Volunteering doesn't always conjure the most romantic of images. Generally it's visions of solitary trips leafleting or rattling a tin in a shopping centre. But it can and does have a massive impact on our economy and on people's wellbeing; something we at Sue Ryder know very well and want to try and celebrate this Volunteers' Week.
Over recent years new economic evidence has shown quite how effective volunteering is. Data from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations shows that 14.2m people volunteered in the UK between 2013/14 and that this contributed roughly £12.2bn to the UK economy. That's 0.7% of GDP or, in more sensationalist terms, equivalent to the entire GDP of Iceland!
However, there is another, less frequently discussed, benefit; that of the social and emotional benefits to the individual. Sounds woolly - but it's not. In fact, in 2013 the Cabinet Office published a report on the estimated monetary value of volunteering and found that it amounts to a staggering £70bn, or 5% GDP (the size of another small nation's economy no doubt).
This resonates with our experiences of volunteering opportunities at Sue Ryder as a national healthcare charity. We have around 12,000 volunteers who allow us to deliver 2.7 million hours of care and support to 6,000 people with life changing conditions and we know that they gain from this relationship too.
Take Mary. Five years ago she was sleeping rough in London having fled Italy from a difficult relationship. She had no friends, no family or any contacts at all in the city and was going through probably the most difficult time of her whole life. And yet, after several trips to the local Jobcentre, she eventually turned up at the Sue Ryder Camden shop as a volunteer.
When she first started, Mary was still washing in the back room of the shop before shifts and didn't want to let on to her colleagues that she was homeless. She wanted to keep some pride intact.
Over time, though, she developed her skills; became better on the till, more confident with the stock and dealing with customers, and as a result gained a paid position there - a moment which still brings a tear to her eye. Now, Mary works full time in a nearby supermarket, has a flat of her own and has regained her self-respect. She still pops into the shop every week to provide the staff with some home cooked lasagne though!
Travel up and down the country and you'll hear stories like this from Sue Ryder's shops. Jackie Howie, 52, is now manager of the Sue Ryder Rosemount shop in Aberdeen but just three years ago was facing a four year prison sentence. She had got caught up in dealing drugs in an effort to protect her son, having already lost her eldest from an overdose.
This might have been the end to an unfortunate story, were it not for the Sue Ryder Prisoner Volunteer Programme (PVP) which helps in the rehabilitation of offenders by offering them volunteer placements at their shops and offices. Jackie was chosen to take part in the programme and started volunteering for Sue Ryder at the shop in Rosemount 18 months into her sentence where she was allowed to develop new skills and start to think about working there when she was released.
And indeed, in October last year she herself became shop manager. This transition from being institutionalised as an offender to becoming a proactive, productive member of society again is not an easy one, but it was made much easier for Jackie through volunteering.
As charities like Sue Ryder celebrate the enormous contributions of their volunteers this Volunteers' Week, it's reassuring to hear stories like Mary's and Jackie's to remember that the relationship is reciprocal. We tend to think of volunteering as being a one way street; being all about sacrifice and giving up your time for something else - which of course it is, and that's essential. But you can take an enormous out of it too.