The Supported Volunteering Project and beyond

Hello! My name is Ellie and for those who don’t know me, I worked at the Supported Volunteering Project (SVP) for 6 years.

I recently came back from maternity leave and found many changes to the sector, and to my role, so I often feel I am starting a new job altogether.  From the tools we use, to the ways we communicate – working from home rather than at the hub in Arbury Court, to the needs of the community, and a new inspiring willingness for the voluntary sector to work together.

The SVP was set up in 2012 by Cambridge and District Volunteer Centre (CDVC) to help those needing extra support to get involved in volunteering. When the CDVC closed, CambridgeCVS recognised the need for the support and took over the project.

It has been a beautiful journey so far enabling me to witness people from all backgrounds, putting their hearts into new challenges and helping create a more just and balanced community. I’ve had many opportunities to grow and learn, both personally, and professionally.

What I particularly enjoyed in my role was the ability to listen to people and their stories, being inspired by them and working out how to best utilise their lived experiences, their skills (that often they did not even identify as skills) and their passions. Working together with professionals enabled us to discover as a team, that the prospective volunteer often had the best answers themselves all along, and encouragement and guidance was all they needed to reach their potential and in turn to encourage and teach others to do the same.

Being passionate about community and people, I am full of admiration for the projects and people I meet every day. Cambridge is a melting pot of cultures and skills and people can, with the right support, achieve incredible results once they connect with their community.

During my years at the SVP, people came to us, to some degree, in waves, responding to events in the community, or in their own lives, that made them feel increasingly isolated or unable to connect with others. I have worked with people struggling with poor mental health, those who were new to Cambridge and the country and people who had been unemployed long term, as well as people with disabilities, stay at home parents, carers, and young people considering a gap year.

When the pandemic hit, I was on maternity leave and trying to get along like everyone else during such an upsetting time. But I was amazed by the community response to the emergency, and my heart was full of hope and wonder how people just got on and helped each other, getting to know their neighbours and community in time of need.

For some, it was the first opportunity to volunteer. I interviewed several residents and found that people who had never volunteered before, did so during lockdown, as “a way to keep mentally healthy and feel useful”. Others, who had volunteered before, found their role had changed as had the needs of their clients, some just started helping neighbours and built connections, albeit socially distanced, that they “should have made years before.”

At CCVS, we realised we need to rethink and reshape our volunteering support, to respond to needs and changes that the pandemic unearthed. Volunteering is for all: everybody can volunteer, and everybody needs the voluntary sector and its army of volunteers. It is our intention, as a community development organisation, to work towards accessible and barrier free volunteering opportunities for all.

It is very exciting for me to be back at work with a strong and caring team of colleagues, who, like me, believe in community and its potential.  We aim to support long, mutually beneficial, meaningful relationships with local community groups and volunteers.

For now, we have restarted 1:1 support by phone, email and online. We have begun a new activity: “Walk and Talk about Volunteering” which is a chance for people (potential volunteers, volunteers and voluntary organisations) to meet, walk, and chat about all things volunteering – such as opportunities, projects and application processes.

We already deliver training, currently online, and facilitate volunteer manager forums. We give advice to those in support or caring roles who would like to become volunteers. We work with organisations and offer guidance with volunteer recruitment and management and encourage recruitment from all parts of the community. We plan to restart group presentations and participation in events promoting volunteering. Finally, we encourage the care and kindness that our sector best represents and push for change where needed to empower everybody to become the volunteer they want to be.

If you would like to know more please get in touch with me ellie@cambridgecvs.org.uk or call 07840989719.

Voluntary sector and volunteering, Covid 19 and beyond.

Some thoughts on our survey, the work we do with groups, and the future.

There has been an explosion of volunteers and community spirit across Cambridgeshire as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic. Across the county people are coming together to help others in their community by collecting prescriptions, by doing shopping and by donating to foodbanks. From nowhere new groups have set, old groups have found new activities to engage with charities and community groups have adapted and changed. So, what does this mean for the future of organisations and volunteering?

We have surveyed over 100 local charities to ask them how the pandemic is affecting them and have worked with many more to help them adapt and survive. This has raised a number of questions that I think will be important going forward as we entre a recovery phase, and find out what the new normal is.

We found thousands of staff, volunteers and trustees raising to the challenge to find new ways to support people in these difficult times.

“We have moved all of our services to remote delivery and are offering 1-1 support to LGBTQ+ young people by phone/text/email/video call, and weekly online groups by video call. We have also been distributing relevant books and DVDs to young people by post. We have been investigating how we can move our training delivery online.”

Yet, at the same time some charities are no longer able to deliver services safely and have had to close

“Our small staff group of six are furloughed. The site is closed to co-workers, volunteers, staff and customers.”

Many charities are losing money as they are unable to carry out their usual fundraising, or they are losing income they earn from entrance fees, charity shops or for selling services. We estimate that across Cambridgeshire registered charities will lose over £34.5 million due to the crisis. The total will be even higher if community groups and unregistered charities are included.

Whilst the government has promised charities extra funding this will not plug the gap which NCVO estimate to be £4Billion in England and Wales[1]. Charities that have furloughed workers but are still incurring other costs are not eligible for much of the government support, and we know of groups that will be closing their doors, possibly permanently, when their reserves run out in the next few months.

We know that many charities have benefited from local fundraising, and that many funders including are continuing to support charities. This will not be enough, and most charities do not seem to be eligible for the grants that are being offered to small businesses.

Yet there is still a high level of optimism amongst charities about their future, with 42% being totally confident they will be operating in six months. (These figures should be viewed with a little caution as many of those charities struggling would have furloughed workers, and as such may not have been able to respond.

We also saw that 59% of charities were still using volunteers to deliver services, but only 16% were looking for volunteers. We have heard that many of the local support groups currently have more volunteers than they have roles, and that some are struggling to keep them engaged. What this shows is that volunteers continue to be key to charities delivering services, and that there is an appetite for people to volunteer if they can see a way that they can help.

Moving forward

As we move towards recovery, and as lockdown changes, charities will become even more essential. They will need to be there to support people who have money worries, who have lost relatives, who have mental health problems. They will need to help rebuild communities, and find new ways to bring people together.

“We are very aware that we will experience a significant surge in demand for our services once lock down restrictions have been eased. Many survivors of sexual violence and abuse are unable to reach out to us at the present time due to lack of privacy at home, caring for children, living with abusers etc. So we are trying to plan for how we manage what we will be a significant increase in demand without additional resources or capacity.”

In order for groups to continue to deliver we need to find ways to answer the main concerns that they identified.

As face to face work becomes harder or impossible groups are looking at how they can move their support on to digital platforms. For some this has been a painless experience, but for many it has proved much harder.

Groups are struggling with out of date IT systems and a lack of funds to replace these or invest in the software packages they need. Groups are also struggling with the skills to move to digital delivery and to update their systems.

There are also serious issues with many communities of a growing digital divide, with many people that groups could help digitally not having the technology, skills or data to engage.

As previously mentioned many charities are losing money, however even those that have benefited from new funding support worry about the longer term future. As funders open their coffers to address the crisis this will inevitably impact on the funds available going forward. At the same time the public has dug deeper into their pockets to support local and national campaigns but Caf[2] report that fewer people are saying they will donate in the next months as people are concerned about their own income.

Funding as we move into the recovery phase of the pandemic will be equally as important as it was to meet the initial emergency. If funders have seen endowments reduced, and have offered additional funding immediately then there will be less money available than normal, this will be compounded by local authority and government belt tightening as they seek to address the extra spending they have had to make during the crisis. This will be further compounded as charities continue to lose income from events and activities that will not be able to start for a while, and as the country moves into a recession and donations are impacted.

Volunteers have played a massively important role in the current pandemic and many more people would have had serious problems if it hadn’t been for the army of good neighbours who have stepped forward to help. But there have been problems, locally there have been more volunteers than roles, but also volunteers have been asked to carry out roles without the proper training and support. Nationally the plans to have volunteers run the testing stations went quiet after uproar from the sector, but it is important that volunteers receive the support and training they need.

What the pandemic has shown is that people will volunteer given the right opportunity and a way to do it. Moving forwards if we as a sector are to make the most of this we are going to have to adapt the volunteer roles we have and allow people to volunteer on their terms and not ours.

Mental health services, both those provided by the voluntary sector and those provided by the health sector have done an incredible job in moving their support online or to the phone. Despite this there is a recognition that the mental health impact of the pandemic is likely to last much longer than the physical health impact.[3] The BMJ state

“Early research has brought attention to the psychological impacts of such viral epidemics and protracted physical distancing measures, including those that are expected (such as loss of identity, disruption to usual activity, increases in feelings of loneliness) and those that may be unintended (including increases in domestic violence, child maltreatment and cyberbullying). For many, several coping strategies to deal with this psychological impact can be detrimental to mental health; including alcohol and drug misuse, and online gambling.”

This will impact on staff and volunteers as well as the clients and organisations have to recognise this and adapt to it.

Coming out of lockdown and the immediate crisis charities and community groups will become even more important. As individuals and communities struggle to find their ‘new normal’.

The CAF Coronavirus Briefing shows that in April there was a mixed reaction to this question with only 1 in 4 charities reporting an actual increase in demand. Our research saw charities that might have reduced services due to the virus recognising the fact that there was likely to be increases in demand as they reopen. This will coincide with organisations potentially having reduced capacity or having to find new ways of working. It is important that where possible organisations address this before any surge in demand.

There are two issues here, the first around those organisations that have formed as a direct response to the pandemic, and the second for those organisations that have had to furlough staff to be able to survive.

In the first case groups of well meaning volunteers have suddenly had to think about health and safety, safeguarding, and other issues that keep both the volunteers and those they are helping safe. No one signs up to volunteer around these things, but they have to be there and they have to be understood and acted on.

The second area is where trustees and volunteers are suddenly trying to keep an organisation functioning without staff input. This can be very hard as they are often not connected enough with the operational side of the charity. We have spoken to trustees that have stepped up to take on staff roles and groups where services have been turned round and adapted with little staff input. It is essential that trustees are given the support to do this, but that they also have the time to keep staff on board.

The ‘New normal’

Charities and community groups are doing fantastic work to make a real difference to individuals and communities, I don’t think anyone would disagree with that. Times are hard and confusing, again this is a given. Charities don’t need support because they need to survive, they need support because of the work they do with people and communities across Cambridgeshire and the country. There is no ‘right’ to continued existence.

But charities will need to adapt, and those that do will come out of this pandemic stronger and able to make a bigger impact.

I believe charities need to think about

Volunteering – It has been proved that people want to and will volunteer, it needs to be on their terms and that means we need to offer more flexible, short term, local opportunities that fit with people’s lives and passions.

Technology – We have all become more digital out of necessary. This will impact on how and what we deliver, but this has to recognise that not everyone has, or wants, access to digital tools or data. Whilst working to incorporate digital delivery we have to reduce the digital divide, and this includes working with our staff and volunteers to give them the skills and confidence to embrace and champion technology.

Partnership – This is going to be increasingly important as we struggle to address complex issues, but also as resources get scarcer. We are going to need to find ways of learning from others as well as thinking about joint work. Organisations that think they can ‘go it alone’ will find themselves being marginalised by funders as well as excluded from policy making and delivering solutions.

At the same time there will need to be a recognition that things have changed for who we work with. We know that behaviours will change, research is showing that inequalities are growing because of the pandemic, and simply winding the clock back to February isn’t, and shouldn’t be, an option. Organisations like CCVS will be there, we will be able to act as a sounding board, we will be able to bring people together, but we don’t have all the answers. I believe that the local charity sector can emerge


[1] https://www.ncvo.org.uk/about-us/media-centre/press-releases/2748-every-day-counts-as-charities-still-wait-for-government-support#footnote1

[2] https://www.cafonline.org/docs/default-source/about-us-publications/caf-report-coronavirus-how-charities-and-donors-are-reacting.pdf?sfvrsn=15276c47_2

[3] https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2020/05/05/the-long-term-mental-health-impact-of-covid-19-must-not-be-ignored/