The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of volunteers and community and the role VCSE organisations can play as key and essential partners in our health and social care systems.

A new study by a team of researchers from the University of Kent, Brighton and Sussex Medical School and Sussex University shows how voluntary community and social enterprise (VCSE) organisations have made a significant, positive impact on the well-being of older people self-isolating at home during lockdown.

The study, ‘Community-based volunteering in response to COVID-19: the COV-VOL project’, funded by the NIHR Applied Research Collaboration Kent, Surrey and Sussex (ARC KSS), took place during the first lockdown, to look at how the volunteer workforce had rapidly and safely engaged in the community and to determine what impact they had on the older people they supported.

A total of 88 telephone interviews took place with health and social care staff, volunteer workforce organisers, volunteers and older people receiving volunteer support, across Kent, Surrey and Sussex.

Key messages from the study show how:

  • Volunteers made a significant, positive impact on older people in their communities and how volunteers themselves also benefited from being a volunteer.
  • Voluntary organisations want to work in equal partnership with health and social care services to aid planning, decision making and service delivery in order to support the communities they serve and know well.
  • Trusted relationships and local knowledge of the support available in a particular area was important and valued, and facilitated collaborative working.
  • Community voluntary organisations have been agile and able to act quickly during the pandemic with fewer complex operational processes. This needed to be balanced against concerns around safeguarding for both volunteers and the older people they were supporting.
  • Although the use of digital technologies enabled some older people to connect with services and loved-ones, it also highlighted a significant ‘digital divide’ between those able to access and use technology and those who could not.
  • Looking longer-term, there are concerns about the sustainability of the sector, both in terms of financial stability and the supply of volunteers.

Managing the research, Dr Julie MacInnes, from the Centre for Health Service Studies at the University of Kent, said:

“Nationally co-ordinated efforts, such as the GoodSAM app proved very popular at the start of the pandemic, powering the deployment of volunteers for the NHS and other national charities.

“But throughout the crisis, independent community and faiths groups soon became a crucial part of the volunteering effort. By working collaboratively, voluntary organisations and health and social care providers were able to identify gaps in provision, share local knowledge and build trusted relationships.

“There is no doubt that our health and social care system will continue to rely on the voluntary sector to support vulnerable and older members of our communities. This might include help to combat loneliness, providing shopping or prescription collection or helping people to engage with digital technologies.

“However, our research also showed that there were concerns around on-going sustainability, both in terms of financial stability and the on-going supply of volunteers, and how this might be addressed in order to ensure we maintain a thriving and resilient VCSE sector.”

More information about the findings can be found by downloading the summary report.

The research team are now building on this work in a follow-up project, funded by NIHR ARC KSS, which aims to develop and test a Community and Voluntary organisation Evaluation Toolkit (the CAVEAT study) for use by the sector.

For further information
Dr Julie MacInnes, Research Fellow at the University of Kent

Becky Sharp, Implementation Manager, ARC KSS.