Nicole Sykes, Director of External Affairs at Pro Bono Economics

During the dark days of March 2020, when the global pandemic first arrived on UK shores, there were precious few moments of light. The willingness of the British people to roll up their sleeves and pitch in however they could was one of those exceptions.

The mobilisation of neighbours looking out for each other was a country-wide, spontaneous phenomenon. The overwhelming numbers who signed up to be NHS Volunteer Responders – 170,000 in the first 24 hours, 750,000 by the week’s end – was the only count people were pleased to hear about at the time, when all other graphs looked grim. And in 2021’s lockdown sequel, once again volunteers are helping steer us towards the light, as they manage the car parks and queues of our vaccine centres.

The scale of that volunteering effort has been a testament to the human desire to work together when times are tough. But will it endure as we move into recovery? Has our nation’s volunteer spirit been permanently altered?

Certainly, the experience of Covid has shaken up volunteering, starting with just who has stepped forward over the last year. The archetypal volunteer is wealthy, white, middle-class, highly educated and – key in this context – elderly. Charity membership body NCVO estimates for instance that 45% of those aged 65 and over volunteered in some way in 2019, while 40% of 55-64 year olds did the same. But shielding meant a chunk of the usual cohort dropped out of the volunteering pool during the pandemic: 29% of over-65s in a recent PBE survey said they helped out neighbours during the first lockdown, well down on the 43% of 50-64 year olds who reported doing so. The typical volunteer has changed in other ways as well, with ethnic minorities more likely to start volunteering for the first time between March and July this year than those from a white background. More worryingly, some anecdotal reports from LGBTQ+ organisations suggest that young volunteers trapped at home with homophobic or transphobic families have found themselves having to withdraw from serving their communities.

The act of volunteering has shifted over the past year too. Like so much of our lives, it has moved online – from the 3,000 mutual aid groups organised on Facebook and WhatsApp, to employee volunteers running work experience programs from Zoom. The charity sector has demonstrated rapid digital transformation, with three quarters of charities making greater use of digital and technology through the crisis. This is innovation born of necessity. But this revolution is not cost free, risking excluding those older and disabled people who are less likely to be digitally savvy for instance.

Volunteering has changed at a more structural level too. While large schemes like the NHS Responders have garnered a lot of attention, many opportunities for formal volunteering – regular volunteering with established groups, clubs and non-profit organisations – have been put on pause. Almost half of charities have had to reduce their services. Community centres, charity shops and social hubs where many formal volunteering opportunities usually took place have been gathering cobwebs, while schools, care homes and organisations focused on the vulnerable have been wary of outside visitors.

In contrast, informal volunteering – the casual helping out of others with household tasks and errands – has proliferated. Pre-Covid, 28% of the population reported undertaking such activity; over the summer of 2020, that figure climbed to 47%. Broadly focused around providing essentials like food and tackling loneliness, the public’s creativity has been allowed out to play in this space. ‘Shop and drops’, community fridges, recipe boxes, outdoor food-sharing tables and, as lockdown eased, pay-as-you-feel cafes all sprung up across the country, with approaches differing town-by-town, street-by-street. Wellbeing phone calls, online coffee mornings and knit-and-natter sessions have been standard fare regardless of location. But other ways of reaching out to others have popped up more disparately: street art in Tamworth and Leeds, activity packs for children and families distributed in Banbury and Barnet, Spider-Man runs in Stockport and Portsmouth. Individually modest acts, but collectively significant. Legal & General estimates these efforts were worth £350million a week to the economy at lockdown’s height.

In the hunt for silver linings to illuminate the way out of the pandemic, some have wondered whether a new civic spirit may be with us to stay. Will new, younger volunteers sustain an interest once their usual social lives beckon, creating a larger pool overall once older and vulnerable volunteers are allowed back out in the world? Will the digital infrastructure installed over the emergency period allow for more people to fit volunteering around newly busy lives?

The indicators are not all that positive. Even in the short period between England’s first and second national lockdowns in March and November, the number of people volunteering or supporting their neighbours in some way may have fallen by as much as 6 million according to Pro Bono Economics analysis. And history tells us that it is very hard to capture the spirit of a moment once it has passed: the halcyon days of the 2012 Olympics were accompanied by a volunteering boost too, yet that swiftly leaked away.

From administration to administration, various attempts have been made by political leaders to unlock the kind of collective effort Covid has shown may be possible. Blair dabbled in volunteering as a way to tackle social exclusion. Cameron had the Big Society, May mentioned a Shared Society. Yet volunteering levels have remained stubbornly flat and hours given have petered downwards. If he wishes to buck this trend, then today’s Prime Minister will need to develop a new strategy – and soon. Conveniently, a document full of ideas from Danny Kruger MP sits on civil service reading lists.

There are certainly prizes to be won if we can continue to unleash the UK’s voluntary potential beyond the pandemic. Andy Haldane estimates formal and informal volunteering adds £41 billion to the economy each year, and there is a wealth of evidence that the act of volunteering is linked to higher personal wellbeing.

But it will be tough. With evidence suggesting existing community infrastructure is key, it will need strong local leadership as much as top-down imperative and incentive. To learn what went well, it will need good data – something the voluntary sector is sorely lacking. To ensure volunteers get the most out of their experience and thereby give the most back, many believe the voluntary sector needs to take a hard look at how it rewards, recognises and treats people offering up their skills and time. And with the need for community fridges and knit-and-natters likely to diminish at least a little as the economy recovers, the broken link between demand and supply of volunteering efforts needs to be looked at again so people know where help is needed.

Difficult, but most likely worth it. The pandemic has made us poorer in a plethora of ways. But it has also shown we are rich in people willing to help, and we can continue to be if we do the work.