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COVID-19, volunteering and learning for campaigners

COVID-19 has seen an enormous groundswell of interest in volunteering, with the different approaches to how you can get involved in volunteering to help those in your community who are vulnerable or isolating are good examples of how volunteering and community activism is changing.

You have the decentralised, distributed, new power approach of local Mutual Aid groups, supported by a team of volunteers behind the https://covidmutualaid.org/ site.

Then the centralised, controlled, old power approach of NHS Volunteer Responders, run by the Royal Voluntary Service (RVS).

Both have been successful at getting people to volunteer.

Over 500,000 signed up to volunteer as an NHS Responder in the first few days, and research back in April suggested that 22% of us have signed up to be part of a community support group.

And both have encountered some challenges.

There are stories of how those who signed up to be NHS Responders haven’t been called upon, while I’ve heard more anecdotal stories of how Mutual Aid groups have fractured over political difference or the reluctance of local authorities to work with them.

Thinking about the two models, I’ve put together this table that looks to reflects the differences in approaches;

But what lessons should campaigners take from the two approaches? Here are a few, some new, some old;

  • Always ensure you have tasks for volunteers to get involved in – the iron law of volunteering that you should always give those who sign-up to help something to do or those who’ve signed up risk not staying involved.
  • Use the tools that people are already using – having signed up to be an NHS Responder, the GoodSam app that is behind it feels clunky to use and not intuitive for the mass volunteering, while everyone is already on WhatsApp which has powered many Mutual Aid groups (or can quickly learn to use Slack) which has good UX at the heart of it.
  • Think about how you build leaders – that’s easy to do for Mutual Aid groups and replicates the lessons we’ve seen in political campaigns which make big asks for volunteers, I’ve seen in my local community how individuals have been able to actively offer skills they have to help the group, and then take on more significant roles in a community response.
  • Allow for local knowledge and adaption – When I signed up for the NHS Responder role it looked like I needed a car to do pharmacy deliveries, despite living in London and not regularly using a car, and it being possible to do it on my bike, it’s a tiny example, but shows how’s a centralised approach can often miss local knowledge/ which can lead to changes to improve the experience (and impact). It’s a theme picked up more in this article.
  • Make it about more than the task – my sense is that many Mutual Aid groups have grown to become more than just about helping others in the community, they’ve been places to organise other activities. It’s a reminder for me of the findings of Hahrie Han, who found that many of the most successful chapters or groups in her studies are those that combined political and social activities, deepening commitment and a sense of shared values. The ‘what’ of that might be different in an age of social distancing but the premise remains true.

I’d be interested in your thoughts in the comments on what else campaigners can learn, and for a brilliant deep dive into wider lessons for campaigners from COVID-19 I’d recommend a read of this by Natasha Adams.

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