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From Supporting the Home Front to the NHS Front Line – The Charity leading Britain’s Biggest Volunteer Mobilisation since WW2

By Catherine Johnstone CBE, Chief Executive of Royal Voluntary Service

Royal Voluntary Service has always stepped forward at times of great national challenge.

At the end of 2019, a new crisis began to emerge, which by March 2020 would see the NHS stretched like never before and many thousands of lives at risk.

As the threat of Coronavirus became more evident, Royal Voluntary Service quickly got to work to protect our volunteers and clients, many of whom are on the “at risk” list. We hit pause on many of our community services including our social groups and lunch clubs and have been developing safe ways for people to access support, including safe and well calls, meal deliveries and taking social activities online. During this period we have also launched our Virtual Village Hall ( which enables people to be connected to each other and activities during the restrictions of social distancing and self-isolation. 

But as Coronavirus really began to hit, we knew volunteers would be pivotal to the national emergency effort. A new army of volunteers was needed to take pressure off the NHS and help save lives, by supporting those asked to shield themselves.

Working with NHS England and the GoodSAM app, in March 2020 we launched our biggest call for volunteers since the Second World War. The NHS Volunteer Responders scheme was met with great enthusiasm and compassion from the British public – in just four days 750,000 people applied to volunteer.

600,000 NHS Volunteer Responders are now ‘on duty’, completing simple, but vital tasks such as picking up shopping and prescriptions, transporting people to hospital appointments and making “check in and chat” telephone calls. Referrals are coming in from health professionals, national charities and  directly from vulnerable people self-referring themselves.

For the last two years, Royal Voluntary Service has put considerable emphasis on growing newer forms of volunteering to make it easier for people to give their time. The NHS Volunteer Responders has quickly shown us how we might do that. Specifically, a way of making volunteering more attractive and accessible for people of all ages and backgrounds  that offers greater flexibility.

Earlier this year, I spoke at the Inside Government Volunteer Management conference about the extensive work Royal Voluntary Service had already been doing to enhance and modernise our volunteer journey.

Much of this work was informed by internal data on  our volunteer’s experiences, as well as the Kickstarting a Volunteer Revolution research we completed with CASS Business School in 2018, exploring motivations for volunteering. This has seen us roll-out a stream of new initiatives to help keep volunteers more engaged and to improve the volunteer on-boarding process. We’ve also tapped into people’s desire to improve their health through volunteering, by focusing recruitment messaging on wellbeing.

The charity has also launched a range of new offerings. This includes making it possible for volunteers to bring their children/grandchildren with them to community settings and giving volunteers more freedom and creativity to shape their own roles and start and lead their own social activities.  This rewiring of the volunteer journey has already seen enquiries rise significantly and conversion rates increase.

We’re now looking at how we can continue to develop the new NHS Volunteer Responder initiative at scale and pace to continue to support society through the challenges of Covid-19 and beyond.  

But, when the country begins to heal, I truly hope one positive to come out of this will be a nation more willing to play their part and a new army of volunteers keen to continue their volunteering journey. 


We hope you enjoyed this inspirational guest piece by Catherine Johnstone CBE and hope that it gave you an opportunity to reflect upon the work your volunteers have been doing during the Covid-19 crisis.

This piece is one of many we currently have live and we will be providing many more resources in the coming months as part of the newly launched IG Voluntary Community Hub.

We offer sector-leading policy events, leading best practice content and thought pieces from across the sector, IG Voluntary is here to support voluntary leaders and professionals improve outcomes and maximise the impact of all charities and NGOs. 

Visit the IG Voluntary Community Hub