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Volunteers alone cannot fill the gap

The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the need for a universal safety net. The government’s 2020 budget, and subsequent measures, tried to bring in temporary changes to social security and “do whatever it takes” to respond to the threat of coronavirus. But after a decade of austerity, which has left our safety net threadbare, it’s barely enough.

Volunteers cannot be left to patch up our social safety net

Budget cuts and resource constraints have crippled the public and charitable sectors. Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, visited the UK in November 2018 and came away with this indictment of British society:

“The social safety net has been badly damaged by drastic cuts to local authorities’ budgets, which have eliminated many social services, reduced policing services, closed libraries in record numbers, shrunk communities and youth centres and sold off public spaces and buildings. The bottom line is that much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos.”

Across the country, charitable organisations and volunteers have been increasingly stepping in to fill gaps in local services left by receding local authorities. In some areas, volunteers have even taken over service delivery – from running libraries to maintaining bus services – to prop up and protect their vital community and the social infrastructure from decline. And in the crisis support sector, in which volunteers have always played a big role because of inadequate resources and funding, the reliance on volunteers has continued to increase.

What is the role of funders in supporting resilience in community-facing organisations? London Funders held a roundtable in March to follow up on this topic, initially raised in a discussion paper launched in April 2019. I shared emerging themes from our research for the Help through Crisis programme, on the resilience of volunteers in the crisis support sector.

Volunteers, especially those with lived experience, require support

Volunteers in the crisis support sector with lived experience require support. Most literature on volunteering in crisis support focuses on rape crisis centres and suicide hotlines. Many rape crisis volunteers describe the all-consuming nature of sexual violence, and how volunteering is something healing and positive they can do. Similarly, some suicide hotline volunteers retained clear memories of the pivotal moment in which they called a suicide hotline and it saved their life, which made them want to give back and volunteer.

These anecdotes not only underscore the value of and need for services, but also the need to provide adequate support to volunteers who may themselves be recovering from trauma and at risk of re-traumatisation.

Our previous research on staff wellbeing in the crisis support sector makes it clear that the sector cannot meet the growing demand for services by relying on unpaid volunteers. Senior management must prioritise the wellbeing of all staff – paid and unpaid – in crisis support organisations. Volunteers require effective line management and support, and if organisations are already under-resourced, they will not be in a position to adequately support volunteers. In the long-run, the crisis support sector desperately needs more funding and resources, not more volunteers.

The onus should not be on volunteers to maintain essential services

Beneficiaries may volunteer to protect and maintain services that have been cut, or are at risk of being cut. We’ve spoken with beneficiaries of crisis support services who are concerned about the dwindling number of paid staff at the organisations they go to for help. One beneficiary feared that continued funding cuts would mean losing her caseworker, who she described as being “latched onto.” She had, in any case, wanted to volunteer in order to return the kindness and support she had received, but her fear of losing services amplified the urgency.

Again, the altruism of volunteers with lived experience and their gratitude for crisis support services are a testament to the essential nature of these services. The generosity of volunteers can help soften the “harsh and uncaring ethos” of austerity measures, but the onus should not be on individual people – especially not beneficiaries – to ensure the continuity of support services. And this paints a tragic portrait of the impacts of austerity in Britain, forcing people to “manage decline” by patching up the social safety net.

Importantly, volunteers can certainly enrich organisations, but we should not exploit them as a mass source of free labour to maintain essential local services that have been, or are at risk of being, cut. Nor should we regard them as a panacea for problems caused by insufficient funding and resources.

We need a new social settlement

We need a new social settlement to ensure that we all have the basics for a decent quality of life. This includes universal basic services – going beyond universal basic income to include other essential needs, like housing, transport, childcare, social care and access to digital information – as well as a shorter working week to increase our leisure time and quality of life.

The New Economics Foundation is working with trade unions, progressive businesses, academics, grassroots organisations, campaigners, among others to develop a core set of policies that help get us there. Funders and organisations that wish to support community resilience should join us in ushering in a new social settlement that’s fit for the 21st century.

This was written by NEF Consulting as part of a project for  Help through Crisis (HtC) programme  funded by The National Lottery Community Fund.