The 2015 Project: My wish for the legacy for the Olympics and volunteering

Kirsty Palmer is an expert in volunteering issues, as the former Chief Executve of Volunteer Centre Kensington and Chelsea, and now Employability Partnerships Manager at London South Bank University. This blog post is part of The 2015 Project – your chance to tell NCVO what our policy priorities should be.

Weren’t the Olympics brilliant?

Genuinely, weren’t they? I surprised even myself at quite how much I got into them. Like many Londoners, before they started my excitement at the prospect of six weeks of world class sport was tempered somewhat by fears about a public transport meltdown and the abject failure of Team GB to live up to anything approaching the hype. And yet I found myself becoming an overnight expert in grand prix dressage and sprint canoeing, weeping as Katherine Grainger finally fulfilled her extraordinary athletic potential and leaping in glee as Mo Farah flung his arms wide as if to embrace the whole stadium on winning his second gold medal. It was brilliant, uplifting, a redefining of a nation. The weather even cooperated after eighteen months of seemingly unrelenting rain and grey skies.

And the Gamesmakers!! That army of 80,000 magenta-clad volunteers, weren’t they amazing too? Well, yes. Yes they were. I stumbled across them everywhere across the city in that six weeks, and they were unfailingly smiling and positive, alongside London’s army of (Volunteer Centre-recruited) 8,000 London Ambassadors merrily directing confused tourists and patiently explaining that the City of London is not the same thing as the city of London. As someone who’s worked with and alongside volunteers for the best part of a decade, it was simply wonderful to see so many volunteers at the heart of the biggest national event of my lifetime. I was thrilled to see them recognised at the closing ceremonies of the Games, at Sports Personality of the Year and across local and national media.  And of course the legacy of all that volunteering….

Oh. Yes. Erm, legacy. Right-o. Um. I mean to say, surely all that goodwill couldn’t have been lost, could it?

Well, no, not entirely. Recent surveys tell us that a slightly higher percentage of the population identify themselves as volunteers than did previously. I choose my words carefully, because I don’t necessarily think that more people actually are volunteering. My Volunteer Centre in Kensington & Chelsea saw a small uplift in enquiries, but that was in line with the overall trend that we’ve seen in the last few years, and there was certainly no more bias towards sports or other things which might have been inspired by the Olympics.

No, people were still looking for administration, health and social care and youth work. In short, pretty much the same things as they’d been looking for before. And we were still struggling to find enough opportunities for them, because the overwhelming number of organisations that involve volunteers in their work are small, stretched and chronically underfunded. They don’t always have the time to invest in training and supporting their volunteers because the target-driven nature of their funding makes them focus on delivery, delivery, delivery. Volunteer Centres and other brokers can and do help, of course, filtering volunteers and guiding them into the right things, but there still remains the fundamental lack of resources for proper volunteer management.

So, yes, the Gamesmakers and the London Ambassadors were wonderful, and it was terrific to see them so proudly sporting their uniforms in public and being so warmly appreciated. But they had several huge advantages over the common-or-garden volunteer. They were part of an extraordinarily well-resourced programme, given phenomenal recognition and allowed to shine in the public spotlight.

This isn’t to diminish their contribution – I’m not one to advocate that volunteering should be about suffering and sackcloth-and-ashes donned by super virtuous people who just want meekly to get on with it while being largely ignored. No. Volunteers should be recognised. All volunteers. All the time. There should be public monuments to them, and television ceremonies, and awards and thanks from the ordinary person in the street. We shouldn’t wait for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do so – we should do it now.

I left the Volunteer Centre a couple of weeks ago to take up a new role supporting students to volunteer, but before I left I had the very great privilege of judging the Octavia Foundation Annual Volunteer Awards. The nominations in the befriending category were incredibly powerful and moving. Here were dozens of nominations, written in slightly shaky copperplate handwriting, recognising the difference made by someone just coming and spending a few hours a week with an elderly person who might be isolated, a long way from family or struggling with health conditions. The power of simple things like sharing pieces of music, nattering over a scone in M&S or just listening to someone talk shone through on every page. It was almost impossible to choose a winner.

And so, that’s my wish for the legacy of the Olympics and its volunteering. Nothing to do with boosting numbers of volunteers, but everything to do with recognising the ones we have. They are Lifemakers, society-makers, game-changers. They are volunteers.

For your chance to tell NCVO what we should be doing in our volunteering policy work answer our three quick questions.

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