Volunteering: a head and heart approach to COVID 19

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What a time! Good to be asked to write and make some sense of the COVID 19 crisis from a volunteering perspective in Scotland.

George Thomson


CEO Volunteer Scotland.

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Firstly the weekly clapping hands applause for our NHS in the UK is a wonderful recognition that they are on the frontline and we’re with them. You could say that the applause sums up the massive groundswell of mutual support that has heartened us all in the middle of this awful plague. Volunteering at its heart is the friendly, coming together of people, to make a positive contribution. We’ve all seen this in abundant examples of community spirit.

How wonderful to realise that we do have a society based on relationships and looking out for each other. Part of this, of course, is to keep in mind our legal “Duty of Care”. Protecting ourselves and others and social distancing.

The UK Government captured the zeitgeist of our willingness to help and the extraordinary 750,000 registrations of NHS volunteers (England and Wales only). However, I’m a believer in a time of crisis that you need directive leadership, “command and control”. This requires clarity about what’s needed where, and when. Whilst it’s heartwarming to see the desire to help, the actual demand for people’s service has not been clear, and may disappoint.

Scotland has taken a more measured approach and has been using the head as well as the heart.

A combined third sector and Government collaboration and the use of a single portal at readyscotland.org has witnessed 50,000 sign ups and a coordinated effort to signpost to where the needs are now, and also to give the option to get involved at different phases of this crisis. There’s more  emphasis on the recovery stage and community re-building, including economic impacts.

During the period of the greatest strain on the NHS volunteer assistance is required for the frontline. Driving, collections, ward support, feeding patients, and doing what’s necessary. The British Red Cross will be the main organiser.

We will face a major question about our moral “Duty of Care” in how we support those vulnerable in our communities. There’s a potential for real change, for example, in how we understand isolation and organise ourselves in communities for well-being in future.

We need to phase the volunteering response and be patient as well as passionate. I see 5 phases. The approaching peak, the peak of the virus, dealing with loss, recovery, transformation.

To act on this we’ve started an on-line radio service called Radio V Good Morning, Volunteers! All 50,000 volunteers are messaged each week and informed about each episode which is available from 11am every Saturday. This is informative and entertaining and is an experiment in building a community of volunteers that can respond to the different phases as required and more than anything can help in the massive community re building challenge ahead.

A key challenge to the formalised third sector/nonprofits is whether it will adapt to a community building rather than service mindset. Where citizens decide to give their voluntary time will tell us!

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