The volunteering legacy of London 2012

The volunteers were the astonishing success of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Even hardened voluntary sector professionals like me, who for the past seven years have been talking up the opportunities the London 2012 Games could bring to the volunteering world, were blown away. The question now is what happens next.

Is it realistic to expect a lasting legacy to be achieved, especially given the cutbacks being forced on many of the key institutions that make volunteering happen in our communities? Of course, we can’t replicate the excitement and grandeur of the Games, but we can take some of the learning and apply the principles to involving volunteers in our projects.

Three key lessons stand out. First, leadership. From Seb Coe to Boris Johnson, volunteering has been championed from the top. This is not just post-event rhetoric, though we have seen some of that, but the careful positioning of volunteers at the centre of the Games. Volunteers – the Games Makers and London Ambassadors (note the careful terminology) – were not seen as an optional extra, a luxury to be welcomed but not a requirement, but rather as essential to the delivery of the project itself.

Second, recognition. Seldom, if ever, can volunteers have received such acclaim. Local groups cannot put on victory parades for their volunteers or Prime Ministerial receptions, but they can design inspiring roles with good training and support and put on a thank you party. They can show their volunteers that they are what has made the difference between doing a job and being brilliant.

Which brings us to the third and most challenging lesson – the thorny issue of investment. Whilst politicians might like to think that volunteering just happens, the truth is more prosaic. Volunteering requires investment and support to make it work. LOCOG and the Mayor’s Office have been planning their programmes for years; indeed, planning for the volunteers at London 2012 began in 2004. They have invested millions of their own money and of corporate sponsors’ resources in these programmes. This is not to reduce volunteering to a financial transaction. There is something very special about the volunteering relationship that can’t be bought and sold. But the hard truth is that volunteering has to be underpinned and supported by substantial investment if it is to flourish and survive. Investment in communications and recruitment, and training and management; investment in programme design, and in reward and recognition. Above all, investment in the creation of new and exciting opportunities which capture the imagination and sense of what’s possible for potential volunteers.

And yet at precisely the time when volunteering has never had a higher profile, and the prospects for its expansion have never been greater, we find the organisations that make it work struggling to survive. A recent survey of our members found that half of the 280 Volunteer Centres in England have seen their funding cut this year by an average of 25%, on top of a 12% cut last year. Volunteer Centres, which are already swamped by inquiries and increasingly called upon by work programme providers, and other government agencies, will be needed when the flush from the Games has evaporated and the hard slog of recruiting and retaining volunteers for local projects carries on again in earnest. Meanwhile, from national charities we receive reports that the posts of volunteer managers are being lost as their organisations’ funding is cut.

Volunteers are great value for money. One study suggested that for every pound invested an organisation could expect a return of £7-£8. The question is who is going to invest the pound. Without that investment the dream of a lasting legacy from the Games will remain just that.

Justin Davis Smith is Chief Executive of Volunteering England.
(Update: Volunteering England merged with NCVO on the 1st January 2013)

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Justin was executive director of volunteering and development at NCVO and chief executive of Volunteering England. He is now a senior research fellow at City University Cass Business School’s Centre for Charity Effectiveness.

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