Resilience and determination – why volunteers are never more needed

Andy Broomhead, Head of Volunteering at Diabetes UK, shares how they adapted plans to celebrate Volunteers’ Week in light of the global pandemic

I think Volunteers’ Week has a greater-than-usual significance this year. Whilst in some areas there’s been an explosion in volunteering, social action, community support and organisation, in others the impact of coronavirus has seen charities and volunteers put their plans on hold almost immediately.

At Diabetes UK, as at many other health and well-being charities, we took the decision to pause the vast majority of our volunteering relatively early on in the pandemic. Many of our volunteers are in higher risk groups and it’s important that their welfare is protected first and foremost.

One of the things volunteers are great at doing is connecting with and supporting people that charities might not otherwise see. Their passion, authenticity and ties to their communities make them the trusted figures representing our organisations. At times like these, sharing those important messages to help people manage their health is vital. Volunteers understand and can empathise in a unique way that is so valuable for members of the public.

When health and well-being is at the forefront of everyone’s mind, reassurance, guidance and quality information is now more highly valued than ever. As we strive to separate fact from fiction and provide help to people who need our advice and support the most, it’s now that I think of volunteers caught between their drive to help others, whilst being unable to do that in the ways they know best.

Volunteers bring resilience and determination to our causes and I’m sure that my experience at Diabetes UK will be familiar to many other volunteer managers across the country. 

We’ve seen many of our volunteer-led groups turn to technology to continue supporting people affected by diabetes without missing a beat, becoming Zoom experts overnight. Volunteers have also been in contact with ideas for how they can continue doing the things they care deeply about, and suggestions for new ways to help with the changing demands people are facing.

We’ve also seen some of our roles expand with more volunteers looking to take part in what had been a small befriending service in one part of England but is rapidly growing across other parts of the UK.

We know how important volunteering can be for people’s well-being, and for many to have had those opportunities curtailed in a short space of time has been incredibly challenging. But it should be no surprise to any of us that volunteers have come into their own. 

The willingness and adaptability of volunteers to stand firm is inspiring. I know in a few charities some volunteers have even argued that their volunteering is more important than their own health and wanted to continue regardless – such is their commitment to helping others.

Volunteers’ Week rightly shines the light on all those people who donate their time, skills and dedication to the causes that matter to them. Whether they’re able to volunteer right here and right now is secondary. The collective efforts of volunteers over the last few days, weeks, months and years is what we’re coming together to celebrate this week.

Back to Volunteers’ Week blogs

What I actually do

At the end of every week I email all our volunteering colleagues with a round up of things they may need to do, read or should be aware of outside Diabetes UK. It’s a good way to put everything in one place and balances the inevitable asks with a little bit of levity and humour – I’m not one for taking things too seriously where we can avoid it. I think it’s generally well received, more so after I updated the format in response to calls from some volunteer managers to include “more memes please?”

This week I shared this with the team:

It got me thinking about the perception of working in volunteering versus some of the more practical elements we all encounter. Before I go any further, I should probably ‘fess up that before I started working at Diabetes UK I probably had a fairly narrow view of what volunteering meant as a career.

Let’s take a minute to run through these pictures, starting with the top row. My friends and family probably have a very specific idea about what I do based on my previous experience as an actual volunteer. My daughter used to come along and help on stalls, and when we talk about somebody needing a volunteer for something, she points at me because “that’s what Daddy does”. It’s hard to explain that your job is often so far removed from what volunteers do and in my case involves a lot of train travel and saying “can you hear me?” on Skype calls.

As for society, I’m not sure we’ll ever completely break that perception that volunteering is first or foremost standing somewhere with a collection tin. Nor do I necessarily think we should try and entirely sever that link. We might call it fundraising, but the tins and buckets don’t hold themselves or have those conversations with the public about our cause. While volunteering is so much richer than this, and if we want more people to be part of what we do, we definitely have a responsibility to talk more about all our opportunities, I still think it’s many people’s first impression of what we do.

In my role, it’s rare that I find myself in any of the situations in any of the top pictures any more. I do make sure I get out to visit volunteers and our local groups regularly, as well as attending as many of our networking events and conferences as possible, but running a stand or holding a collection tin is a much more infrequent event.

Let’s look at the bottom row. It’s wholly unfair to suggest that my (wonderful) boss thinks I only do one thing, but it’s a meme innit? I’m lucky that she understands the complexities and variation that comes with my job and supports me in all of the challenges that it throws up. I picked that picture because I think there rightly is that expectation that I’m looking at how volunteering becomes a stronger part of everything we do at Diabetes UK.

What I think I do…  I won’t lie – it involves a lot of meetings. No, I mean a LOT of meetings. And a lot of travel. No, I mean… well, you get the point. I’m very lucky that my role is home-based, but it does mean days in the office can often be back-to-back-to-back as you try and shuffle your diary to see people face-to-face where you can. It’s not uncommon to balancing a sandwich and a half-drunk coffee on my laptop as I go from one room to another.

What do I actually do?  It’s been one of those periods where it feels like the 9–5 (ha!) has been dominated by some of the more detailed aspects of my role. As we continue to ensure we have the most appropriate and safest recruitment practices in place when it comes to our volunteers, there are inevitably safeguarding questions that pop up. I’d be surprised to hear of any volunteer manager who couldn’t relate to that. Similarly, when you’re dealing with volunteers’ information you end up having a lot of GDPR conversations.

As hard as we try, we don’t always get things right and my job means I’m the first escalation point for some of the more involved complaints we might receive. I spoke at the AVM conference in November about this – we don’t get a lot of volunteering-related complaints, it’s just the ones that we do get often need more thought and attention and when you get a couple at once it can feel like it’s all you’re doing. Coronavirus is just the icing on the cake. I imagine it’s caught all of us off-guard to a large degree and having to be able to adapt and respond as information changes means it’s a large focus of our time.

This is the most varied and complex job I’ve ever had, but it’s also the most rewarding. It’s tough to balance that societal perception that it’s easy (and we’re all working for free) with the difficulties that sometimes come along. It’s also hard to reconcile how quickly and immediately volunteers want or need information with the wider considerations that we need to take into account. Providing a knee-jerk response to one volunteer can feel like we’re providing the best service possible, but sometimes taking a day to think about how one problem (e.g. coronavirus) can affect all your volunteers and putting together a more concerted response is better in the long run. Overall, I think the perception of volunteering is that it’s a never-ending stream of happy, sunny, easily organised events that run seamlessly.  And it often is. But the bits that are hidden are those that often take a huge amount of time and effort, sometimes even just to share what feels like the simplest of messages.