The five most impressive volunteer roles around

Working in the Centre for Social Action Innovation Fund exposes you to a diverse range of volunteering roles, from mentoring and neighbouring, through to staffing a helpline and providing peer support. I’ve come across many of these before, but despite a decade of working in the social action field the Fund has exposed me to some volunteering roles I never knew existed.

I have been astounded by the lengths some people go to when volunteering - giving up significant amounts of time and personal freedom in order to help others in need. This got me thinking. What are the most impressive volunteer roles out there? The ones that save lives, put you in harm's way, or require sacrifices that most of us would struggle to make?

After some consultation with colleagues, I decided to put together a list (in no particular order) of the five most impressive volunteer roles around today.

Shared Lives Plus Carers

Shared Lives Plus matches families willing to share their homes and time with vulnerable adults who need support to live independently. Individuals, couples and families give their time and share their skills and home to provide support, housing and most importantly a sense of belonging for vulnerable adults not related to them.

There are currently 8,000 Shared Lives Carers in the UK supporting 15,000 vulnerable adults. The majority of Shared Lives users are adults with mental health related needs.

Nesta supports Shared Lives Plus through the Centre for Social Action Innovation Fund. It was the first time I had come across it and I remain astounded by what its volunteers do. I struggle when my parents stay with me for a weekend; I can only imagine the dedication, warmth and generosity it takes to welcome a stranger with complex needs into your home and family. It’s genuinely humbling.

Community First Responders (CFRs)

CRFs are volunteers that you hope you never need to meet. They are highly-trained first aiders who can be dispatched to emergency medical situations by ambulance services. There are thousands of them across the country, working shifts to ensure that their community has round the clock cover in case of emergency. They operate most effectively in rural areas where ambulances struggle to reach patients within their eight-minute target.

Most CFRs that I have met carry their medical equipment with them all the time. They answer calls for help from ambulance services even when they are not officially ‘on duty’, and they save lives by getting to patients - particularly those in cardiac arrest - before paramedics (check out our work with the London Ambulance Service for more on this).

Mountain Rescue and Lifeboat Crews

I’ve put mountain rescue and lifeboat crews together as they are similar roles undertaken in different environments. I am sure the roles do not need explaining - they are firmly established within our national psyche. However, it is worth remembering that these services rely on thousands of volunteers to keep them going.

Volunteers do a variety of tasks, but understandably it’s the lifeboat crews and mountain rescue teams that capture the imagination. These folk are willing to put themselves in harm's way so that we can enjoy leisure pursuits like mountain walking or swimming in the sea. They also provide a safety net for those whose livelihoods take them into these terrains.

Syrian Civil Defense aka The White Helmets

When thinking about this list, I didn’t intend to broaden my scope from the UK. But a colleague sent me a link to the Syrian Civil Defense. I was awestruck. The Syrian Civil Defense is a 2,500 strong group of ordinary men and women driven to do extraordinary things because of the suffering around them. Often referred to as ‘The White Helmets’, it is a voluntary search and rescue force that has saved over 15,000 lives in the war-torn country. It is simply incredible.

4x4 Volunteers

I’ve never owned or driven a 4x4 vehicle, but if I did, I would certainly be joining the 4x4 response network. I first came across this phenomenon after the 2013 floods. Across the country there are groups of 4x4 owners who come together to voluntarily provide services to their community in times of need, such as poor weather. They undertake all sorts of activity, from getting medication to people cut off by snow, through to evacuating residents during floods.

The movement has grown with the help of local public services but is underserved in its publicity. Local groups usually have their own web presence but the national body maintains a fairly limited and functional website. This only serves the impression that these drivers are proper local heroes, quietly helping others without wanting to cause a fuss or draw attention to themselves.

Photo taken by Joe Alcock and used under Creative Commons license.


Mandeep Hothi

Mandeep Hothi

Mandeep Hothi

Senior Programme Manager, Innovation Lab

Manny worked on the Centre for Social Action Innovation Fund. His focus was on scaling digital ventures that get people involved in social action. He also led our work on Digital Publi…

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