Voluntary Action Leeds

Covid-19 prompted an outpouring of support. Whether by making food deliveries or connecting with lonely neighbours, people wanted to help. In Leeds, 200,000 local people visited the volunteering webpages of Voluntary Action Leeds (VAL), an infrastructure organisation that supports people and charities who do good in the city. “That’s a quarter of the Leeds population,” explains VAL’s chief officer, Richard Jackson. He tells Knowledge & Learning Manager Zoë Anderson how VAL supported that “vast groundswell of volunteers” to reach those in need.

The logistical demands have been huge, but what shines out is Richard’s pride in his city and its people. “They’ve just stepped forward and helped everybody else out,” he says. “It’s an incredible thing to happen. The volume of activity in the city, and the way people have responded, has just been staggering. I couldn’t be prouder of the city.”

Unprecedented response

The scale of the response “changed the face of what we did as an organisation,” Richard says now. “Within a very short space of time, we had an unbelievable 8,000 people coming forward, saying they wanted to volunteer.”

That was the first problem. “We just didn’t have roles for 8,000 people. What we had, quite quickly, was some completely understandable frustration from those people about not being deployed quickly enough.”

VAL addressed it by looking across the sector. Richard estimates that about 1,500 Leeds organisations were responding to Covid-19. “So the entire system’s working on that, but not very well linked together. We tried to make sure that volunteers were fed out to those organisations.”

They developed a new pipeline to take people through the process. “We had an online signup form, with an induction and a Q&A at the end, to make sure they’d understood what they’d been shown.” VAL also helped with the necessary vetting, such as driving license checks.

Lists of volunteers were then broken down, ward by ward, and linked with local organisations. “Our role was about brokerage: bringing volunteers on, making sure they had the experience we were looking for, then referring them to the most appropriate organisation, whether that was geographical or otherwise.”

“For example, we had a massive number of volunteers who were bilingual – they had at least one other community language. [We were] able to deploy them where they were most needed, to make sure that people in marginalised communities understood what they were being told, that the guidance they were getting was really helpful.”

#TogetherLeeds: inspiring action

Placing volunteers was just the start of an ongoing conversation, “with both the organisations and the volunteers: whether they were being deployed or not. And if they weren’t being deployed, what else could we support them to do?”

VAL set up a newsletter, sharing news and highlighting opportunities. “That went out to volunteers at least once a week, settling down to once a fortnight. We’ve had a very good response, including people putting themselves forward as case studies.”

Richard Jackson
Richard Jackson, Voluntary Action Leeds

Through social media, VAL used those case studies to highlight different roles across the city, sharing inspiration and showing how people could support their communities. “There was a real growth of neighbourly behaviour, which took a lot of pressure off the system.”

Richard sees this neighbourliness as “one of the anchors of the response” – and one that deserved more recognition. The #TogetherLeeds hashtag was one response. “In all our communication, we refer to #TogetherLeeds, and encouraged others to do the same. We got an incredible number of vignette case studies of what people were doing. The city began to realise that what was happening on the ground was an amazing thing.” The recognition is important: for Richard, making sure that people felt valued and had meaningful roles has been vital.

Helping charities to help each other

VAL didn’t just match people to roles. “Some of the organisations we were sending volunteers to couldn’t cope with the volume,” Richard explains. “We had a dedicated member of staff working with that organisation, to make sure their arrangements were up to date. We provided guidance, support, and a pack – induction materials, checklists, everything they needed to work with the volunteers.” Support was particularly important for smaller organisations, which didn’t have an established relationship with the public sector. “Some had three staff – tiny organisations that needed to build up their internal infrastructure and confidence.”

They also asked organisations to help each other, for example by lending each other volunteer managers. “That’s still going on. Organisations from across wards wanted to work together to give each other respite, to make sure that needs were met.”

It meant staying in close contact. Leeds City Council set up what we called the volunteering core group – all the key partners, from the different agencies.” At first, they met every day, seven days a week, for an hour. “It was basically saying, ‘How’s it going? Is the guidance right? What are the issues facing these groups? How do we resolve that?’

“We were the backroom staff: making sure that the people on the frontline could work as effectively as possible. Have a group of people in the middle that are from all of the parties - agencies, statutory parties, third sector organisations – but come together to say, how do we solve this problem. You are the ones that tackle those things, so nobody else has to worry about them.”

Across the crisis, Richard argues, “The willingness of the whole system to come together to tackle anything that came up, has been absolutely incredible. I think that’s changed how our relationships will work going forward. I hope so, anyway.”

Yet the system was under unprecedented strain. “It became very apparent very quickly that sector resilience was going to be a critical issue.” In a survey of Leeds organisations, “60% basically said, ‘If things do not change, we won’t survive the end of this financial year.’”

He praises funders for “giving permission for organisations to redirect their funding to where it was most needed during the Covid-19 response. That made a massive difference to what we were able to do, and how quickly we were able to do it.” VAL also alerted Leeds organisations to new sources of funding, “making sure they get support to access that funding.”

Rooted in the community

When the crisis hit, VAL had to move fast, with little time to think or plan. “We didn’t really have a chance to have a breath. If someone said, ‘That’s too much for us,’ we went to the next organisation and said, ‘Can you do it instead?’” Looking back, Richard now calls this a top down approach – suggesting that “it wasn’t as nuanced and locally led as it should have been”. But that has changed over time. “Organically, that’s become something different – much more about partnerships – what we call hubs and spokes, rather than just hubs.”

Ejiro Ikoko, Oblong, Leeds
Ejiro Ikoko, community care volunteer at Oblong hub, Leeds

The “hubs” are trusted local organisations, which played a leading role in the pandemic response. Their community “knows who they are, knows what they do, and trusts them. So if that organisation is doing something, it’s a trusted offer.” They included an over-60s network, the theatre company Slung Low, and Hamara, a community centre working with the local Muslim community. “Some of them were big - large service providers. But people knew them, knew that their service offer was good. We didn’t want people engaging with a faceless system that they didn’t really understand or know. The trust was the key.”

For Richard, these local systems are essential. “Where possible, make that [response] on a neighbourhood by neighbourhood basis, which is what we’ve done in Leeds.” Without grassroots knowledge, there was a risk of mismatched services: he cites “food parcels with no consideration of allergies, no cultural offer. That’s a real key learning point for me: don’t try to do local stuff from national level.”

Learning for the future

Moving forwards, VAL wants to build on what they’ve learned from the pandemic, developing more partnerships. It means considering VAL’s own role, too. Though they acted as a broker through the pandemic, “We just didn’t have the capacity to manage that number – we became the bottleneck in the system.” They began to move to “a volunteering infrastructure which is more about individuals getting in direct contact with organisations, and us stepping back from that – managing the process from a distance, so those relationships become more organic.”

In future, “Does Voluntary Action Leeds step back and let that support happen in the locality? Rather than us being this body that’s brought in to provide professional skills support.” The ambition is also to include the new mutual aid and volunteer led groups, as well as communities of interest, “so we’re talking about thriving communities that involve everybody and include everybody. Not a conversation about communities and then a separate conversation about communities of interest.”

For Richard, positivity is a key lesson. “The news at national level was predominantly negative – all about the challenges and the worries, how many people were dying. The local response was far more positive: more about the great work that’s going on, how many people are being helped, the social, funny stories that people had come across. Much more of ‘we’re here to help you, we’re going to make sure that you’re okay’.”

That should be built into messaging, he argues. “Make sure you get the communications right. Communications are solutions focused. They’re not focused on how bad it all is, they’re focused on how brilliant it is to live in this city, what fantastic work people are doing, and how you can be part of that. There’s an optimism that says, ‘We’re in a crisis, but we’re going to come out the other side, better than we went in’.”

That optimism, and that pride, is there in the way he talks about the pandemic. “I just think the third sector has been amazing.” He praises the way they put aside individual priorities to think more broadly, “from a system wide perspective."

"[The third sector] making a decision that says, ‘Everybody in the city is going to have their basic needs met. And the system is going to make sure that that happens.’ That was an incredible thing.”
Richard Jackson, Voluntary Action Leeds

Find out more about the work of Voluntary Action Leeds, including a video showcasing volunteer action during the pandemic, or follow them on Twitter or Facebook.

This page was last updated: 29 September 2020.