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?