Who wants to be a volunteer?
IF YOU had been asked a year ago when you last saw an act of mass volunteering, your response may well have been in the aftermath of the riots of summer 2011, when Operation Clean-Up mobilised hundreds of volunteers in London, Manchester, Birmingham and other cities and towns.
Or perhaps it would have been the London Marathon, which this April saw well over 30,000 amateur runners raise hundreds of thousands of pounds for charity after many months of training and costume-making.
And some of you might have thought of longer ago when thousands signed up to help rebuild Britain during and after the Second World War.
But if I asked you now for a memorable example of mass volunteering in recent times, you would surely respond that it was the 120,000 purple-clad, flagwaving, megaphone-brandishing army of volunteers engaged during the incredible Olympic summer. London Mayor Boris Johnson said of the volunteers, that they were “the beating heart of the Games” — and he may well be right. So surely this proves that Britain is a country filled with people willing to give their time to worthwhile causes. Right?
It would be nice to agree. But we mustn’t forget that the Olympic and Paralympic Games occur once every four years and it may be another 60 years until they are again held in this country.
Nor can we ignore the current economic context. It seems that every time we pick up a newspaper or switch on the news we are greeted with headlines featuring the words “recession”, “economic downturn” and “austerity measures”. Whatever your thoughts are on the previous or current government’s efforts to move the country forward economically, you cannot deny that these are bleak times.
Despite a slight fall in the unemployment figures in recent months, more than 2.5 million people are still looking for work and unable to find it, with close to 100,000 of those aged 16 to 24. And all this of course impacts on the volunteering population. Those with jobs might lack the time to volunteer; those without are either busy looking for work or cannot afford to.
This is a generalisation obviously, but it applies to many people. And where there are now more families with both parents working there are additional time and energy constraints placed on their
ability to volunteer.
Perhaps more testing is the nature of volunteering, which is itself ever-changing. Today, evidence supports that people do volunteer, but this is increasingly irregular and sporadic. Almost 40 per cent of UK adults volunteer formally once a year. But when it comes to once a month, this figure falls to about 25 per cent and it is safe to assume that weekly volunteers are much fewer in number. Since its peak in 2005, these figures have fallen steadily.
Now, informal volunteering — lending a hand on a more irregular basis and not necessarily for a registered charity, as opposed to formal, institutionalised
volunteering — is a lot more common. One-off or irregular volunteering often avoids having to commit a certain amount of time to volunteer and additional copious paperwork.
Another quasi-volunteering area is that of internships. If we ignore for the moment the controversy of recent months surrounding allegations of exploitation, inequality and restricted social and professional mobility among interns, they could also be classed as volunteers. But internships are often again short-term, as interns often have the immediate aim of gaining experience for employment. So, informal volunteering and internships are not generally forms of committed sustainable volunteering.
There has been a seismic shift in the means of volunteering and two forms have come to the fore. The first is employee volunteering: a relatively new concept, where employers and companies give staff a certain amount of time to volunteer while being paid as if they are at work, enabling them to offer the common benefits of volunteering, as opposed to financial benefits. JVN has introduced Embrace, an employee volunteering programme to assist small and medium-sized companies in doing this.
The second is volunteering in schools: an initiative that has become more popular due to the political focus on Big Society and the introduction of citizenship as a compulsory subject in secondary schools since 2002. It also provides schools with the opportunity to get students interacting with their local community, while presenting themselves as pillars of society.
But there is little evidence to support the fact that timetabled volunteering in schools or at work contributes significantly to the creation of a “culture of volunteering”. And if these people are effectively demanded to volunteer, there is a chance they will be disinclined to do more in their spare time. If it gets people volunteering, that’s a good thing. But it is sustainable volunteering and regular volunteers that are most desperately needed.
Another problem in finding volunteers nowadays is that there are simply too many charities vying for the same people’s time, whether in the field (more traditional volunteering) or in the boardroom (trustees, who voluntarily give their time to provide direction and seek funding for the charity). The Jewish sector in particular is saturated with charities, with approximately one registered charity for every 70 Jews in the UK — and this excludes the hundreds more unregistered charities. Talks of mergers are apparent, evident in the recent joining together of charities such as Jewish Care and JAMI, but each charity has its unique selling point and wants to retain independence.
More charities, coupled with less government funding and arguably fewer private donations, means there is a need for greater numbers of volunteers and a greater emphasis from the government to encourage people to volunteer, in order to mitigate the effects of the cuts. This has seen a rise in the number of advertisements on the JVN website for volunteering jobs that were formerly salaried, such as positions in fundraising or marketing.
This paints a gloomy
picture — charities have less money and therefore require more regular volunteers; people are less inclined to offer their time regularly to charities that need it and so charities maybe forced soon to reduce their services or shut their doors altogether. A recently survey by the Back Britain’s Charities campaign showed that one in six charities feared they would have to close in the next year if the situation does not improve.
The Chief Rabbi has said of our community that it “could not exist for a day without its volunteers. They are the lifeblood of the community” — and consequently volunteering and supporting its charities in general is “second nature for the Jewish community”. How do we resolve this scenario?
Two solutions stand out that might help ease the pressure on struggling Jewish charitable organisations.
The first is to offer more bespoke volunteering. A person’s ability to volunteer will fluctuate, due to the restrictions of work or economic pressures — so volunteering opportunities must offer flexibility. This has already been seen in our community: organisations such as Mitzvah Day offer a one-off chance for people to come together for good causes on just one day per year; there are plenty of opportunities that require one-off volunteers at certain times of year, as seen by World Jewish Relief’s Winter Survival appeal and Tikun’s Light Up A Life campaign and there are programmes that require short-term regular volunteering, such as the Duke of Edinburgh Award.
But there are continuing uncertainties as to whether these initiatives create a solution to the sustainable volunteer question.
A second option is to use the values afforded to us by our faith –— based on ethical monotheism — to engender the culture of volunteering that we lack. The Chief Rabbi has said that the case for volunteering is fundamentally a “moral and ethical” one and should not be driven primarily by political ideology or economic limitations — and this is something we can convey through education and leading by example.
If we find that people are prepared to volunteer only if they are offered more flexible opportunities, then perhaps the first solution provides a chance to change people’s habits, if only in the short term. But for a long-term solution we must look to the second strategy. We have had young teenagers come up to us complaining that their school is, in essence, forcing them to volunteer. How can we be compelled by someone else, they ask, to do something that we should be willing to do ourselves?
They are quite right — demanding forced volunteering creates a paradox. People should not always be volunteering for self-benefit (for example to gain new skills or employment opportunities) or because they feel guilty about not giving back to their community. Rather, they should volunteer because they want to and because they feel it is the right thing to do.
Regardless of the political agendas behind them, the talk of the need for an Olympic and Paralympic “legacy” and the notion of a Big Society has provided an opportunity for us on two levels to secure the future of our community by providing a vocabulary that everyone, whether secular or religious, Northern or Southern, Ashkenazi or Sephardi, able-bodied or disabled, can relate to. It shows us that the legacy we need to create has come about through the benefits we saw from a collective effort during the Games and the Big Society tells us that we need to think of the bigger picture when it comes to safeguarding our future.
Engagement in volunteering should be based on those values that are implicit in our religion –— these universal ethical values are guidelines for humanity, not just the Jewish people — volunteering should not come from a desire for personal advantage alone, but from the individual’s urge to give something back.
Primarily the inclination to volunteer should come from our community’s aspirations as a whole, to ensure that the lifeblood continues to flow through the community’s heart and mind for many years to come. The effort of the individual needs to be a part of a wider communal effort to become larger, stronger and more comfortable as a community.
Something great was achieved over the summer — “the greatest show on Earth”, some called it – but it came from a community of people working together over the entire course of the Games. It is a model that we can follow, through the collective responsibility manifested by each and every one of us, helping out when we are able to — not only when we feel like it.
The community could not exist for a single day without its volunteers
Olympic Game Makers donated their summer
Mitzvah Day’s no-fuss format suits our lifestyle
JVN plants trees on Mitzvah Day