Is volunteering a dying trait?

If this sounds like one of those deliberately provocative ‘clickbait’ headlines, then I’m sorry to have to say this is a real question being asked in the voluntary and community sector. Only this week I got an email from someone struggling to recruit volunteers for an event who told me, ‘volunteering is a dying trait’.

Without volunteers there is no voluntary sector.

This is, of course, the bleeding obvious. It is so obvious, it seems, that it is completely forgotten and taken for granted.

Volunteering is the lifeblood of the voluntary and community sector. From informal gifts of time through helping a neighbour or at a community event through to formal roles such as Trustees, volunteering is essential to the sector functioning.

If volunteering is dying, then the result is the sector is dying. If the sector is dying, then communities are weakened and unsupported increasing demand on public services that are either already at capacity or do not exist as that is what our sector does. Bottom line, if volunteering is dying then everyone should be worried.

All across the UK, towns, cities and rural areas are reporting significant drops in the levels of formal volunteering.

The cost-of-living crisis is clearly a large contributing factor, but to think volunteering issues will disappear once that has passed is to misunderstand the situation.

Volunteering has serious structural and systemic issues which have been exacerbated by the cost-of-living crisis but will remain, or be worse, once the crisis over.

If we can solve the issue of understanding the value of volunteering this will go a long way to help solving the other issues.

There is an often-used quote in our sector by Sherry Anderson, “Volunteers are not paid; not because they are worthless, but because they are priceless.” As much as I love the sentiment behind this, it is also extremely unhelpful as we live in a society where only things with a clear economic value are supported, developed and invested in.

The benefits of volunteering for the individual and communities are, I hope, well known. As well as the actual impact of the volunteering, for individuals, volunteering helps mental health, builds social and professional networks, develops skills and is fun. For communities, people giving a little of their time formally or informally makes them resilient, cohesive and nice places to live. However, the economic value for these benefits is unknown.

Martin Brookes, the CEO of London Plus (which champions charities and community groups in London), highlighted a useful example that illustrates this issue in a short article ‘A better way to value and think about charities’. To summarise, it describes how volunteers from Good Gym stepped in to deliver prescriptions during the pandemic, as the private sector did not want to do this, not only did this volunteering activity not count towards calculating our GDP, it reduces it, whereas when the private sector carries this task out, it increases GDP. It is just one very real example which shows that as well as the value and impact on our society and economy of volunteering is not being measured or counted, when it does happen it can create a negative effect on the financial measures currently used.

Although the article does not mention it, as it was not relevant for the point being made, but it was the infrastructure organisation Voluntary Action Camden who facilitated the connection between the GPs/pharmacies and Good Gym who provided the volunteers. This clearly shows the benefits of infrastructure organisations, but the monetary value of this very important facilitation and brokerage is also unknown.

Therefore, those who work in the sector, whether it local, regional or national infrastructure, need to quickly come up with some measures of value to demonstrate the importance of volunteering. If we do not, then it could lead to decisions being made to stop investing in volunteer infrastructure with the inevitable consequence of having to re-establish it again later which not only costs more in the long run but takes time to do and weakens the whole sector whilst this happens.

What can we actually do?

The reality of volunteering right now in the UK is not good and looks quite bleak given the structural and systemic issues, but we are not in an impossible situation. Understanding what the problems are is definitely part of being able to create a solution.

Waiting for the cost-of-living crisis to end is not the answer. We need to tackle the issue on multiple fronts and we all have a part to play in the solution.

Showing economic value of Volunteering

Even if they are imperfect, we need to start estimating the economic impact of volunteering and volunteer infrastructure. In his article referenced above, Martin Brookes states, ‘The Law Family Commission on Civil Society offers a large number of very practical recommendations about data. They offer the prospect of improving how we measure the value and contribution of people like the runners of GoodGym in Camden.’

When people think there is a real need or crisis, they step up to volunteer. This has been proven. Right now, in general terms, no one really knows that there is a real need for volunteers.

Although many volunteer infrastructure organisations do very well with social media and communications, none of them have a loud enough voice for this current situation. These organisations need help from others with bigger voices such as local authorities, national bodies and the government to significantly raise the profile of the ask for volunteer support. For example, a national promotion but locally delivered would be very impactful. However, these need to be coordinated between national and local bodies to be effective as the poorly thought through Big Help Out has shown.

Local authorities can play a stronger role in amplifyingg the messages of volunteer infrastructure organisations and if they can work together on dedicated campaigns it can reach more people who could volunteer.

Volunteering is not dying, far from it, but it is injured. The need for effective healthcare, i.e. local and national volunteer infrastructure, has never been stronger.

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