What can the UK Civil Society Almanac tell us about charities’ challenges now and in the future?” NCVO Blogs. Published 8 July 2020.

[ii] Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012. For the notion of “social value” in the delivery of public services, see Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, The role of Voluntary, Community, and Social Enterprise (VCSE) organisations in public procurement. Published 30 August 2022.

[iii] Tierney, S. & Mahtani, K. R. (2020) “Volunteering during the COVID–19 pandemic: What are the potential benefits to people’s well–being?” Oxford COVID–19 Evidence Service. Published 23 April 2020.

[iv] Mao, G., Fernandes–Jesus, M., Ntontis, E., & Drury, J. (2021) “What have we learned about COVID–19 volunteering in the UK? A rapid review of the literature” in BMC Public Health vol 21.

[v] NTU, NCVO, Sheffield Hallam, Respond, Recover, Reset: the voluntary sector and COVID–19. May 2021. Published May 2021. // McCabe A, Wilson M, Macmillan R. (2020) “Stronger than anyone thought: communities responding to COVID–19.” Local Trust. // Mak H.W., Fancourt D. (2020) Predictors of engaging in voluntary work during the Covid–19 pandemic: analyses of data from 31,890 adults in the UK. SocArXiv.

[vi] Tiratelli, L., & Kaye, S. “Communities vs Coronavirus. The Rise of Mutual Aid.” New Local Government Network. Published 13 July 2020. // Crawford, L. “Working paper 2: What the existing research tells us.” Mobilising Voluntary Action. Published 30 June 2021.// Tierney & Mahtani, 2020 // McCabe et al., 2020

[vii] Pennington, M. (2020), The Church and Social Cohesion, The Free Churches Group & Theos, pp. 100 – 101.

[viii] Dederichs, K. (2022). “Volunteering in the United Kingdom During the COVID–19 Pandemic: Who Started and Who Quit?” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly.

[ix] Stuart, J., McGarvey, A., Crawford, L. & Hogg E. “Volunteering in England during Covid–19. Current issues and learning for recovery.” Mobilising Voluntary Action. Published 5 July 2021.

[x] Cretu, C. “A Catalyst for change. What COVID–19 has taught us about the future of local government.” Nesta. Published 29 September 2020.

[xi] Stuart et al., 2021

[xii] Dederichs, 2022 // McCabe et al., 2020

[xiii] The project went on from October 2020 to March 2022. The source cited here is their final report: NTU, NCVO, Sheffield Hallam, Respond, Recover, Reset: Two Years On. Published March 2022.

[xiv] Lim, C. and Laurence, J. (2015), “Doing good when times are bad.” The British Journal of Sociology, vol. 66 (2), pp. 319 – 344.

[xv] Rich, H. (2022), A Torn Safety Net, Theos.

Image by rigsbyphoto on Shutterstock

George Lapshynov

George Lapshynov

George is a Researcher at Theos. He holds degrees in International Relations and History & Politics from the University of Glasgow. He is interested in the place of wisdom in contemporary politics and has published articles on the history of sacred music.

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Posted 15 August 2023



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