I’m not a great one for extended departures. I am sorely tempted to follow the example of Margaret Jay whose celebrated ‘thank you and goodbye’ to the 650 plus hereditary peers who were swept away in the new dawn of Tony Blair’s first administration, remains an object lesson in efficiency and lack of sentimentality. But alas I feel I need just a few more words to say my own farewells.
Back to the future
I will be leaving NCVO at the end of the month to take up a new position of senior research fellow at the Centre for Charity Effectiveness at Cass Business School, to focus on teaching and research on volunteering. I am hugely excited about the role and am looking forward to returning to the research world where my career started.
We know far more about volunteering than we did when I first entered the movement over 25 years ago, but there are still many unanswered questions which continue to prevent us as a society from fully maximising its impact.
- How can we measure its true value, to the volunteer, the organisation and to society?
- How can it best be supported and nourished particularly in these austere times
- How do we move beyond the civic core and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to play their part and fulfil their potential?
- How can we harness the power and disruption of new technology to open up new avenues for social action, while continuing to support the institutions and individuals who play such a key role in advocating for and supporting volunteering at a local level?
The Institute for Volunteering Research, which I established and ran for over a decade, is doing some fabulous work within NCVO to help aid our understanding on these and many other issues, and I am looking forward to working with them and other colleagues from my new base to see what further progress we can make together to shed light on these big and important topics.
Volunteering in safe hands
Four years ago, as the effect of the cuts to infrastructure organisations began to take hold, my trustees at Volunteering England, where I was chief executive, took the decision to enter into merger discussions with NCVO as the best way of safeguarding the organisation’s valuable work.
Three years on from the merger I am left with the firm view that this was not only a brave decision but the right one and that volunteering support is in a better place within NCVO than it would have been if we had soldiered on alone.
It is a central plank of the organisation’s five year strategy, is increasingly well embedded in its policy, campaigns, communications and research activities, and is a highly visible feature of the refreshed brand. I have no doubt that volunteering will continue to play an important role in the organisation’s work over the coming years; after all volunteering is the life-blood of the sector.
The case for investment
None of this optimism is meant to suggest however, in any way, that I am happy with the current levels of investment in volunteering at either national or local level. Support remains shockingly low.
Governments and funders still just don’t get (or wilfully choose to ignore) the evidence that is staring them in the face; that volunteering is enormously good value for money but is not free from cost. When a figure with the stature of Andy Haldane, chief economist of the Bank of England, can claim that the value of volunteering to the nation’s GDP might well exceed £100 billion per annum, then there is simply no excuse.
If we are serious as a nation about harnessing the power of volunteering to build skills and aid employability, to deal with the scourge of mental ill-health and loneliness, to help rebuild participatory democracy and fractured communities; and, yes, to campaign against injustice and hold government to account. If we are serious about these things then we have to find the means to support the institutions and individuals who help to make volunteering work.
Finally I want to say thank you to you all. Working in a membership organisation (where I have spent most of my career) is a massive privilege and a hugely energising and inspiring experience. It is not always easy and we are (rightly) given a tough time on the occasions that we fail to measure up to the high standards that you set us, and indeed we set ourselves. But this is exactly as it should be and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
I have learnt virtually everything I know about volunteering from working with the many thousands of members (and millions of volunteers) represented by Volunteering England and NCVO, who have made it their (your) life’s mission to harness the power of volunteering to change the world for the better. I remain as passionate as ever about the capacity of volunteering to do good and thank you for your insights, wisdom and support.
I’ll sign off with one of my favourite quotes from the great social anthropologist, Margaret Mead, who said something along the lines of never doubting the capacity of a group of committed individuals to change the world, as in the end they are the only ones that can.
Thank you and goodbye.