What does a dog wagging its tail, a mum of two planting flowers in the garden and a make-up artist have in common? They all volunteer their time for free to help people who are terminally ill.
I've been the Head of Volunteering at terminal illness charity Marie Curie for two and a half years, but I've worked in the sector for over ten. While young people and retirees have always made up the bulk of the volunteer workforce, and still do, it's great to see so many roles being filled by so many different people - and animals!
I've volunteered on and off since the age of 14 for various roles from running drugs and alcohol awareness sessions in schools to giving high level, strategic advice on volunteering for The University of Exeter. And I've always found it an important way of developing and progressing in life while supporting essential services across the UK.
Today we see more skilled workers, often who have full-time jobs, providing their services for free. At Marie Curie many of our complimentary therapies such as hand and foot massages or gym training are offered by people who work in their field but also volunteer their time to our hospices. We've even got four-legged furry friends who want to help and visit the patients as part of the Pets as Therapy program. It's really incredible, and exciting, to see the sector expanding to include such varying volunteer roles.
More young professionals want to gain work experience through volunteering but need the roles to be more flexible around their lives and chosen careers. This demand has seen the introduction of small bite size chunks of volunteering, or micro-volunteering, which has been made easier through the use of social media. For example, asking volunteers to tweet about fundraising opportunities or sharing people's stories on blogs to raise awareness about the charity. Not to mention the use of Facebook and other networking sites to build peer support networks and as a channel of communication with large scale volunteer workforces.
The huge presence of social media has also significantly changed the external landscape of volunteering. Sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter give charities the chance to shout about all the incredible volunteers and encourage other people to sign up on such a wide scale. But it also means charities have a higher responsibility to make sure that volunteers consistently have a great experience. Because it's just as easy to spread bad news, as it is to shout about the good.
But despite the change in the type of people (or animals) who are volunteering, the need for volunteers is still as crucial as ever. In fact, I believe that volunteering is becoming an increasingly important part of how we get through each day. Funding to areas such as the NHS, youth work and police force are decreasing. But as the population ages and unemployment increases the needs for these services becomes greater. So volunteer led services are a crucial way to continue to support the public as much as possible.
Across the charitable sector we owe a huge amount to volunteers. Every single year 14.2 million people volunteer in the UK. Those people that volunteer regularly will give about 11.6 hours of their time a month. I think these figures are astounding - and really demonstrate just how vital volunteer support really is. Especially for charities, like Marie Curie, who rely on these volunteers to be able to provide the vital care and support to people living with any terminal illness and their families.
The bottom line is without volunteers Marie Curie couldn't deliver this essential service. From the people who support in our shops and offices, those who help in hospices and people's homes, to the fundraisers out raising money in their local communities - each individual keeps Marie Curie going.
We have a golden rule that all volunteering should be mutually beneficial. This means it has to be of tangible benefit to both Marie Curie and the volunteer. We aim for all our volunteers to get something from their role and time with Marie Curie but we as an organisation also have volunteers doing tasks that stem from real business needs. Increasingly, as we professionalise our volunteering further we will take more steps to ensure our golden rule is taken into account.
We want all volunteers to really understand the difference they are making to Marie Curie and the people we support. Our ability to reach more people, raise more awareness and provide more information and support is all down to the extra capacity we have through our volunteers. This Volunteers Week I want to thank every single person who has given up their time to make a difference - we would be lost without every single one of you.
To find out how you can volunteer for Marie Curie visit the website.