Short-term thinking on long-term volunteering

A couple of weeks ago it was reported that the Charity Retail Association were searching for the UK’s longest-serving charity shop volunteer ahead of a ceremony to be held in Volunteers’ Week this month.

Leaders and managers of volunteers know all too well that we live in a society where volunteering is becoming increasingly focused on short-term, time-limited commitments. People do not thrill (at least initially) to signing away years of their lives to a volunteer-involving organisation.

The much-heralded growth in volunteer numbers evidenced by the Community Life Survey merely returns us to the levels of volunteering we had nine years ago (the UK Year of Volunteering, remember that?), while the average amount of time being given by volunteers is decreasing.

Micro-volunteering is gaining popularity amongst volunteers and volunteer-involving organisations; although I do accept that this is anecdotal and not borne out (at least so far) by any academic research.

So why does the CRA think the way to promote volunteering (and thus I assume encourage more people to give time) is to celebrate people who have volunteered for long-term, regular commitments of many, many years?

I am sure the volunteers they quote in their promotion do brilliant work for the charities they give their time to. People like that are the ones who keep our sector going – not paid staff, government funding or highly paid chief executives.

The problem is that anyone thinking of volunteering for the first time will probably be turned off by the very examples the CRA wants to celebrate and promote. Prospective new volunteers won’t want to think they have to commit the next 45 years of their lives – they may not even want to commit the next 45 minutes of their lives!

Today’s potential volunteer wants to see how an organisation will involve them in a time-limited, focused way that uses their skills, talents and interests to make a tangible difference to a good cause (not a mere contribution) whilst getting something out of it for themselves.

In my view, what the CRA should be doing is celebrating long-standing volunteers, but also publicly promoting a much more open, attractive and modern approach to volunteering that will appeal to those who cannot give regular time over a long period.

Get them involved, give them a great time and maybe, just maybe, they’ll get there 45 years from now. Tell them today they have to give the next 45 years and watch them run for the hills.

Or maybe I’m being too harsh on the CRA. Maybe the issue isn’t with them. Maybe the issue is that volunteer-involving organisations have their heads buried firmly in the sand. They don’t want to acknowledge that the volunteering models they have relied upon in charity retail for so many years are rapidly becoming unfit for future purpose. Maybe they cannot – will not – show any willingness to change,  and the CRA is simply trying – with futile but good intentions – to plug holes in a ship that is sinking fast?

Either way, this idea could seriously damage the image and future of charity retail volunteering.