Case study: UK Covid mutual aid groups

By John Drury and Evangelos Ntontis

In 2020, tens of thousands of people got involved in Covid mutual aid and similar community support groups, with over 4000 new groups being set up in Spring of that year.

Who were they?

Many participants were new to volunteering or community action. Some groups were repurposed pre-existing community groups. Groups tended to be informal, distinct from the existing voluntary sector, and with no formal constitution. Some groups later applied for charitable status to access grants more easily. Local communities with more social capital tended to have more mutual aid groups.

What did Covid mutual aid groups do?

Mutual aid groups’ main activity was shopping to support those self-isolating or shielding. They also engaged in other community support activities, including fundraising, providing information, dog-walking, mental health support, and collecting prescriptions.  Some pointed out that mutual aid groups were crucial in the UK’s pandemic response. In addition, many groups sought to respond to other community needs beyond Covid, including food poverty and supporting refugees.

Understanding how Covid mutual aid groups sustained themselves

The Economic and Social Research Council funded research to examine how Covid mutual aid groups sustained themselves over time. Following the initial upsurge, participation in mutual aid groups dropped, particularly after ‘lockdown’ restrictions eased. For example, activity in Covid mutual aid groups on Facebook dropped by 75% by June from the high point of March 2020. Some volunteers left because they felt let down by local authorities, needed logistical infrastructure, felt overwhelmed, lacked capacity, or lost motivation due to return to ‘normality’. For the groups that continued, there was a need to sustain themselves and maintain volunteers’ engagement over time.

Interviews with organizers and a two-wave survey of volunteers indicated three types of factors that helped sustain groups. First, there was group scaffolding – such as access to funds, space for meetings and storage, computing facilities, and transport.

Second, there were group experiences which arose from participation and motivated further involvement — including a sense of identity, wellbeing, empowerment, and skills acquisition. Finally, organizers employed various group strategies to enhance a sense of belonging and motivate volunteers – in particular, fostering a culture of care, holding social events, a flexible leadership structure, and regular communication.

Learnings: Implications for community resilience

Central government, local authorities, and local infrastructure organizations/ the formal voluntary sector can all help scaffold the group processes that sustain mutual aid groups.

Group scaffolding can comprise financial/ practical support, connections and links, and guidance / advice.

It is important that no ‘strings’ are attached to this external support, as it is precisely the identity of mutual aid groups as independent and informal that makes them trusted by communities.

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