Volunteers’ Week 2018: Making the days count

I can’t think of many things that leave me feeling more optimistic, or more uplifted, than seeing the thousands of ways that people get involved in their communities during Volunteers’ Week.

I get a sense of surprise and joy from the many ways people get involved. We see volunteers teaching first aid, rescuing people at sea, coaching kids to play sport, sorting through donated LPs to prepare them for sale in a charity shop, driving minibuses, performing home fire safety checks, showing people how to help their gardens grow, providing community mediation services, making dominoes for blind and partially sighted people, transporting blood on motorbikes, ensuring the local museum/library/garden stays open, befriending – and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Not everyone wants to be recognised or thanked – ‘it’s just what we do’ – but recognition and saying thank you is still important.

Volunteering and getting involved is ingrained in our society, in our institutions, our habits and practices. It is hiding in plain sight.

Valuing volunteering

For me, the stories and images we see this week are a far better way of showing the importance of volunteering to British society than any estimate of contribution to the economy. A number of themes resonate for me: happiness, meaning and purpose, joy and conviviality, connectedness and community, and of course making a difference to the people and communities around us. None of these speak to policy outcomes like contribution to GDP. They also don’t fit current, popular notions of why we should involve volunteers in public services, which are too centred on volunteering as a form of additional resource – in effect, cheap labour.

One of the great strengths of voluntary action is the way in which it gives expression to the things people care about: their interests, values and beliefs. Organisations across the public, private and voluntary sectors enable people to come together and share these through voluntary action. At a time when we are asking questions about community and connectedness, these activities knit us together as a nation. We need to be bolder about making the non-economic arguments for volunteering and getting involved. Volunteers’ Week exemplifies these.

Volunteering for all

This year Volunteers’ Week has focused on ‘volunteering for all’. It’s clear to us that diversity characterises voluntary action in the sheer number of activities and ways that people get involved. But I think that we would all recognise that volunteering can sometimes seem a bit too tight-knit to those who aren’t involved – and that we need to do more to open up volunteering to them. If volunteering is as powerful an intervention as we think it is – something that improves your health and wellbeing, your connectedness, your skills and knowledge – it is only right that we ensure those who are furthest away from volunteering opportunities have a better chance of accessing these.

This has got to be a real goal for civil society, for governments going forward, particularly if we see volunteering playing an even bigger role in our society. So, I hope that the inspiring stories we have seen this week will both help us be better in showing people from all walks of life that volunteering is for them. To quote Arthur Ashe: ‘Start where you are, use what you’ve got, do what you can’.

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

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