Do we need to think differently about Volunteers’ Week?

This weekend sees the start of the 28th Volunteers’ Week taking place across the UK. Organised by members of the UK Volunteering Forum, the week provides a focal point for many organisations to recognise and celebrate the work of the millions of volunteers who, quite literally, keep this country going.

This weekend is also the focal point of celebrations of the Queen’s diamond jubilee. Whether royalist or republican, the Queen provides an example of 60 years of dedication to service. Of course, Her Majesty is not a volunteer (far from it), but she is often used as an example of dedicated service to others, something some would argue is lacking in our modern world – an approach to the role of monarch that those who come after her would be unable to replace.

For me there is a resonance with that in volunteering.

Often organisations have (and continue) to rely on stalwarts of service – volunteers who have given many years of seemingly selfless commitment to good causes. Last year, the Third Sector Research Centre concluded that 50 per cent of the hours given by volunteers were provided by just 8 per cent of the adult population. Proof that this reliance upon what they called a ‘civic core’ is still very much in evidence.

Yet, just as the monarchy will have to reinvent itself when the Queen dies, so volunteering must change when this civic core is unable to keep on volunteering, whether due to old age, illness or ultimately death. For the generations coming after them do not hold the same values, motivations and attitudes to society as those we have relied upon for so long do.

Today’s 21st century public are turned off by the idea of endless years of volunteering service. They want, at least initially, to engage in shorter term, more flexible ways of giving their time. You may think that a good or a bad thing, but it is happening.

This Volunteers’ Week, as we gear up to recognise and reward our volunteers, what messages are we sending out to others about our expectations of them should they want to give time in future?

I conducted a short and highly unscientific survey recently that asked people if they still use long service awards to recognise their volunteers. I found that the split was pretty much 50/50. I’ll admit this was good news as I suspected more organisations were still giving out certificates and the like based on the length of time people had volunteered. But the fact that 50 per cent still do is worrying. Why? Because to those non-volunteers who might consider getting involved in future it says that they will only be valued if they rack up the hours and/or commit to a long term assignment. With our increasingly time pressured and demanding lives this is simply a commitment they are not prepared to make.

So I wonder how we might need to change our approach to Volunteers’ Week. I wonder how we continue to honour those long serving stalwarts of service while also adapting our recognition to show the rest of the public that we place as much value on what little time they can give. Because if we don’t, I fear Volunteers’ Week might end up turning more people off volunteering than ever before.

What do you think?

Have you adapted your approach to Volunteers’ Week or to recognition more generally to take account of the way volunteering is changing?  Has it worked? Why? Why not?

7 Responses to “Do we need to think differently about Volunteers’ Week?”

  1. Kerry Marland

    Great article Rob. We’ve definitley changed the way we recognise our volunteers now. I agree with you that relying on length of service does not really highlight the great work of our volunteers. We now have a seperate awards ceremony every year which has done wonders and really means a lot to our volunteers and supporters alike.

  2. Eowyn Rohan

    Perhaps the Third Sector would be taken more seriously where it concerned its “Volunteers”. Unfortunately, a Charity cannot consider itself a legitimate charity if, on the one hand, it exploits volunteers and/or staff assigned through Unpaid Internships and Work Placements for the Unemployed, whilst conversely restricting distribution of its Salary Budget to Senior Executives/Managers.

  3. Wally Harbert

    Before we can have a leader who speaks for the voluntary and community sector we have to decide why the sector exists. Is it to hoover-up as many government contracts as possible, to provide a voice for the voiceless, save public money, fill gaps in statutory provision or enhance community life?

    The leader at any one time is he or she who shouts the loudest in this Tower of Babel.That is the sector’s strength and weakness. Does the sector need a single voice – or is that just to ape the corporate sector?

  4. Ivor Sutton

    I do wonder that when the Country continues to pose uncertainty to many employers – whether it be in the third or private sectors, what positive influence is the House of Lords making – given that the Work Programme is still failing even the most proactive job seekers and employers continue to be uncertain.

    In my view, the only voice that is loud and continuous is the one that ‘lacks reason’ amid our Parliamentarians. For me, this is a true failing.

    I am not too sure whether the House of Lords needs to exist, but under a new form of legislation, or whether it should just simply be withdrawn from use – as I am not sure of what it actually does to influence a fair and Just impact of government policy.

    For me, the Work Programme is the most biggest and single challenge in Parliament that fails to be addressed by the Labour opposition or by the news media. I would expect that given the height of unemployment, and the desperate need to ‘bridge the gap’ between job seekers and employers, for the sake of social mobility and economic growth, why does this area still go unchallenged to question its viability?

  5. Martin Edwards

    More power to you Jane (and to all fundraisers who are worth their salt). You are using the gift of your energy and talent to make the world a better place. I hope the companies you enlist will share your passion and leave an enduring series of achievements.

  6. Michaela Szárazová

    Thank you for believing in young people. Although as a MA graduate trying to enter the sector, I now feel more hopeful about eventually getting a chance to work.


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