Since early 2020 disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have added significant strain to a host of human development challenges across the globe. These have been most acute in countries where states lack adequate capacity to deal with this public health emergency and to cushion citizens from the associated economic impact. We have also witnessed a massive loss of life in many parts of the developed world where ideological muddling, misinformation and disinformation have rendered impotent the state’s capacity to contain the pandemic.
In this context, challenges emerging from COVID-19 have nevertheless attracted numerous innovative solutions from the volunteering community at all levels (local, subnational, national, regional and global). These innovations require careful analysis and documentation as important lessons can be learned from them; however, the innovations must also be considered in the context of broader structural challenges and new dilemmas for volunteer involving organizations (VIOs).
Despite the vast experience that VIOs have gained in the face of natural disasters, incidents of mass violence, and infectious disease outbreaks over many years, COVID-19 has exposed these organizations to a new and frightening set of realities on a global scale not previously experienced. How well volunteer effort intervenes and responds to this pandemic is dependent on a number of factors such as strategic leadership capacity, organizational and sectoral capacity, and resourcing and relationships. In this context, national volunteering leadership organizations (VLOs) are an increasingly important asset in supporting and developing the global volunteer movement to meet current and future challenges. This new reality has raised several volunteer development and managerial questions about VLO interventions in the COVID-19 pandemic.
The research study was commissioned by IAVE to create a body of knowledge about the experience of national volunteering leadership organizations in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. The research report examines how COVID-19 has impacted on the strategic leadership role of national volunteering leadership organizations (VLOs) in advocacy, development and volunteer mobilization. It also considers what this means for VLOs and the future of volunteering.
The data was collected from VLO members and potential members of IAVE’s Global Network for Volunteering Leadership (GNVL) using a mixed methods approach which produced quantitative data from 70 respondents across 67 countries to an online survey sent to 125 organizations, and qualitative data from 31 in-depth interviews conducted online. Survey respondents and key informants were spread across the six regions in which IAVE operates: Africa, the Arab region, Asia-Pacific, Europe, Latin America, and North America and the Caribbean. The data was collected between February and April 2021.
The evidence shows that across the globe the pandemic increased the complexity of the volunteering environment, on this basis the research team examined the implications for strategic leadership in VLOs that are navigating an unpredictable future.
Hover over map to see the participating organizations by country
■ Survey Respondents ● Interviewees
The evidence shows that across the globe the pandemic increased the complexity of the volunteering environment, on this basis the research team examined the implications for strategic leadership in VLOs that are navigating an unpredictable future. The following sets out the key findings from the research study.
Partnerships and coalitions
COVID-19 led to VLOs being involved in more partnerships, working to mobilize, support and advocate for volunteering.
A key feature of the VLO strategic response to the pandemic has been the growth of partnerships and coalitions between VLOs and their stakeholders, both existing and new. Where these pre-date COVID-19, they have been reconfigured to meet the demands of the pandemic. The scale of such partnerships is clear from the survey in which 64% of the respondents said they have strengthened their volunteer-based partnerships with government during COVID-19, while 52% of the respondents also developed strategic partnerships with companies. 60% stated they had been part of new coalitions of volunteer involving organizations during COVID-19 to support volunteer mobilization.
The research data shows…
COVID-19 highlighted the role of VLOs in creating an enabling environment for volunteering.
The COVID-19 context produced opportunities as VLOs drew on complementary skills and resources in their coalitions and partnerships to increase their impact. 100% of the survey respondents stated their leadership role was aimed at creating an enabling environment and in the context of COVID-19 88% said this had become a greater priority than before. Quality standards also became a greater priority for 75% of the organizations surveyed.
The pandemic increased the drive to remove barriers to volunteering. VLOs played various roles in crafting national volunteer strategies; advocating for national and regional voluntary service schemes; creating supportive legal and regulatory volunteer infrastructure; and advising on national volunteer management strategies and protocols. A key area of concern was the safety of volunteers, including lobbying for health insurance that includes cover for illness. 82% of survey respondents said they had to strengthen their own policies on volunteer safety and safeguarding.
Educating decision makers on the need for resources also featured in the effort to remove barriers to volunteering. VLOs have sought long-term financing from governments, have tried to expedite delays in receiving public funding, and have lobbied for the removal of costs such as obtaining police clearance.
The research data shows…
The development role of VLOs
COVID-19 opened up new opportunities and/or changed priorities for the capacity building work of VLOs.
The impact of COVID-19 led to organizations becoming more aware of their strengths and weaknesses, identifying gaps in their organizational structures and in their ability to consistently deliver high quality services. 66% of the survey respondents stated that they have been part of new VIO coalitions supporting capacity building, which has enabled them to pool resources, tools and expertise to offer various types of training relevant to the COVID-19 context. The situation has however been complex, with 55% of survey respondents indicating that the pandemic has negatively affected their capacity building work, and 65% said that some of the organizations they work with have ceased to operate or have closed. Yet COVID-19 also opened up new opportunities including highlighting the importance of informal volunteering at community level. 73% of survey respondents had been involved in building the capacity of community-based volunteers and organizations to support responses to COVID-19 while 45% said they plan to build the capacity of communities to support vaccination programs.
Innovative solutions to lockdown and other restrictions included using technology more effectively: 95% of survey respondents stated that COVID-19 had changed the way they use technology and social media, and that this will continue.
The research data shows…
During COVID–19 VLOs continued and/or increased their support for volunteer mobilization.
The importance of volunteer mobilization during COVID-19 is clear, and VLOs faced opportunities as well as challenges. 88% of VLO survey respondents stated that they mobilized volunteers, and 60% said they had been part of new coalitions of volunteer involving organizations (VIOs) to support volunteer mobilization during the pandemic. Furthermore, 84% of the respondents stated they were strengthening the capacity of VIOs in their geographical area and/or network to promote and organize volunteering.
However, volunteering activity appears to have both increased and decreased at different times and in different locations, and certainly changed in the way it operated. 55% of survey respondents stated that they had increased the number of people who wanted to volunteer but 55% also stated that the pandemic/lockdown had reduced volunteer activity in their country. The focus of organizations changed as they responded to the new situation, e.g., volunteer safety became a priority with 82% of survey respondents stating they had to strengthen their policies on volunteer safety and/or safeguarding because of COVID-19. The shutdown and social distancing measures resulting from COVID-19 demanded that VLOs reposition their ways of working and their program activities, especially by embracing digital technology and online volunteering. This new reality has confronted VLOs with a need to develop the capacity of volunteers, VIOs and systems to ensure an effective transition to online volunteering.
Face to face volunteering became difficult and the continuation of volunteer support and volunteer opportunities required a technological response: 64% of survey respondents stated they moved from supporting face to face volunteering to online volunteering. The reduction of formal modes of volunteer mobilization was a challenge for VLOs as they sought to engage with informal volunteer opportunities and still serve organizations and communities that otherwise benefit from formal volunteering. Changes to the volunteering demographic during COVID-19 posed opportunities as well as challenges. These took the form of engaging a wider diversity of volunteers, notably young people and volunteers from socially and economically deprived groups.
Inclusivity emerges as a key feature of volunteer mobilization strategies. 42% of survey respondents said that their organization had focused more on drawing volunteers directly from groups that were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. 70% stated that the impact of COVID-19 means that in future programs and mobilization approaches will be more inclusive.
The research data shows…
The strategic role of VLOs in response to COVID-19
COVID-19 produced a step change in volunteering and VLOs had to adapt strategically to deliver an effective response.
COVID-19 changed the environment in which all actors and institutions function, whether in volunteering or not. This has increased the complexity of the context in which VLOs are repositioning themselves. COVID-19 accelerated and accentuated changes in VLO practice that were already underway. In this sense, the pandemic has arguably been a catalyst to revisit pre-existing systemic problems.
74% of survey respondents changed their leadership approach to respond more strategically to the pandemic. 73% focused more strongly on volunteering to promote human rights, a respectful society, respectful relationships and social change. The vast majority (87%) said their programs changed to engage issues arising from COVID-19, and almost as many (84%) revised their strategies to prioritize online support and engagement with VIOs and volunteers.
In addition, VLO leaders faced new demands such as promoting volunteer welfare and confronting conventional ideas about who can and who should volunteer. It required leadership to adapt and change in a challenging and fast-moving situation.
The research data shows…
VLOs and the future of volunteering
Post COVID-19, VLOS must sustain and build their organizational resilience to be effective advocates for and supporters of volunteering as a catalyst for change in the world.
This research study suggests that ongoing change and unpredictability are the likely hallmarks of a future in which VLOs, and member organizations, seek to survive, develop and become more prepared for the ongoing global pandemic, climate change, and a growing economic and fiscal crisis. There is no consensus about what form volunteering will take although some opportunities such as inclusivity, are apparent. VLO survey respondents said that relationships formed at the local and regional level will continue to be important and that multinational networks (such as GNVL) will become even more so.
Some respondents expect volunteering to decline in future on the basis that the economic and emotional impact of COVID-19 will make people more focused on their own lives, and because of ongoing restrictions in response to successive waves of variants to the virus. The anticipated decline in volunteering is confirmed by a recent study in Australia which found that in the first year of the pandemic the proportion of adult Australians doing voluntary work fell substantially.
A central debate emerges as to whether technology will replace face-to-face/physical volunteering. 64% of survey respondents agree that ‘we have moved from supporting face-to-face volunteering to online volunteering’. However, far from these options being binary, both are seen as opportunities for growth, particularly if more creative roles/ ways of doing physical volunteering are developed and more innovative uses of technology are embraced.
Preparedness for future crises is at the forefront of the minds of many VLO leaders. This is not only about developing safety and security protocols, but is fundamentally about re-organizing, restructuring and retooling programs and operations to respond meaningfully to climate change and other crises. Nevertheless, VLOs also described how difficult it is to future-proof their organizations when they are still dealing with the rapid changes they have had to make in response to COVID-19.
The evidence suggests that the impact of COVID-19 is likely to restructure the volunteer landscape. Some VLOs are unlikely to survive the economic challenges – both large VLOs that experience extensive funding cuts and small VIOs that lack strong governance, leadership and the capacity to manage the radical environmental changes. However, others will flourish because of redirected funding, re-engaged communities or improvements in the value of their service. Some also anticipate that community based VIOs may be more resilient and responsive by virtue of being closely connected with the needs of their communities.
The disruption caused by COVID-19 has left a level of uncertainty with regard to future resourcing models, including the level of state funding and the potential of innovative social enterprise models. With public and private sector funding being diverted to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on societal health, VLOs face difficult strategic options to increase their resource base. 40% of survey respondents disagreed that grant-aided funding from governmental sources will decline for volunteering, indicating a level of optimism about a continued resource-base for volunteering in future. Nevertheless, others are very concerned that reduced donor and grant funding will lead to VLOs closing. Self-earned income is another option, but this drew mixed responses from survey respondents.
The experience of isolation experienced during COVID-19 has emphasized the importance of networks at all levels as a focus for learning and sharing, including the importance of VLO engagement with the GNVL and other avenues for collective advocacy.
The research study shows that GNVL members used the network significantly during the pandemic, with 65% stating the GNVL network enabled them to connect and share knowledge with other VLOs about issues of common interest. 55% stated the GNVL network has provided specific support in addressing the challenges of COVID-19. Members noted benefits linked to the primary role of the network, namely its emphasis on learning and sharing. COVID-19 seems to have increased the recognition of volunteering and enhanced the value of networks. This combination presents as a real opportunity for GNVL in developing as a global network with a focus to support and develop volunteering leadership organizations.
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