Every year, over 20 million people across England and the UK volunteer, donating more than 100 million hours to their communities every week. It has been estimated that the economic value of this activity is worth in excess of £40 billion to our economy.
So on 1-7 June, Volunteering England, individuals and organisations up and down the country will hold events to celebrate that contribution during the annual Volunteers' Week. We also hope it will inspire even more to take an active role in their communities.
Because services and initiatives that are vital to the running of our country simply wouldn't exist if it wasn't for volunteers. This includes the NHS, the Coastguard Rescue Service (3,500 volunteers), the Mountain and Cave Rescue Service (3,500 volunteers in England and Wales), Natural England (2,200 volunteer wardens), the judiciary (30,000 volunteer magistrates in England and Wales) and the police (over 15,000 Special Constables).
In 2012, the central role of volunteers is even clearer. The London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games could not happen without the efforts of 70,000 Games Makers, 8,000 London Ambassadors and countless more across the country.
Celebrations for the Diamond Jubilee, which will take place during Volunteers' Week, will be led by individuals and groups who want no more than to bring their communities together. The Jubilee Hour initiative, supported by organisations as diverse as The Women's Institute and West Yorkshire Police, will seek to ensure that those who wish to help are directed where they are most needed.
But perhaps most importantly, in a time of austerity, more and more people are stepping forward to ensure services prized by local people keep running. This has been clearly demonstrated with the response to the threatened closure of public libraries.
However, this isn't without its difficulties. Volunteers taking over where staff have been made redundant raises issues of job substitution and the taking for granted of their good will. Additionally, organisations that are collectively losing £3bn in government funding by 2016 are struggling to support those who wish to help out.
Particularly badly hit are local support organisations such as Volunteer Centres, which are facing a decline in funding in real terms. They play a crucial role in supporting, promoting and increasing volunteering in our communities, especially with those who need it most, such as unemployed and young people. Volunteering England and others are therefore working hard at the national level to find a path through these new challenges.
But volunteering has an even greater value than ensuring our essential community services function. It makes a crucial contribution to binding our communities together, to building social capital and trust between individuals, and helping to make our communities better places to live and work. Surveys have suggested that people who volunteer know more people in their neighbourhood and think of their home as a better place to live.
And finally, as if we needed even more evidence of the value of volunteering, volunteering is good for the volunteer themselves. It is good for one's physical and mental well-being. It can help with the development of new skills and enhance employability. This reciprocity - with both the giver and receiver benefiting - lies at the heart of the volunteer experience and is what makes it so special.
So 2012 really could be the year of the volunteer and volunteering. However, the question of finance needs to be addressed. Whilst it is true to some extent that volunteering can just happen - as the spontaneous community clean up after last year's riots demonstrated - the government and other funders need to recognise it does not come for free. Volunteering can deliver social, economic and political returns, but, like any other sector of the economy, it requires investment if those benefits are to be realised.
Follow Dan Sumners on Twitter: www.twitter.com/volunteeringeng