I have been thinking a lot about volunteers and volunteering recently and I thought I would share some of my thoughts here. Two of my current homeless activities are “Street Spirit” and “Winter Night Shelters”, and these rely heavily on volunteers. I am finding increasingly with schools, other educational institutions and even in the job market, people are being encouraged to volunteer. I have already reflected on a number of important points to do with volunteering in my books “Outside the Camp” and “Onward and Upward”. Volunteering and working in and for the voluntary sector have been an important part of my life ever since I became a full time community worker around the turn of the millennium.
It s quite likely that all those reading this will have engaged and be engaging in volunteering in one form or other and may well do so to a greater extent that the population at large. Most do arising out of motives such as wanting to serve others, making a difference to our communities, learning new skills, pursuing a passion, stopping get bored, needing to feel useful etc., and it is often a mixture of these, and we are all different, with the emphasis being placed on words like “freely”, “unpaid”, “co-operation”, “variety”, “flexibility” and “altruism”. My first hit when I did an Internet search, in order to define the terms I use, was to come up with the following:
- Volunteer: freely offer to do something and/or work for an organization without being paid.
- Voluntary sector or community sector: is the societal activity undertaken by organizations that are not for-profit and non-governmental. This sector is also called the third sector, in contrast to the public sector and the private sector.
From those definitions, it is clear that the scope for a volunteer is enormous and he/she can do so with or without the support or guidance of a voluntary organisation. It is also clear that the scope for voluntary sector organisations are enormous. I would not be exaggerating if I were to say that my town of 170000 inhabitants likely has over 1000 voluntary organisations that differ in all sorts of ways, including size, income, structure, aims and objectives, policies and procedures, use of paid workers to organise volunteers / activities etc. It should be added that sometimes the public and private sector also use volunteers or have charitable aims one might associate with the voluntary sector and that the faith communities make up for a significant chunk of the voluntary sector output.
Over the years, I have had plenty of opportunity to observe voluntary organisations at close hand, having either worked with them as a paid worker or unpaid volunteer or partnering in some way. I am loathe to criticise but some voluntary organisations are a lot more effective and diligent than others. This may depend on the strength of the vision, the quality of leadership and that of the volunteer cohort. Voluntary organisations vary considerably regarding funding needs, a huge subject and one that merits separate discussion, for the capability to deliver services may depend on the funding, although I am often amazed how much they can achieve with so little, and how many are prepared to go that extra mile to achieve their goals and truly help people. It also seems to me that volunteers vary considerably and there is an art in using volunteers effectively and treating them well, bearing in mind they do so freely. Increasing they are being recognised by those who commission services in the statutory sector as having an important part to play and this places more emphasis on the need to do things properly and measuring outcomes. Especially in a time of austerity, with even essential services being cut, their role is crucial. Thinking about it though, that has always been the case!
To any reader who is thinking of volunteering, I would say this can be a valuable activity – for you personally and those you want to help. It often strikes me that if you remove volunteers from the frame what an awful situation we would be in. There are so many opportunities and from where I sit I can see how much needs to be done and the thing stopping things being done is the lack of willing and able volunteers. While I am tempted to set up a list of points to think about for any wanting to start a voluntary organisation or join an existing one, I will refrain. Some simply volunteer in their own right. The main thing is to check out what is out there already, your own skills, interests and availability, what are the unmet needs, matching reality with vision, being enthusiastic but also counting the cost, and just go for it, for volunteers can and do achieve so much and need to be encouraged, supported and acclaimed.