Who wants to be a vol­un­teer?

The Jewish Chronicle - JC Magazine - - People Power - By Leonie Lewis and Mike Sil­ver­stone

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

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