Let’s talk volunteering

This week’s blog is written by Ros Moody, Volunteer Manager at Friendship Works.

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It’s a great time to be a volunteer manager. All summer, London has been buzzing with the excitement of hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The world has seen London at its best – celebrating diversity, rejoicing in the achievements of others, and there have even been rumours of spontaneous conversations breaking out on the tube.

Beyond the remarkable display of sporting prowess, perhaps the most talked about feature of London 2012 has been the army of volunteers that have ‘made’ the Games – from the grinning individual standing proudly behind Ussain Bolt as he warmed up for his 100m sprint, to the 10,000 volunteer performers participating in the opening & closing ceremonies. There is a sense of pride in what has been delivered, a sense of shared experience amongst the volunteers themselves, and, from some sources, a sense of amazement that so many people would willingly give time and resources for free, and with no apparent ‘return on investment’ to show for it.

Personally, I’m not so amazed. Not because I don’t think it’s fantastic that so many people were willing to give their time to make the Olympics happen, but because having worked with volunteers for a number of years now, I know that there is a great appetite in people to have a positive impact. So many of the volunteers I’ve met have been motivated by a desire to ‘give something back’ that I’ve begun to regard this as the norm.

Rewind to August last year, and the view of London was very different – we were reeling in the aftermath of the riots that broke out across the city; the media was full of theories about why this had happened, with commentaries by people looking to lay the blame at the feet of everyone from ‘young thugs’ at one end of the spectrum to ‘irresponsible bankers’ and ‘expense-dodging’ MPs at the other.

But then something very interesting happened. Images of the ’broom army’ – those ordinary citizens who took to the streets to clean up the mess – went viral. Suddenly the stereotype of London as a place where no one knows their neighbours and we have all lost all sense of community was challenged, and a new understanding began to emerge that most Londoners care about our city – our community – and want to look after it.

The response of the majority to the actions of rioters was not to fight fire with fire – the counter-mob they formed was armed with brooms, not pitchforks. They set a positive example of people working together to invest time and effort into supporting their local communities. Some people were pleasantly surprised by this response; again, I wasn’t so surprised.

Perhaps I’m fortunate to be in a role where I get to meet a higher than average number of positive, motivated, committed people, but working as a volunteer manager has shown me time and again that there are thousands of people out there who not only understand the value of community, but want to help create it.

The challenge, as far as I can see, lies not in how to pressgang – or even gently persuade – people into volunteering. The challenge we face is how to let people know that there are hundreds of great volunteering opportunities already available right on people’s doorsteps and that all they need to do is find the right one for them.

We can all play our part and get the message out about volunteering. Here are some things you can do to help:

  • Talk about community! At Friendship Works, we want to see communities where every member can make a positive contribution in supporting children to get the most out of childhood and lay the foundations for a fulfilling adult life. Volunteering, whether as a mentor or in some other role, helps people in communities to really connect with each other to work together and make a difference.
  • Talk about volunteering! Don’t be shy to tell people that you volunteer with Friendship Works – or about any other volunteering you do. The more people talk about it, then the more volunteering will become a way of life in our communities. For every person who actively seeks a volunteering opportunity, I’m sure there are many more out there who would like to ‘do something positive’ or ‘give something back’ but don’t know how to access the opportunities available. So let’s make sure everyone knows what options are out there.
  • Talk about us! The best ambassadors for any charity are its volunteers and supporters – trustees, patrons and, in our case, our wonderful mentors too. These are the people who believe enough in our vision that they willingly give their time and support for free to make sure it happens. And that passion becomes infectious when they talk to others about our work.
  • Talk about rewards! As I mentioned, one of the things about the Olympic and Paralympic volunteers that surprised some people is the number of people who will give ‘something for nothing’. But, as those of us already volunteering know, the ‘return on investment’ can be enormous. For many Friendship Works mentors the reward of seeing the ‘small changes’ that their presence brings about in the life of a child, is reason enough to keep going. They are developing a relationship, and like any friendship, it brings benefits to child and mentor alike. If you’re interested in finding out more, you can read a previous blog post on how mentoring works both ways.

The great joy of the Olympics wasn’t just seeing Britain’s athletes do well, it was seeing people come together in a united effort to make something amazing happen. Ultimately, with volunteering, everyone’s a winner.