Volunteering and the Government Furlough Scheme

In this piece, we seek to investigate if the furlough scheme has, indeed, had a positive impact on the volunteering sector and how can charities retain volunteers once they have returned to work? In addition, we will provide a general overview of current volunteering initiatives, which have been welcomed by the public. Volunteering plays an integral role in the UK economy and around one in five people volunteer at least once a month either formally and informally for a charity or cause. Even prior to this pandemic, many people engaged in volunteering initiatives either at a local or national level. Now, with large numbers of people on furlough and with considerable free time on their hands, many have signed up help those in need.


In response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced the introduction of the furlough scheme in March, and the UK government confirmed that furloughed employees could volunteer during this time and even launched an initiative for people to sign up for voluntary roles in the Civil Service called the Industry Partnering Voluntary Scheme.


At a time where the country rallied together, thousands who were furloughed signed up to volunteering schemes run by individual charities, the NHS and other organisations; putting their new-found free time to support vulnerable people in their communities. The NHS, for example, received close to one million volunteer applications. Many charities including Age UK and The Mix launched calls for remote volunteers, with tasks including calling elderly residents in a specific area, whilst other charities have launched calls for people to help in local foodbanks and to safely deliver food parcels and medicines to those shielding.


Although many of the UK’s approximately 166,000 charities felt as if now was not the time to onboard new volunteers due to funding constraints and safety concerns, other charities viewed the introduction of the furlough scheme as an opportunity to seek expertise around a particular subject area or skill to boost operations even if it is just for a few hours a week.


As a result of the 9 million workers in the UK placed on furlough, new platforms for people to find volunteer opportunities have been launched. Furlonteer was set up by Nancy Duncan who saw a gap in the market for a platform, which would match up furloughed workers skills to volunteering opportunities. Since its launch, over 3000 furloughed workers have been matched with opportunities from 500 organisations including UN Women and Compassion London. Other organisations actively sought individuals with strong digital skills to assist them with online fundraising to reach new potential donors as traditional fundraising including running events has been temporarily paused by the pandemic.


Shout, launched by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2019, is a free text-messaging platform for people facing mental health crises. With mental health charities including Mind, Young Minds and Rethink Mental Illness reporting a surge in people requesting to speak to someone due to anxiety, stress and other conditions, Shout has stepped up its call for Crisis Volunteers. These volunteers commit up to four hours a week responding to people who have texted asking for assistance.


Community volunteering has also become more popular during this pandemic. Community-led volunteer groups who are referred as ‘mutual aid’ groups exist in many parts of the UK and are set up to help those in a specific area including neighbourhoods and streets. A case study from the NCVO detailed how an individual from a small village in Yorkshire was inspired to bring together local stakeholders and residents to form a coordinated response to the crisis in their village. Within days of an initial meeting being held, a website was set up and a community response plan had been drafted.

Even though there has been great interest among furloughed workers to give back to their community in some way, not all charities and organisations have seen a significant impact of the furlough scheme on their volunteer numbers. Scope, a leading disability charity, noted that around 20 people who had been furloughed have been in touch with the charity about volunteering opportunities. However, the charity has not been able to offer much to these people as their retail outlets have been closed until June 15 and they did not offer remote volunteering opportunities. The vast majority of Scope’s volunteers work for their retail outlets across the country. However, now that the retail outlets have been given the green light by the government to reopen, the charity are welcoming new volunteers once again as they face the prospect of sorting through large amounts of donations from the general public.


Although many charities who have been able to onboard new volunteers during this period have seen benefits of extra assistance from people on furlough, the question remains on how these organisations can retain them once they return to their full-time jobs? No one knows for certain when some kind of normality will resume and volunteers may be needed by some charities for the foreseeable future, but many of them who would have been able to dedicate a few hours a day or week to a cause, may not have the time for it anymore due to changes in personal circumstances.


The NCVO believe that one of the key things an organisation can do to retain volunteers is recognise their contribution, either formally or informally. Informally asking volunteers for opinions on internal developments and applauding their efforts keeps them engaged and enthusiastic. Formally, volunteer events such as the annual Volunteers Week, awarding certificates and inviting volunteers to be part of staff working groups is another way for an organisation to retain volunteers. According to the 2019 Time Well Spent survey administered by the NCVO, the most popular form of volunteer recognition was verbal or written thanks from the organisation.


Adeela Warley, the Chief Executive of CharityComms, further reflected on volunteer retention post-pandemic: ‘as we start to reopen our charity shops, community libraries, parks and cultural venues, let’s remember that the generosity and commitment of volunteers are at their heart.’ Volunteering Week, which is celebrated each June to thank volunteers for their tireless work proved to have even more significance this year. Countless stories from frontline volunteers were shared online and inspired people across the country.


As the UK moves out of lockdown and people return to work, it is important that charities and other organisations look for innovative ways to continue attracting volunteers. Many of the people supported by schemes during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK will likely need support for longer. One can even dedicate a couple hours a week to a good cause or spend a few times a month volunteering with a local charity. The furlough scheme has certainly boosted volunteering numbers and it is hoped, by the NCVO and other organisations, that many of those who are on furlough will continue to volunteer in some way in the near future.