What Volunteers' Week tells us about “volunteering” in 2015
2015 marks the 31st year of Volunteers' Week. Three decades of recognising the essential contributions volunteers have and continue to make every day in their communities and nationally.
But what does it mean to be a volunteer in 2015? The verb “volunteer” means “to offer (help) freely”. This is incredibly broad. Yet the noun is so often associated with a specific view of who is and isn’t a volunteer that it ends up putting off many and fails to recognise acts of human kindness and generosity that should be incorporated.
2015 offers the opportunity for a step-change in the way we think and talk about volunteering.
Embracing all parts of the “volunteer family”
Volunteering is much more than traditional concepts of a middle-class retiree working in a charity shop once a week. The words social action, active citizen and our maxim at Nesta of “people helping people” are used to help broaden perspectives on what’s included. We’re seeing a real shift in language to both open up more people to the idea of giving back and to embrace those who do give back to self-recognise their role in a wider movement.
A rose by any other name...
Good Gym flips volunteering on it’s head by creating opportunities for everyday athletes to do physical tasks that benefit the community, through “missions”, community projects or visiting an older person once a week. The term “volunteer” isn’t even mentioned when they say #useyourrun
Fitting round pegs into round holes
Free time is a valuable resource and should be put to constructive use rather than being seen as simply “an extra pair of hands”. In Portsmouth, mentors drawn from local businesses are supporting young people to raise their aspirations and achieve their academic and life goals. This shows a real step forward from the days of corporate team days painting fences, to one where both sides benefit from a skilled volunteering experience.
2015 marked the launch of LinkedIn for Good’s Volunteer Marketplace which helps business professionals find skilled volunteering experiences, bridging the gap between what you can offer professionally and what you offer personally. With over 250,000 members on LinkedIn indicating they’d like to volunteer their time, this offers huge potential to bring a range of skills to worthwhile causes. But it's important that expectations on both sides are managed as to what is possible to get the most out of it.
Every little helps...
Better still, we are no longer constrained to the idea of regular, structured opportunities based on a long-term commitment. 2015 is the year that microvolunteering came into the spotlight, with #Microday on 15 April helping people think about more flexible, and time-limited approaches to giving. 10 minutes to make a phone call could brighten someone’s day; or a quick sweep of your local park with a litter picker could keep things in check. The important thing is finding your way to contribute and not be confined to preconceptions about what volunteering is or isn’t.
No stone left unturned
This also offers an opportunity to think about how every facet of public services could be super-charged with a little extra support. Hospitals are embracing volunteers in doing all the extra things clinical staff would like to but don’t have time to do. Volunteers can even help reduce your bills - Energy Champions are helping friends, neighbours and fellow Plymouthians to save over £200 a year through energy saving and switching advice.
The art of a good Thank You
Volunteers Week, #givingtuesday and #microday, are all ways to pique interest and recognise the contribution of volunteers. But just as Mother’s Day is one-day to focus the nation, it’s not the only day that you should say thank you! And it’s important to go beyond the twittersphere to make sure you’re reaching all corners of society.
In Barnsley, they've supercharged Volunteers Week to the power of 4, by making it Volunteers' Month. By running a series of events beyond Volunteers Week, they can capture people who were interested but perhaps not organised or available during 1-7 June. They’ve found it a great way to get people to take the first step in giving back.
Volunteers Awards, such as the Inspiring Volunteering Awards in Plymouth are incredibly valuable ways to say thank you and make people feel special. Throughout the year, Points of Light ensure that everyday heroes are highlighted as inspiration as much as recognition. It’s since been adopted in the UK with a daily hero recognised since April 2014. However, whilst Volunteer Awards and Points of Light tend to recognise one-off acts of courage and more traditional volunteering, there’s still a bit of work to understand how to recognise and encourage more spontaneous or informal acts of good old fashioned neighbourliness which many would like to cultivate.
Beyond bean counting
The biggest shift of 2015 in volunteering and social action is in creating an investor mindset. No longer is it good enough to just count the beans; you need to count what value those beans can have, i.e. what benefit does the beanstalk bring? If you can value the resource of people’s time in the same way you would any other essential resource, and measure your success against the investment, then you will be able to reap the rewards over this decade and beyond.