— The country needs new infrastructure to enable voluntary work. —
To capitalise on the public’s unsatisfied desire to contribute to society in a time of crisis, that we identified in our problem statement, we suggest that policymakers should create a new national system of voluntary work underpinned by a cutting edge digital platform. Any digital tool should be designed based on user needs in line with the GDS service standard, but we will point out some of the most exciting avenues to explore.
— Good design allows people to complete an activity. —
To get people browsing an online shop to make a purchase, or, as it is known, to “convert” site visits, businesses invest heavily in research, testing and data analytics. They know that making a simple and pleasurable shopping experience creates a ‘good path’ where the individual encounters no obstacles to their sudden fancy of purchasing an item. Why would you place any deterrents in the path of someone who is considering parting with their hard-earned money?
The voluntary sector needs this sort of thinking. This isn’t about coercing people to give up their time; it’s about giving them an experience so smooth and simple that when one day they think “I could volunteer…”, and reach for their phone, and look up volunteering, they don’t get distracted, wander off, or run out of time to find an opportunity. It’s about matching them to an experience that is so perfect for them that they are surprised by how fortuitous it is.
— Latent demand —
As mentioned in our problem statement, people were eager to help others during the pandemic’s first wave. Forcibly disconnected from their work and friendship communities, they were much more likely to experience local amenities, neighbours and community behaviours. People described feeling useless, not sharing the burden that NHS staff were carrying. Thousands signed up just to pick fruit, but were not asked to actually do anything.
Imagine if less of this effort petered out, and more of it came to a positive conclusion. Imagine if just 30% of this energy had been directed into activities that benefited the lonely, the hungry or the vulnerable. Imagine if even a quarter of the people had had a ‘good path’ to useful activity, instead of being blocked by bureaucratic hurdles, poor signposting, confusion, unanswered calls or generic autoreply emails. Imagine how much good could be done in society if it was possible for a willing volunteer to find a task that matched their availability, their location, their transport options, their skills and their inclinations, in under a minute.
— Digital as standard. —
It would be relatively simple to create an application to do this – and it is overdue. The 16-24 age group is the most likely group to volunteer (BHF 2019). Moreover, all age groups are becoming increasingly at home with digital technologies. Their expectations are rising as they interact on a daily basis with delightful and intelligent apps. Surveys show that younger people prefer online chats and notifications to telephone calls. If the volunteering sector does not modernise how it communicates, it will consistently disappoint people; it will appear to be a relic of the 20th century, and this might impact on whether people interact with it at all.
— Platforms. —
The infrastructure of volunteering is outdated. There are websites, but they only list opportunities in the same way that the online Yellow Pages used to do. A new system would be the opposite of the (now defunct) Yellow Pages. It would be more like JustEat. Twenty years ago, who could have envisaged that thousands of businesses, individual restaurants all with different buildings and phone numbers, could be connected into one system with one front end for ordering, and a standardised delivery system. But it happened. This is the power of platforms. There is no reason why charities and other institutions like hospitals could not advertise tasks on a single platform. Data analytics could show them what people were most likely to help with.
Locally focussed platforms, such as Facebook Groups and Gumtree, have played an important role during the pandemic. They have been used to coordinate donations or community efforts, but they are not optimal because they are primarily designed for other activities. A purpose-built solution could, nonetheless, take inspiration from these sites’ peer to peer exchange features.
— Volunteering, or working for the good of society? —
Covid uniquely affected volunteering: at the same time that a crisis moved people to want to assist others, it freed up a large number of people who would previously have been working full time. Those people gained time, but their lives lost a large part of their purpose overnight. In some cases they lost income too. Jobs have already come back in some sectors and they will in others. But we expect to see a significant long-term economic impact with jobs lost and knock-on effects as people tighten their belts. It is well known that work gives people meaning in their lives as well as income. Without work, people feel useless.
At the same time, there are always people in need of help, and post-crisis there will be so many areas of society in need of restoration that charities may not know where to begin. As such, we propose that the ‘volunteering’ system has a dual mission – to attract those who are prepared to give and also to provide meaning and some remuneration to those who are unemployed. This could be managed through a Universal Credit top-up or a cash voucher scheme integrated into the platform. It could be paid for by government, by the new digital business tax on platforms, by a levy on participating organisations or by a mixture of these. Working for the good of society would bring dignity, purpose and self-worth to individuals who have been adversely affected by the pandemic even as they contributed to repairing the damage suffered by others.