Volunteers’ week 2020: Susan Brett on why volunteering is more important than ever

This is week is Volunteers’ week– run by the National Council for Voluntary Organisation to acknowledge and celebrate the contribution millions of people make across the UK through volunteering.

Usually, there’s a jam-packed schedule of events such as award ceremonies, balls and open days. However, whilst volunteering is more important than ever, this year is a little different, with many of the usual events cancelled. And the theme intended for this year, “Time to Celebrate” has been replaced with “Time to Say Thanks”.

In this blog we explore the way in which the current pandemic is influencing the way volunteers are operating and the struggles that many charities dependent on them are facing. And we catch up with Sue Brett, founder of The Brett Foundation, to find out how they have been affected.

Not since World War II has Britain got behind a single cause as it has done fighting the corona virus. Indeed we’ve seen an outpouring of goodwill – evident in the response to appeals such as the NHS Volunteer Responders initiative, which received over three times the intended number of volunteers and in the phenomenal growth of mutual aid groups, which enable neighbours to come together to help one another. There are thought to be over 4000 such groups across the UK connecting around 3 million people.

Yet despite this, many charities are struggling. It’s estimated that the sector will miss out on £4.3 billion over three months. Despite the welcome announcement by the chancellor last month of a £750m support package for charities, this will not be enough to prevent many charitable organisations across the country from closing their doors. And those that do survive may look very different; with a severely reduced capacity to provide the support that people rely on.

Across the UK, there seem to be more than enough volunteers to deliver food and medicine to those who need it. But in reality, there are more complex needs emerging that go beyond food, medicine and neighbourliness.

Charities are having to keep up with rapidly changing needs – fuelled by issues such as a rise in domestic violence, strain on social care, job losses, the closing down of homeless shelters, increased loneliness and deteriorating mental health. The challenge perhaps lies in connecting volunteers to the need.

We caught up with Susan Brett, founder of one of our charity partners, The Brett

Foundation, about how the current pandemic is impacting her charity, its volunteers, and the needs of the people it supports.

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Susan Brett, Chairman and CEO, The Brett Foundation


Based in Maidenhead, The Brett Foundation supports the homeless, families living in poverty and those who have fallen upon hard times. Sue told us that “Covid has hit us very hard. Thankfully most of the homeless have been put into temporary accommodation, which means we can focus on those who wouldn’t leave the streets, the families we support and the elderly.”

But the number of people they are supporting has grown by 70%, since those who used to rely on them for short periods of time are now needing longer-term help. Meanwhile, capacity is under strain. With no paid staff, The Brett Foundation is 100% reliant upon volunteers. Yet they have lost over half their volunteers as a result of shielding and self-isolation due to age, vulnerability and health. And as people begin returning to work, it’s likely that finding volunteers will become even more of a challenge.

Meanwhile, in the midst of a recession, funding is under threat more than ever. “We need the funds to continue to support the people we do”, Sue told us, “but with so many people needing help, who would normally be supporting us, it is a huge drain on resources”.

However it’s not all doom and gloom, and there are some positives to come out of the current crisis. For example, it’s enabled the charity to make contact with and make a difference to many of those who would usually slip through the net, particularly the elderly, and families in need. As Sue pointed out, “this means we now have relationships with them, and now they know we are here for them when they need us in future…. We are also making plans for when this crisis is over and we can return normal. Covid has given us the chance to rethink what we do and try to make our service better.”

So, although faced with challenges in how they deliver their services, many charities such as The Brett Foundation are still operating, and in fact innovating, to help with issues such as isolation, loneliness, poverty, metal health and homelessness.

Perhaps Covid-19 has brought us an opportunity for society to change for the better, bringing community back to the core of our daily lives?

Should you have time to spare, Sue has offered advice on how to best support charities at the moment…

  • If you have time, help applying for the various grants currently available for charities (paperwork is the last thing on our minds right now, especially with reduced volunteers)

  • Spread the word about local charities who are on the ground working. That way, those that need help know where to go and those that would like to help can find something they might like to help with

  • If you possibly can, make a donation

And if you still need convincing, Sue reminds us that:

“It is a wonderful chance to make a difference to those in our society who really need it. Plus the difference in how it can make you feel, helping others, cannot be put into words.”

So if there’s a cause you care about this Volunteers week – reach out! They probably need you more than ever.

If you don’t have a particular charity you want to support in your local area, contact you local Volunteer Centre, CVS or visit the Do-it website, they can help point you in the right direction, to find out where help is most urgently needed.

Find out more about volunteering safely here.

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