Photography: Andy Hall/The Observer
An event at the heart of the king’s coronation festivities is likely to be a ‘wet squib’ due to a volunteer crisis across Britain, the government has been warned.
The Big Help Out is inviting people across the country to mark the occasion by signing up to volunteer in their communities during a one-time holiday on Monday, May 8, in hopes of inspiring more people to start volunteering amid record shortages.
Volunteer experts have warned that the initiative could fail. Richard Harries, associate director at the Institute for Community Studies at the Young Foundation, said: “My fear is that it will be a disaster and that it will further undermine efforts to get people involved. Of course I hope it won’t.
Volunteering was in “steady decline”, a trend which without government intervention is likely to have continued. “You look at volunteer levels over the last decade and it’s been inexorably downhill,” she added. “It’s hard to give it a sheen.”
Volunteering is at an all-time low in England, government research shows. In 2021-22, 34% of Community Life Survey respondents volunteered at least once a month, down from 41% a year earlier and 44% in 2013-14.
The latest data mark the lowest participation ever recorded by the survey, which has been going on for a decade.
Organizations suffering as a result include Scouts, which have 90,000 young people on waiting lists and are struggling to recruit volunteers, according to the National Council for Volunteer Organizations. The Charity Retail Association, which represents charity shops, said volunteer numbers had dropped from 230,000 to 186,000 since the start of the pandemic.
The London 2012 Olympics recruited thousands of volunteers, but the effects weren’t lasting, and Harries stressed it took years to realize. David Cameron’s ‘big society’ vision has not turned into a reality, he said, because there has not been enough political will or funding since the Conservative government took over in 2010.
The Big Help Out – which people can sign up for on a dedicated app or online – comes at a time when charities have come under significant pressure to fill gaps created by the cost-of-living crisis and cuts in income. government.
Sabine Goodwin, coordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network (Ifan), which represents 1,172 food banks across Britain, said volunteers were needed ‘more than ever’. But she, she added: “No good will and generosity can replace the right of a person to be able to afford a decent standard of living. Compassion is vital, but a day of volunteering cannot address the crises of poverty and inequality in the UK today.”
Grassroots organizations said that since the end of the lockdown, enthusiasm among volunteers, particularly professionals, has plummeted, while the cost-of-living crisis has made it more difficult to help those on lower incomes.
There have also been gaps created by volunteers from older age groups who have stopped for health reasons during the pandemic and have not returned.
At the height of the pandemic, Shanelle Webb, 25, who runs the Soul Shack, a black and youth-led social enterprise in the London Borough of Lambeth, had a roster of willing volunteers. She is now struggling to find drivers to help with food bank deliveries.
Some volunteers moved from London, while others had to get rid of their cars as they were too expensive to drive. While he supported initiatives that encourage volunteerism, Webb didn’t think the Big Help Out should be coronation-related or take place on a public holiday, which for many on lower incomes would be a working day.
“There should be something for real working-class people who aren’t able to make public holidays so that they can have the space to take time off and volunteer,” Webb said. “It would be good for people who are more short on time but want to know what’s going on in their communities.”
There is a lot of interest in volunteering among people in their teens and twenties, but the struggle to earn a stable income can be daunting.
Matthew Flinders, a professor of politics at the University of Sheffield, said the Big Help Out has considerable potential. But he fears it won’t happen, in part because the government isn’t providing the right “mood music”.
“The royal family still provides a really important form of cultural glue that binds British society together in a largely positive way,” he added. “But unless it’s embedded in a larger, strategic long-term ambition, it’s just going to be one day, and this is sadly a missed opportunity.”
Catherine Johnstone, chief executive of the Royal Voluntary Service and co-creator of Big Help Out, said the initiative was ‘an innovative and perhaps even disruptive idea which is encouraging us to start making the changes in the industry that are needed for us to start seeing different results.”
“It is a challenge for us to work together to create more direct pathways for people to contribute their time, skills and experience, which we hope will last well beyond the coronation,” he added. “We were thrilled to see such a breadth and depth of charities and local community organizations involved in the Big Help Out – there was nothing like it before it took the whole industry with it.”
A Department for Media, Culture, Digital and Sport spokesperson said: “The coronation will be a spectacular national occasion with the Big Help Out giving people the opportunity to support a cause they care about and we are confident that this will be a huge success.”