From Sochi with Love: Volunteering and the legacy of 2012

With the Winter Olympics about to kick off this Friday I have been reflecting on that glorious summer of 2012 and the crucial issue of the volunteering legacy. Two years on, how far have we come and what more do we need to do to fulfil the ambitions we set ourselves? One thing we can all agree on. The London Olympic and Paralympic Games put volunteering centre stage like never before. I was fortunate enough to have been chosen as a London Ambassador for the Paralympic Games, and I still recall with great fondness travelling into London on the train each day for my shift, bedecked in my day-glo uniform, being accosted by commuters and visitors (from all corners of the globe), keen to ask about my volunteer role and how they could get involved.

The London Ambassadors, and their partners in pink and purple, the GamesMakers, were without doubt the stars of the show and dominated the news over the summer. Volunteering became popular like never before, with one immediate post-Games survey suggesting that one in four of the British public wished they had got involved. Certainly the Olympic and Paralympic movement had never seen anything like it. The Sydney Millennium Games is often credited with putting volunteering on the Olympic map, but the 2012 volunteers took things to a new level.

As a footnote it is worth remembering that it was the previous time London hosted the Games in 1948 that volunteers had first been properly involved, although digging back through the records I have managed to locate at least one reference to their (rather limited) involvement as far back as the Stockholm Games of 1912.  Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Games, wrote at the time that ‘A Swedish woman, Mrs Versall, had six children who participated in the Games, the youngest as a boy scout enrolled to maintain order and deliver messages’, adding, in a line that seems a million miles away from the ambition of London 2012, that ‘this seems rather trivial, however the IOC gave her a special Olympic medal’.

So the volunteering programme in 2012 was a huge success. But what of our hopes for a lasting legacy? Have we managed to maintain the momentum and keep the spirit of volunteering alive? And if not, what more could we be doing? There have been some encouraging signs. The Community Life Survey suggests that volunteering nationally has gone up by about seven per cent since 2012, and whilst it is not possible to pin this directly to the Games, it is reasonable to suggest the Games have played a part. The Join-In Trust (of which I am on the board) has also begun to deliver on its promise. Set up to focus specifically on delivering a volunteering legacy in the world of sport, last year it managed to attract 100,000 new volunteers into sports clubs across the UK and this year has launched a campaign to attract several hundred Local Leaders to work with sports clubs and other volunteering agencies to embed volunteering even more into the fabric of our sporting DNA. The new Spirit of 2012 Trust, which has been set up by the Big Lottery Fund, with proceeds from the sale of the Olympic Village, is developing its priorities and will provide a welcome focal point for funding of volunteering legacy projects over the coming years.

But in another sense things have disappointed. Despite the huge acclaim for the Games Volunteers and the growing success of Join-In, Team London and other legacy initiatives, I am left with a sense that some of the big lessons from the Games have yet to be learnt. Let’s remind ourselves why the GamesMakers and London Ambassadors were so successful. First, inspirational leadership from the top down, from Seb Coe and the leadership teams at LOCOG and the Mayor’s Office. The genius of the 2012 programme was that volunteers were positioned right at the heart of the Olympic and Paralympic project. There was never any suggestion that volunteers were a nice to have extra, a luxury that could be added if the resources allowed. Volunteers were central to the Games; they were the key ingredient that would indeed make the Games.

Reflecting on this lesson of leadership for our own organisations and communities since 2012 can we hand on heart state that this lesson of leadership has been fully embraced? Do we see our charities and public bodies – our hospitals, schools, and local authorities – placing volunteers at the heart of their operations, not I hasten to add as a replacement for paid professionals but, as with the Games, as an essential ingredient alongside paid staff in the co-delivery of their mission? All too often volunteers remain confined to the periphery or (even worse) reduced to a cheap resource to substitute for cuts to local services. And herein lies another (perhaps even greater) lesson from the Games which is at risk of being ignored and without which a lasting legacy will prove impossible to deliver.

Whisper it if you dare but the 2012 volunteering programme didn’t just happen. There was massive investment, from government and from business, which helped to mobilise and unlock the volunteering spirit. Of course it wasn’t just down to money; volunteering never is. But without the investment in training and support, in HR and comms, in the IT systems that underpinned the recruitment and selection process, in the uniforms (yes the purple and pink again), in the badges and certificates and thank you events; in other words, without the essential elements of good practice in involving volunteers, which many of us have been articulating for many years, it is doubtful if the impact would have been achieved. And just as with leadership, can we honestly, point to our organisations and institutions, in the public, voluntary and private sectors, and say that we have fully learned the 2012 lesson of investment? Volunteering is fantastic good value for money; it can unlock assets and resources that perhaps no other form of intervention can deliver. But it is not free from cost.

One of the frustrations of 2012 was that apart from the best efforts of the London Ambassadors team the local volunteering infrastructure wasn’t involved in the design and delivery of the volunteering programme, which meant a golden opportunity was missed to showcase the important role of Volunteer Centres in making volunteering work and delivering on the long-term legacy. Perhaps Sochi has learnt this lesson with 26 new Volunteer Centres having been established in 14 regions of Russia, to lead on the selection and training of volunteers for the Games, and through which it is hoped the legacy will be delivered.

So as I get ready to settle down on Friday evening and watch the opening ceremony from Sochi, and revel in the volunteers (no doubt comparing their uniform with mine and wishing I could do it all over again) I will be thinking about how best to bring this message home to our policy makers businesses and funders; that without investment we will never be able to deliver on the legacy of the Games. Now if someone can tell me how to do it, that would be worth a Gold Medal.

And finally, what Sochi also reminds us so powerfully, in the wake of the international opposition to Russia’s gay propaganda and blasphemy laws, led of course by volunteers, is that volunteering is not just about (or even mainly about) mass celebration events, but is at its heart concerned with social justice and making our world a better and fairer place. If Sochi can help to remind us of that important truth then its legacy will indeed be secure.

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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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