The Blog

Shining New Light on Volunteers

So perhaps it's time we found a new word to describe volunteers. Something which captures the true spirit, energy and value of this vital role. My instinct is 'Stars'. There are millions out there; we just need to reach them.

Volunteering. What does that word conjure in your mind? Grey haired ladies running jumble sales and coffee mornings, hearty souls clearing canals or driving frail folk to the shops?

In my charity, Send a Cow, we are increasingly seeing retired professionals who want to keep using their expertise in a way that will benefit others. It keeps their brains busy and their social networks stretched at precisely the time when the novelty of a lie-in and long weekends away has worn off.

Certainly charities like mine, depend on the older generations to share their time and talent, helping with everything from accounting and ordering pens to giving talks in schools and representing us at fundraising events. They are a vital part of our team and are sorely missed when they aren't around.

But these days everyone seems to be aging younger. The traditional idea of an elderly volunteer is being replaced by tablet-carrying 'silver surfers' who are just as likely to embark on an epic trip up a mountain or go camping in a rainforest as they are to spend their Saturday afternoons running a tombola.

John Nicholson in Detroit, USA, is a great example. At 74 he is a busy attorney with the Abbott Nicholson law firm he helped to found. He is secretary of our USA Board and says his parents always volunteered. Coupling this with his own religious convictions, he decided two years ago to deploy his expertise with two major charities.

He says: "One may ask why, at your age, take on such time consuming responsibilities? Because I believe we are called to do more with our lives and I am passionate about a charity which touches the souls of the poor and the disadvantaged."

But reaching talented individuals like John is tricky. It depends on whether your charity has a big enough profile to prompt people's passions.

Hard on the heels of Volunteer Week in the UK, and around the time of our annual weekend with our most committed volunteers - our Ambassadors - I found myself looking at a professional networking site. I was struck by the ease with which you can navigate profiles and identify people's skills. It's a market place for talent as well as for networking.

But I was also struck by just how much young talent is out there and by the sheer amount of energy and expertise many of them could offer us too. If only we could harness it. Surely volunteering doesn't have to be the domain of active, older generations, with just a handful of younger souls giving their time.

It seems to me that the word "volunteering" can be off-putting; as though volunteers do things that are nice to have extras once they have more time. But in reality, all volunteers are delivering vital work and often adding essential value to their communities and their families as well as to charities. Volunteering is a global phenomenon and it's about time we started appreciating it more and thinking about its meaning in a different light.

We need to get across the idea that volunteering can be as much or as little as you want it to be. Whether it's two hours a year, two days between freelance jobs or 20 speaking engagements, anything you do is a big help. And it's rewarding too. Everyone I have ever quizzed about it says they get so much more back - and not just personal satisfaction for a job well done. Often it's confidence, support and friends you would never normally meet, but bond with for a lifetime.

We also need to engage with employers. We know many large work places run volunteer schemes but just how many staff take up the opportunity to spend a few paid days sharing their time and skills? Perhaps employers could make volunteering a formal part of their corporate social responsibility, not just offering the opportunity but actively seeking places their staff could add value.

Can you imagine the difference it would make if millions of bright brains, practical problem solvers and hands-on doers were released into the charity sector? Suddenly charities struggling to balance finances, promote messages, manage fundraising activities and write grant applications would have access to people who can help them make it happen - or at the very least signpost the way.

OK, we know charities like mine would have to organise resources to manage the extra influx of help, but it's a small price to pay given the value this cross-section of volunteers would bring.

So perhaps it's time we found a new word to describe volunteers. Something which captures the true spirit, energy and value of this vital role. My instinct is 'Stars'. There are millions out there; we just need to reach them.