As I have been asked a few times, here is my boats analogy for explaining the volunteering response to Covid-19 in the UK. It helps explain the different speeds and approaches of the different participants in society and also how they have come together.

Mutual Aid Groups – Dinghies
Mutual Aid Groups (MAGs) and similar were extremely quick to organise a hyper-local response and action for those affected by Covid-19. Just like a dinghy, they are very agile, responsive but limited in capacity and suited to small tasks. Together with other local dinghies they have made an impressive fleet, working together to help people.

VCS Organisations – Yachts
Voluntary and Community Sector organisations were also quick to respond, but were more like yachts. Not quite as agile as a dinghy, these organisations had to quickly adjust to working during a pandemic, e.g. remote working options and whether to furlough staff, etc. Just like a yacht, they have managed to operate in choppy waters and volatile winds to regularly meet the needs of beneficiaries and service users in their community.

Local Authorities – Ferries
Although local authorities were extremely quick to recognise the situation and signal they were taking action, as large organisations they are just slower to change direction. Just like a ferry, they have large capacity and can sound their horn to warn people but it just takes time for a ferry to change direction. Most local authorities quickly announced a Covid-19 volunteer response scheme, which attracted a lot of local residents to sign up but they took time to become operational.

Government – Oil Tankers
Just like oil tankers, the Government needs to look far ahead and anticipate and plan what it needs to do. It knows it takes time to change direction and focus, so has to signal its intentions long before it can actually make the change. The government quickly announced the NHS Volunteer Responser scheme which drew in hundreds of thousands of interested volunteers but it took a long time before this was actually operational and volunteers could be activated to perform tasks.

Joining together to form a Covid-19 Armada
Not every area has been the same, but nevertheless we have seen a huge amount of the different types of response boats coming together to support those affected by Covid-19. At first we saw some of the VCS yachts working with and supporting MAGs, e.g. as a VCS infrastructure yacht we produced a Covid-19 Good Neighbour Guide to help MAG volunteers to be safe, both virus and safeguarding-wise.

Local authority ferries quickly engaged with VCS yachts and many also with the MAG dinghies. The government oil tankers are joining the party too, working primarily with the local authority ferries but also with VCS yachts linking with the national volunteer responder service. Together they have formed an effective Covid-19 Armada. An almost Dunkirk-like fleet, all working together to combat a deadly enemy.

Build Back Better – How to Keep the Armada Together
The whole is much greater than the sum of its parts and whichever type of boat we are crew member of, we can see that working together is far more effective. The barriers of ‘normal’ working life that impede this togetherness have been largely put to one side as people, organisations and institutions rally together to achieve things in days that would normally take months or may not ever happen. Shouldn’t it be like this all the time? Well, why not? I think we should aim to keep as much of this collaboration as we can.

Instead of the recovery phase, I heard someone refer to it as the ‘Build Back Better’ phase and that really struck a chord with me. Before Covid-19, people in our society and communities needed lots of help and support and this has not gone away in any measure, in fact, the situation has been made worse. Let’s keep this collaboration and the Armada together to tackle these serious social priorities.

How to do this is the hard part as although there is a lot of desire for this continued collaboration, it will be very easy to fall back into the old ways of doing things. We will drift back into largely separate less effective flotillas. Each of the type of boats needs to make a change.

The MAG dinghies need to establish new priorities and with the help and support of the VCS yachts and local authority ferries they can do this. The VCS yachts need to speed up their change of involving volunteers and adapt their offer to include more task-based, micro, ad hoc volunteering to keep the MAGs engaged. Local authority ferries need to keep their openness and willingness to collaborate with partners and not revert to command and control approaches. Government oil tankers need to keep talking, consulting and collaborating with the other types of boats to ensure we are all working towards a common goal.

Published by Dominic Pinkney

Expert on volunteering, CEO of Camden and Hammersmith & Volunteer Centres as well as not-for-profit social enterprise Works4U

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