Many key services and activities could not have been delivered during the Coronavirus pandemic without the support of volunteers across Wales.
The Senedd’s Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee found the voluntary sector played an essential role in responding to the virus which has swept the globe causing terrible loss of life and strict lockdown conditions.
In particular, the Committee praised the sector’s agility and local intelligence which saw ‘local solutions for local issues’ pay huge dividends in many parts of the country.
A volunteering surge was one of the few positive aspects of the pandemic. Helpforce Cymru said 18,000 people had signed up to volunteer, most of whom registered in the few weeks following the start of the first lockdown in March last year. By December 2020, that number had risen to 22,000.
But a true picture is hard to establish because of the many informal groups and arrangements made by people in their own very local communities, often using social media.
With such a surge of willing helpers, many organisations were swamped with enquiries and unable to place everyone.
Mantell Gwynedd, which supports voluntary and community groups in Gwynedd, received around 600 offers of help in the first few weeks of the pandemic. Eventually around 50 per cent of those new volunteers were placed.
They told the Committee:
“…. if there's one thing that I wish we could do from this pandemic it would be to put all that volunteer enthusiasm into a jar and put the lid on it and open it a little bit every time we need some of that in the future. If only we could do that.”
The Committee believes the voluntary sector could play an essential role in any large-scale emergency response and recommends the Welsh Government look at how best to incorporate such opportunities into its strategy.
The voluntary sector was already facing a number of challenges before the pandemic, which has only exacerbated them. A loss of multiple income streams while facing an increased demand for services is one example.
The Wales Council for Voluntary Action estimates charities and voluntary organisations headquartered in Wales will lose as much as £620 million over the course of the year.
Those organisations which have diversified their income streams and are less dependent on grants and government funding are worse off.
Wales Funders Forum told the Committee:
“…the irony in all of this is that those organisations that had done the right thing, they'd gone out, they got a more diverse funding model, they were trading, they were raising funds from the public—it's those organisations that have fared worse, whereas ones that were just operating on grants have been largely unaffected in terms of funding.”
The Committee wants to see more resilience in the sector with extra support and funding commitments from the Welsh Government stretching beyond the pandemic.
It also wants to see a focus on Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority (BAME) voluntary organisations which have been disproportionately affected.
“During the course of this inquiry, the Committee has been inspired by the efforts of people and organisations across the country willing to give their own time, skills and support to help those in need,” said John Griffiths MS, Chair of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee.
“They have played an essential part of the response to the Coronavirus pandemic and we are convinced many key services could not have been delivered as effectively without them.
“We believe voluntary services have an essential role to play in any emergency response strategy and are calling on the Welsh Government to formalise that role.
“But we must also recognise the problems many organisations are facing, both during the pandemic and before. Resilient, reliable funding is critical to their survival as is ongoing support from the Welsh Government and we are urging ministers to act on our recommendations.”
The Committee makes 20 recommendations in its report which will now be considered by the Welsh Government.