Surge in volunteering during crisis

Jewish Volunteering Network reports rising interest as it prepares for awards night


When the Jewish Volunteering Network stages its annual awards next week, it will reflect on a year like no other.

Interest in volunteering has risen during the pandemic with JVN chief executive Nicky Goldman reporting 42,500 visits to its website from March-December 2020, compared to 34,000 for the same period the previous year.

She attributes this partly to interest from the younger generation: “We know that in the initial phases of the pandemic, more under-30s came forward.”

Another driving factor had been people having more time on their hands after being furloughed, or having lost their jobs.

“The view of volunteering being good for mental health is also the case,” she added. “You feel so good and people want to continue that feeling.”

Communal employment aid charities Work Avenue and Resource recommend volunteering as an important addition to a CV and Ms Goldman is aware of a number of cases where volunteering has helped job-seekers back into a paid role.

The conundrum is that while volunteering is allowed during lockdown, opportunities have diminished with restrictions on contact and the closure of day centres and charity shops.

However, among the 120-plus charities JVN actively works with, there is demand for telephone befrienders and running Zoom-based activities from interactive gardening to Pilates.

Charities have sought volunteer bookkeepers and social media managers and JVN also supports organisations in the non-Jewish sector. “It’s a great community-building opportunity,” Ms Goldman said.

There has additionally been demand for “skilled volunteers”. Charity employees cannot volunteer for their own charity if they are on furlough but can for another organisation.

More recently, an appeal for vaccination centre volunteers, in conjunction with the United Synagogue, elicited a huge response. In the first weekend, almost 5,000 people clicked on the JVN website with 2,000 clicking through to the vaccination centres.

“Jewish people really wanted to contribute to the national effort — it’s amazing.”

The work of JVN, among others, was name-checked in Parliament by Bury South MP Christian Wakeford. Responding, Boris Johnson said the efforts of volunteers had been “one of the few consolations of this crisis”.

The JVN awards are dedicated to its former chairman David Lazarus, who died from coronavirus early in the pandemic.

Broadcaster Natasha Kaplinsky is hosting the digital event, which will include a new award category recognising volunteering innovation during the Covid era.

This has attracted 20 nominations from charities, with 52 nominations across the three other categories. Some organisations could not nominate as they currently cannot use volunteers.

The winners will be selected by an independent judging panel including Dame Mary Marsh, former chief executive of the NSPCC children’s charity, and Margaret Harris, who was the UK’s first professor of voluntary sector organisation.

“It’s incredible how charities have pivoted to online volunteering,” Ms Goldman noted, citing examples such as Jewish Care’s telephone befriending and Jewish Blind & Disabled’s regular catch-up sessions with its voluntary helpers.

And with the prospect of a slow return to normalcy in the months ahead, are communal charities ready for the challenge?

“That’s a very good question. We haven’t yet explored the transitional plan. A lot more thinking needs to be done around that.”

Her expectation is for a hybrid provision, retaining some of the online services which have thrived over the past year. “Volunteering is not just for Covid.”

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