No Volunteers Week

Celebrating 30 years of Volunteers’ Week

This year is the 30th anniversary of Volunteers’ Week and, if we look back over the past three decades, we can take some satisfaction at how far we have come in terms of putting volunteering on the map. It is beyond question that there is far greater recognition today of the value and importance of volunteering than there was in 1984. But, despite the progress we have made, there is still more to do, especially in terms of making the case that volunteering, although enormously good value for money, is not cost free.

No Volunteers Week

What about for one year only running a ‘No Volunteers Week’? If the traditional approach of celebrating all that is good about volunteering has largely failed to get across the key message that it requires investment to thrive, how about coming at things from the opposite direction and pointing to all that would be lost if volunteers disappeared from our communities?

A world without volunteers

Just imagine it. There would be no life-boats, Samaritans or hospices. Magistrates, school governors, sports coaches, Guide and Scout leaders, special constables, National Trust wardens, would all have disappeared. Our leisure and heritage industry would be decimated, as would our schools and colleges, hospitals, day centres, prisons, parks, and sports clubs. There would be no fund-raising, so many of our charities and voluntary groups would cease to exist, and no trustees, so even those able to eke out an existence, would have no-one to lead them. There would be no campaigning, no advocacy, no food-banks, no credit unions, and no citizen advice bureau. In short, our communities would grind to a halt.

Mapping this exodus

We could map this volunteering desert using the latest crowd-sourcing (or should it be crowd-dispersing!) software. We could make a film about it, along the lines of the renowned 2004 film A Day without a Mexican, which looked at the impact on California when the Mexicans disappeared. Or we could do it the old-fashioned way and take a look at what is around us and see what would be missed. I live in a smallish village near St Albans, about 30 miles north of London. A cursory glance at our village newsletter (itself produced and delivered by volunteers!) suggests that life in our community in June when the volunteers disappear is going to be a rather soulless place to live.

You might want to move away if you have children, as the St Mary’s Church Holiday Club for Children will have closed its doors, as will the Village Youth Club and Community Centre and the local branches of the Guides and Scouts.

Probably best not to be ill during the month either, as The Village Care Bus, which ferries people to and from hospital and which won a Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service for its efforts, will be parked up in a lay-by for a few weeks, and Hertbeats, the Cardiac Support Group, Good Companions, the Carers’ Support Group, and the local Samaritans will all have shut up shop.

Culturally it will be a pretty dull month too. The Local village museum will be closed, the Village Singers will be quiet, the ‘Folk on the Common’ concert will be cancelled, and the curtain will have come down on the eagerly anticipated production of the Alan Ayckbourn play Tons of Money (how very apt!) by the Village Players.

Those of a sporting bent won’t fare much better as the football, tennis, cricket and bowls clubs will all be closed. And things are not looking good for those who prefer more sedentary leisure pursuits, as the Village in Stitches will have downed its needles and the WI and U3A will have gone away for the summer.

Oh and if you were looking forward to the Village in Bloom competition and the Cure Parkinson’s Trust concert and fireworks display, you will be in for a disappointment.

Making a point

What if anything does this prove? This activity, or rather inactivity in No Volunteers Week, goes on (or doesn’t go on) in every community across the country. Volunteers make society work. They humanise our relationships. They improve our quality of life. They enhance our public services and strengthen our sense of place. They bring about change, make a nuisance of themselves, and make things happen. Oh, and if we want to get all hard-nosed about it, they add almost £40 billion to our GDP in the process. And without them? Well our communities would grind to a halt.

Celebrating 30 Years

No Volunteers Week would certainly help us make this case. But it’s not really feasible. So instead, let’s go all out this year, in this the 30th anniversary of Volunteers’ Week, to celebrate the amazing work of volunteers and the enormous contribution they make to society. And then let’s re-double our efforts to secure the investment needed to maximize their impact. Please join us in making this the biggest and best celebration of volunteering we have ever seen. And remember to register your event on the Volunteers’ Week website so everyone can see what you are doing.

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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.

13 Responses to No Volunteers Week

  1. Lynn Thompson says:

    This is a powerful and thought provoking piece Justin.
    I can see that to illustrate the immediate imapct of the situation you describe you would focus on the loss of those volunteering in the health care, arts and social sectors. However you did miss an opportunity to portray an even bleaker picture, one in which the beauty and sustainability of our wonderful countryside and urban environment is irreparably damaged. The Woodland Trust alone has thousands of volunteers working to improve the resilience of our natural landscapes. Their contribution, and that of very many more environmental volunteers, would also be sorely missed. Maybe just not immediately.

  2. Justin Davis Smith says:

    Thanks Lynn and you are quite right. The impact of an exodus of volunteers from the environmental field would be catastrophic. No Woodland Trust volunteers, none from the National Trust or Trust for Conservation Volunteers. No RSPB volunteers; no spontaneous outpouring of support to help with environmental disasters, as we saw with the floods earlier this year. The cost in environmental, economic and societal terms would be incalculable.

  3. Richard says:

    Another interpretation of the above would to emphasise how a huge (and growing) number of (often vulnerable) people are left utterly reliant on the continued goodwill of others. This doesn’t seem like something to ‘celebrate’.

  4. Justin Davis Smith says:

    Absolutely. I’m certainly not suggesting that the growth of Foodbanks is in any sense a cause for celebration, merely pointing out that without them many people would be in an even more vulnerable position than they currently are. As I tried to make clear, a world without volunteers would not just be one where vulnerable people are left more vulnerable, but one where people (and organisations) campaigning and advocating for social change were also absent. Not a good place to be.

    • Richard says:

      Sure, that’s fair enough – it’s just a very thin line between the (important) recognition of the people who volunteer – and the (equally important) argument that actually, the growth of volunteering (in some areas at least) is something that voluntary organisations themselves should regret, or resist.

  5. leonie lewis says:

    Justin, great piece..I think a similar idea was voiced by Erma Bombeck, a great American satirist.Erma Bombeck wrote the following which is worth sharing in readiness of Vols Week

    Volunteers are like yachts. No matter where they are, they arouse your curiosity. Who are they? Where did they come from? Why are they here? They could have stayed moored where it’s safe and still justify their being, but they chose to cut through the rough waters, ride out the storm and take chances.

    They have style. They are fiercely independent. If you have to ask how much they cost, you can’t afford them.

    Volunteers and yachts have a lot more in common these days. They’re both a luxury in a world that has become very practical. Day by day, the number of volunteers decreases in this country, as more of them equate their worth in terms of dollars and cents.

    I once did a column on volunteers in an effort to point out that they don’t contribute to our civilization. They ARE civilization, at least the only part worth talking about.

    They are the only human beings on the face of the earth who reflect this nation’s compassion, unselfishness, caring, patience, need, and just plain loving one another. Their very presence transcends politics, religion, ethnic background, marital status, sexism, even smokers vs. non-smokers.

    Maybe, like the yacht, the volunteer was a luxury. And luxuries are too often taken for granted.

    One has to wonder. Did we, as a nation, remember to say to the volunteers, “Thank you for our symphony hall. Thank you for the six dialysis machines. Thank you for the hot chocolate at the scout meeting. Thank you for reading to the blind. Thank you for using your station wagon to transport a group of strangers to a ball game.

    Thanks for knocking on doors in the rain. Thanks for hugging the winners of the Special Olympics. Thanks for pushing the wheelchairs into the sun. Thanks for being.”

    Did the media stand behind them when they needed a boost? Did the professionals make it a point to tell them they did a good job? Did the recipients of their time and talent ever express their gratitude?

    It frightens me, somehow, to imagine what the world would be without them.”

  6. Justin Davis Smith says:

    Thanks Leonie – powerful stuff. I hadn’t heard this before, but elegantly put, although the ‘dialysis machine’ example raises the age old question of what is and isn’t appropriate to rely on volunteers for.

  7. Steve Plater says:

    Add the Community First Responders, without whose rapid intervention more e.g. cardiac arrest victims could well die. Community events would have to buy in commercial first aid cover, instead of having St John Ambulance or Red Cross on a donation basis. The Home Library Service would not be delivering books to housebound people. Our local arts centre would close down, as it depends on volunteer staffing.
    Big events would struggle too, e.g. the Commonwealth Games. I think we Games Makers made a bit of a contribution to the success of London 2012….

  8. Justin Davis Smith says:

    Indeed, excellent additions. And, as a proud London Ambassador for the Paralympic Games myself, how could I have forgotten the role of volunteers in big events? The forthcoming Commonwealth Games in Glasgow would certainly have to be called off if volunteers disappeared.

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  11. Jill White says:

    We are celebrating National Volunteers Week this week and aim to show how many charities/CAB and local organisations that would not be able to function if all the volunteers were to disappear – I am certain that the locals would be rally amazed at how their community would suffer.

  12. Pauline Lowery says:

    Thank you for this. Working with volunteers in the Public Sector, they are really important to our services as well. They support families in need in a variety of ways. Volunteering also provides a step up into paid employment for those that have not worked for a long time or at all. Other volunteers help to support work seekers. Some volunteer for a long time (6 years) others a shorter time. I call it ‘footsteps to a better future’. This applies for both volunteers and service users alike.