Voluntary Sector Studies Network (VSSN) Online Day Conference: Volunteering in a Global Pandemic
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VSSN Spring Day Conference Report: Volunteering in a Global Pandemic

This year’s Voluntary Sector Studies Network (VSSN) Spring day conference was hosted by the Institute for Volunteering Research at University of East Anglia in Norwich, hosted in collaboration with the International Association for Volunteer Effort (IAVE) and the International Forum for Volunteering in Development (FORUM) and the Third Sector Research Centre (TSRC).

The focus of the day was ‘Volunteering in a Global Pandemic’. Dr Carol Jacklin-Jarvis, Director of the Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership in the Faculty of Business and Law at the The Open University, and VSSN Steering Group member, wrote the following:

In this extended day event VSSN researchers and practitioners from the UK heard directly from volunteer-involving and volunteer support agencies around the globe, with presentations from the Americas, Asia and the Pacific region, and Africa and Europe.  The inclusion of different voices from so many different contexts highlighted the impact of volunteering during the pandemic on a vast range of challenges.  From India, we heard about the role volunteers played in supplying oxygen. From Peru, we heard about the support that volunteer psychologists gave to women in domestic abuse situations.  From Trinidad and Tobago, we heard about the development of a volunteer e-mentoring service.  There were multiple stories from around the globe of voluntary action in local communities to provide food, assuage loneliness, and provide a support structure to meet local needs.  Indeed, it was this everyday and yet extraordinary, often informal and self-organised local community support that was perhaps the most dominant theme of the day – described by one participant as ‘love in motion’

A second theme was the implications for volunteering support and infrastructure organisations of this growth in informal community-based voluntary action – in a context where many more formal volunteer-involving organisations have had to limit their services due to lockdown.  Several participants reflected on how their organisations might harness the growth in community-based, neighbourly action, but also recognised that the relationship between community action and the formal part of the sector is by no means straightforward.  In the words of one of our participants, there is a ‘fine line between encouragement and interference’. Understanding and working along that fine line in very different contexts poses a challenge for volunteer alliances and infrastructure agencies.  Participants talked about the importance of the  ‘volunteering ecosystem’, ‘tendrils of association’, the ‘intersectionality of formal and informal’, and the enabling environment, but also reflected on very different political contexts and the impact of those contexts on structuring support to volunteers.  An example was the discussion of national volunteer strategies (or their absence) and differences in regulation.

A third significant theme was the role of digital in enabling volunteering during the pandemic and the importance of digital for the future of volunteering.  Digital technology makes things possible and engages people in new ways (as our global discussion illustrated).  Tech enables a ‘mobility of knowledge’ and participants gave examples as to how volunteering activity developed and grew through, for example, social media, and online volunteering. However, tech can also marginalise, and this needs working through in the future to ensure a move to digital does not further exclude those who are already marginalised.  In one example, we heard about partnerships between business and schools to give children access to technology, but it’s not clear whether such partnerships will continue beyond the pandemic.

The final theme of the day was partnerships and collaborative working.  We heard of great examples of collaboration between volunteers and business, and volunteer-involving organisations and government.  But this was where the darker side of pandemic volunteering also emerged – the absence of government support in some cases and the failure of centralised volunteering schemes; gaps between government and sector-led support and services; and questions about the legitimate role of volunteers in state welfare.

This was an extraordinary day – hearing directly from people involved in making volunteering happen around the globe.  It reminded us all of the kindness and generosity of so many during the pandemic, but, looking ahead, also posed important questions for research and practice – about the future of community-based volunteering and its relationship with formalised volunteer-involving organisations; the role of volunteering in future state welfare; and the shape of future volunteer infrastructure.

The panellists were kind enough to record position statements which are available to view here, which helped us get the conversation started. They are very powerful, so we encourage you to view them if you are interested in diverse perspectives about the role of volunteering in a global pandemic.

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