Volunteers’ Week 2017: making a difference

It feels like the first day of summer: the sun is out – for many of us, for now at least – but most importantly, it’s the first day of Volunteers’ Week, a time to celebrate the difference that volunteers make to our lives everywhere and to say thank you.

Making a difference comes in all shapes, sizes and forms. I met Margaret and her daughter June on Tuesday night*. Margaret is 87, her eyesight is failing and she lost her husband a few years ago. She walks with a frame. He daughter lives some miles away. Like many of us, she sought support during that difficult time from a local community organisation – and not only did she get this, but to her evident surprise, ‘was immediately offered a job’.

Margaret has since then volunteered for that organisation, ‘making tea and offering sympathy’ for people with their own problems, whether that be loneliness or something more troubling. And it works. Margaret makes a difference. And it clearly makes a difference to Margaret, who has purpose and friendship.

Recognising volunteers

Whether its the simple act of offering tea and sympathy, guiding patients around a busy hospital, managing a stretch of river or campaigning for a cause we believe in, we know that volunteers everywhere make a difference. We recognise this in different ways.

The starting point is saying thank you, something I’d wager we still don’t do quite enough, particularly where what people do is not what they think of as volunteering or giving their time for others (sports coaches seem to me to be a good example of this).

We recognise the difference volunteering makes by giving out awards, which is where I met Margaret and June. I was humbled to hand out a couple of vInspired awards on Tuesday to hugely impressive students from London University’s Royal Holloway. The idea that young people don’t care about those around them or make a difference is, frankly, laughable.

We recognise the difference that volunteers make by counting the sum total of their efforts, by asking what would be needed from paid staff if they no longer gave their time, with seemingly implausible results – after all, one in four of us volunteer at least once a month.


We also increasingly highlight the difference that volunteering makes to those who give their time. Couched in the language of wellbeing, we can state with some confidence that volunteering can make us healthier and happier, for some the equivalent of stopping smoking. This gives rise to the phrase that volunteering has a double benefit, making a difference to ourselves and those we help.

And finally, we tell stories. The story I like to tell is one of my normal day: of the community garden near my house, maintained by volunteers; of my rights as commuter, voiced by volunteers; of the canal outside my office, maintained by volunteers; of the ParkRun where my family get fit, run by volunteers; and of the branch library where I’ll borrow books, run by volunteers working alongside a trained librarian. My point here is that most volunteering is invisible, but it is part of the warp and weft of our lives. We should be telling more of these stories and how volunteers are helping to make life good.

Telling the stories

Statistics and economic value are an important part of how we show the difference made by volunteering. But I do wonder if sometimes, pressed by the desire to impress commissioners and policy makers, we over-complicate this stuff: people helping people. Maybe we need to immerse those people who make decisions more in the stories of people who make a difference – as anyone reading this will no doubt testify, this stuff is quite visceral. And as someone more thoughtful than me has noted, people might not remember what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel. And this week, some immersion in stories of volunteering has left me feeling inspired and humbled.

So, join us this week in celebrating all that people do in the service of others. Join us in highlighting the difference that volunteers make. Join us in telling people’s stories of volunteering, Join us in saying thank you.

Oh, and Margaret didn’t win an award on Tuesday. She was one of the runners-up. But a bit like me, she had a lovely time, and clearly enjoyed being part of something. And award or not, she’ll be making tea again today, no doubt, in her own quiet way, making a difference to those around her.


*Not their real names.


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Karl Wilding Karl Wilding served as NCVO's chief executive from September 2019 to February 2021.

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