Why the hell would I volunteer? How working on a campaign gave me the ‘bug’

johnny-mercerJohnny Mercer was elected as the Conservative MP for Plymouth Moor View in 2015, having previously served in the army. Johnny is a member of the Defence Select Committee and holds the position of vice-chair on the All Party Parliamentary Group for Disability and the All Party Parliamentary Group for Veterans. He will be speaking at NCVO’s Campaigning Conference.

Standing for parliament took me to the forefront of a political campaign, and along the way I discovered how volunteering can change society.

Joining the campaign trail

It was during the long wet winter of 2014 that I left the British army to pursue a rather maddening, ambitious, and potentially futile attempt to win elected office as a member of parliament in my local safe opposition seat.

I struggled when I left, even though I was lucky enough to have a strong family, plenty of friends and finally a bit of time to myself. I missed army life, I missed getting out and doing something, and I missed that daily buzz of ‘meaning something’ that being in the military provides.

From non-voter to election campaigner

I was now working on a building site trying to pay the bills, running a campaign without any help or any knowledge of how politics works (I hadn’t actually even voted before). The campaign was made even tougher because nobody apart from my wife and I actually thought we might win. There was the token encouragement, the look of almost sympathy as I would attend events as the latest ‘Conservative challenger’ in a city that had never voted that way before.

Then one evening my wife and I were invited to the annual Plymouth Herald Volunteer Awards at the local university. It was a glittering affair, even if most of the local dignitaries were unable to attend. One of the awards that really struck me was for the ‘biggest’ volunteers of the year – those who had done the most hours.

The winner was an unassuming, quiet lady. She spoke softly as she was clearly embarrassed to receive her prize, but she said something profound to us. What if we all just did a little bit of volunteering – perhaps a couple of hours each week? We could change our society, right here in Plymouth.

I vowed to get involved.

Getting hooked on volunteering

I had been invited to the awards by Alan and Maureen Stockdale, who run the Special Olympics Plymouth and District branch. They invited me along to one of their sports evenings, where in excess of 150 young adults with learning disabilities would play sport for two hours every Wednesday night. I went the following Wednesday; I was hooked.

Alan and Maureen were two of life’s really special characters. With a son with a learning disability, identifying there was such a gap in provision for this group in Plymouth, and the ability of sport as a vehicle to encourage those who might find it difficult to leave their home and get involved with others, they have poured their lives and souls into the Special Olympics, and it has borne deep rewards for all.

For those who attend it is the highlight of any week. To be able to leave a stringent care regime, or be able to loosen the inhibitions and run around chasing a football or basketball for a couple of hours, it does incredible things for an individual with learning difficulties.

Changing my life and changing me

For those who volunteer though, the project is simply awesome in its profound and enduring nature. To commit to something where people rely on you to turn up, and give real, deep, meaningful pleasure to other people is simply priceless. The faces of the young adults when I turned up to take football for that week, used to get me through the dreariest and abuse-filled weeks of running as a candidate in a general election. Literally the moment I stepped through into the gym hall, all worries left me as I gave my time to those who face real challenges every single day, not my own very temporary ones.

I remember passing a threshold when the boys on the building site invited me to the pub one night after very wet and windy day at work, and I said no. I had to go home, wash and cycle on into town (I couldn’t afford a car) because I was taking football that week. I thought to myself on the way in, that I had finally got the volunteering ‘bug’; I could totally see why people volunteered. It was changing my life and changing me, and I liked it.

How we can change society

The people I met during those months stayed with me for years. Having come from the company of ‘heroes’ in the military, I felt these volunteers actually joined that band, if not exceeded them. They are the unseen, the unpaid, but the simply indispensable part of our society that make us human. If we all just did a little bit, it would change our society, make us more human, make us more realistic, view life more in perspective. And it’s ok to want to do it for selfish reasons – for what it does to you as an individual, as much as what it does to those you are helping.

Why the hell would you do it? Because it’s the best thing I ever did.


NCVO Campaigning Conference – 6 September 2016

This conference is for campaigns, public affairs, and policy and media professionals from the voluntary sector. Join us at the major campaigning event of the year to learn practical skills, share knowledge, and network.

Find out more about the conference


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