On International Volunteer Day, we share our gratitude with all our volunteers, and Reach volunteer Jeanne Davis tells why she volunteers and what a difference it makes on both sides.
Volunteering in my later life is far more fulfilling than I had ever thought. Recently retired from a long career in journalism and widowed, I needed to find something to do. I tried freelance journalism. It was not good. Assignments were few and far between and, working alone in my flat, I missed the camaraderie of a busy office.
Then a friend told me that the charity Reach Volunteering was looking for a communications volunteer at their office in London.
How have I used my skills volunteering at Reach? And benefited too? I write up the stories of how a Reach volunteer helped a charity succeed. These experiences help us particularly when we are looking for funding to show the impact that Reach has made. I help edit the annual review.
I have learned to spread the word about Reach through the new communication channels of social media, contributing to blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and more.
And the camaraderie. Reach has a small staff of six and a group of volunteers who like me are donating their professional experience. We take time for lunch and interesting conversation, often from diverse points of view. I have made new friends, meeting to go to the cinema and exhibitions.
Best of all, by helping to make Reach sustainable, I have in my small way, contributed to the success of many other charities. This year, we will place nearly 900 volunteers making a difference in over 600 causes as diverse as the environment, mental health and poverty relief.
I have been with Reach for 13 years and look forward to many more helping in whatever way I can.
The FSI’s Pauline shares her take on the impact of volunteers
When we started Small Charity Week in 2010 we didn’t include a Volunteering Day – that was a real oversight as much of the Small Charity Sector would grind to a halt without the army of volunteers that support a diverse range of causes. Our omission wasn’t intentional, just naive and it didn’t take too long before we realised that Small Charity Week just wasn’t complete without a whole day focussed on volunteering.
Why? Almost every person I have met who has volunteered to support a cause they care passionately about has felt that they got more out of the experience than they put in. And almost every charity I have spoken to say that they get more from the volunteers than they feel they give them back.
Volunteer or Charity who’s got it right?
There is no doubt that volunteering can be an incredibly fulfilling experience for the volunteer. Now more than ever before volunteering opportunities exist both locally and internationally, so it’s great to be able to make a difference in your local community, or on the other side of the world.
No matter how few hours you have to volunteer, no matter whether you volunteer in person or from home, no matter which cause you support, every minute spent volunteering focuses your attention on the big picture of how we all need to work together to make our world a better and safer place for all.
If volunteers ‘get something back’ for the work they do that’s great too. Of course the main motivation will be to give something back but it’s not unreasonable to also ‘get something back’. Volunteering helps you to meet new people, make new friends for life, experience new cultures and see society from a different perspective. Whether the payback is personal growth a new skill gained to put on your CV, or just keeping yourself busy, no matter what the payback as long as it’s meaningful to you, that’s great. What you get back is up to you and you should be clear about what you want so that everyone is clear from the beginning.
As charities we need to remember that recognition takes many forms and sometimes just telling someone that they are doing a ‘good job’ can inspire them, give them confidence and a sense of pride in what they are doing.
Volunteers have a unique perspective on the issues that face the causes they support. Whether taking the afternoon tea around the local hospital, planning the marketing strategy for a community charity or helping build a well in Africa they get under the skin of the issues facing society.
So in Small Charity Week 2014 let’s all celebrate volunteering and understand that ‘everything that goes around comes around’ or at least that’s what my Dad used to say!
For more information on Volunteering Day of Small Charity Week see the Small Charity Week website – all initiatives and activities during the week are free for charities with a turnover under £1.5 million.
Pauline Broomhead is the CEO of the FSI, the charity behind Small Charity Week. The FSI offers free training, conferences and support for small charities across the UK.
We were very pleased to be invited to participate in the Parliamentary Inquiry on Growing Giving held yesterday, chaired by the Rt Hon Mr David Blunkett MP, which explored how to increase the giving of time and money across all generations, with a particular focus on how older people can ‘give the gift of giving’ to younger generations.
This is a subject close to our hearts: older people are a crucial asset for us.
Not only do they have a lifetime of skills and experience to give, but they have more time and are less likely to leave due to change in circumstances. In fact, of all the people who register with Reach, the over 60s are almost twice as likely to actually take on a role with a charity. And if they are pouring their time and talents into volunteering for a cause they care about, they are bound to be talking about this with family members. What better way to sell giving across the generational divide?
I was very encouraged that volunteering, and in particular, skills-based volunteering, was given some real air time. And, for once, the debate did not just centre on the supply side (“How do we get more people to volunteer?”).
There was recognition that charities must be more creative in their ‘ask’ and need support and encouragement to invest more time and thought in how to engage with volunteers more effectively.
There was general agreement that volunteering must shake off its ‘worthy’ image by adopting what Dr Suzanne Richards, in the presentation of her research, termed a ‘social marketing’ approach – all music to our ears! I have never been to a parliamentary inquiry before so was unsure what I was in for.
I enjoyed the unexpected frankness (the acknowledgement that some charities risk being run in the interests of their volunteers rather than their beneficiaries) and the animated discussion about living legacies. Who would have thought they would be so inflammatory?
Here’s Third Sector’s take on my comments. I look forward to seeing the final write-up and recommendations.
Free flowing wine, delicious snacks, gossip and banter. Last night we had a great party for over 50 of our volunteers, past and present.
How, in these straitened times, you might be wondering , could we justify such largesse?
Well, as well as marking the occasion of kicking-off our thirty-fifth year helping the charity sector, we were left a generous legacy specifically for the purposes of holding a party for our volunteers. How often, in the charity sector, are you effectively ordered to spend money on having a good time? Our generous donor was a long-standing friend of Reach, who therefore knew that volunteers are absolutely central to us, not only to what we do, but how we do it.
Volunteers outnumber staff by over four to one here, and do everything from delivering service to maintaining our IT. We couldn’t survive a day without them, and nor would we want to. Not only do they bring expertise and experience far beyond our means but they are such a lovely bunch that working with them is a joy.
Volunteers volunteer for a range of reasons, but generosity of spirit, a passion for the work and being independent minded are common traits. Think about it – who wouldn’t want a team with those characteristics? Charities who don’t engage with volunteers are missing a trick.
As people wended their way home (helped by brandy courtesy of a travel souvenir from a volunteer’s trip to Georgia) the main comment was ‘such a lovely bunch of people’. This was the first party we’ve held for while, but we are now keen to repeat it as soon as possible. Donations welcomed!
We here at Reach are always saying that volunteering is good for you- and now we have the medical science to back us up!
A recent study released by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh has revealed a surprising fringe benefit to volunteering; it could substantially reduce the risk of high blood pressure in adults. The study was held over 1,164 adults aged 51 to 91, and involved conducting an interview and blood-test check in 2006, followed by another in 2010 intended to measure what percentage of those surveyed registered an increase in blood pressure, by how much, and what lifestyle choices could be seen as contributing factors.
The study took place in America, a country with an estimated 68 million high blood pressure sufferers a year. Here in the UK we have a similarity troubling level of blood pressure danger, with 32% of our adult male and 30% of our adult female population suffering high levels at any one time- that’s approximately 16 million people. Hypertension significantly increases risks of heart problems and preventable stokes and, what’s worse, it’s an illness that is rarely accompanied by any obvious external symptoms. It’s a serious problem that is best tackled by prevention through lifestyle choices like diet- and, it seems, volunteering.
The Carnegie Mellon study discovered that, among the interviewed, those who reported at least 200 hours of volunteering per week were 40% less likely to develop hypertension than those who did not. Interestingly, the study found nothing to indicate that the specific type of volunteering had any effect on the results- apparently, any kind of volunteering will do, as long as it’s done for long enough!
Hypertensive risk is particularly strong among the elderly and retirees. Says Rodlescia S. Sneed, the lead author of the study: “As people get older, social transitions like retirement, bereavement and the departure of children from the home often leave older adults with fewer natural opportunities for social interaction… Participating in volunteer activities may provide older adults with social connections that they might not have otherwise. There is strong evidence that having good social connections promotes healthy aging and reduces risk for a number of negative health outcomes.” It seems that, if you’re looking to retire, there are worse things to do with your time than look into a bit of self-preserving volunteering!
Hypertension has also been linked to working in high-stress professional environments, like demanding jobs. So if you’re finding it all a bit much, letting the work and deadline pressure weigh down on you, then… take a holiday, relax for a while! But when you get back, perhaps consider that volunteering may well have benefits that are physical as well as psychological and that, far from piling on your valuable time with extra work, volunteering time may well contribute significantly to your ability to function more healthily and efficiently in your day-to-day life.
Of course, let’s not get too carried away here- we’re not suggesting volunteering is some kind of magical life-boosting panacea (well, we are, but mostly in hyperbole). But this is just one more indication that the benefits of volunteering are numerous, and go beyond the obvious- though still important- surface boons like increasing the content of your CV. It can improve you as a person- not just mentally, but also physically… and it can do so while you improve the lives of others. It’s a real no-lose situation, and you can trust us when we say- it’s good for you!
It’s Volunteers’ Week in the UK and, in the spirit of our previous post about the best way to keep volunteers happy, we at Reach have been asking the volunteer staff across our own organisation exactly how it feels to be thanked for their efforts- from the kinds of “thank you” they find the most truly moving, to the kinds they sort of don’t…
“The main thing about a thank you is that it must be sincere, genuine,” said Anoop, Reach’s resident social media expert. “There is no value in being thanked in a routine and mechanical manner, a letter that is computer generated or a bulk email that has gone out to ten thousand other people… In some cases saying the actual words, ‘thank you’ isn’t necessary if the attitude and reaction to a person’s contribution are polite and respectful.” He added: “I would rather someone always treated me as a valued equal without saying thanks, than if someone continually acted discourteously and thought a few words once a year demonstrated gratitude.”
Bilwa, a volunteer in Reach’s HR department, pointed to a particular gift given to her by a charity she volunteered with- a diary- in appreciation for her efforts. “I really feel good,” she said, of being thanked. “It makes me feel belonged, a part of… [they] don’t just look at you as a person available for free, they do look at you as, you know, a person.” Little things like giving away a tangible gift can be extremely effective when it’s a gift specifically picked out to fit the volunteer’s personality- something that can make them feel acknowledged on an individual level.
Brian Mills has been volunteering at Reach since 1996- so something about it certainly appeals to him! But Brian was quick to note that, while it is always nice to be thanked, “there’s a distinction between routine thanks and regular thanks.” Brian added that, while it was always “nice to have,” thanks, there was a palpable difference between genuine praise meant to prop a volunteer’s spirits, and more “ritual,” thanks, usually produced off the cuff by a boss “breez[ing] into the office.”
Brian suggested that the most genuine, effective thanks were the most obviously distinguishable from more token gestures- thanks bestowed “for a particular thing… [so]you know they’re grateful that you did it.” The more precise the thank you, the more resonant its results- because it lets the volunteer know they’re being appreciated for something they’ve done with their specific skillset, as opposed to just being thanked for turning up.
As we may have previously mentioned, every volunteer is different, and that individuality is an important asset to their service. So, wherever possible, it’s important to remind volunteers that they’re appreciated above all as individuals. In that spirit, as Volunteer Appreciation Week draws to a close, we’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the vital contributors who make up Reach’s staff- one at a time. Here is a list of all the volunteers who make our offices go round, with a very special thanks for each and every one (just mouse over the names to see).
And to all the other skilled volunteers who’ve come through Reach – and, really, everyone else in the world who has ever given their time up for charitable good, please forgive us for being a little generalist just this once- we don’t know all your names. But be assured, as Volunteers’ Week draws to a close, we really do sincerely mean it when we say…
‘That’s very ….. worthy’ was the polite response by someone I met recently, who had asked me what Reach does. I swallowed my indignation long enough to hear how he was sure it was all a good thing, but that the problem with volunteers was that they never really did anything of substance.
This image of the ‘worthy’ volunteer, and all the associations which come with it – fusty, dutiful, conventional and ineffectual – is widely held. Yet, in my experience, volunteers are usually quite the opposite – independent minded, sometimes unpredictable and usually very productive. Volunteers’ Week seems a good opportunity to overturn the stereotype and celebrate how volunteers bring something quite different to party.
As a group volunteers are a mixed bunch – just like employees – with motivations, backgrounds and aspirations are as numerous as the volunteers themselves. But there is one (very obvious) thing that they have in common: they all choose to donate their time and talents for free. This creates a unique dynamic. In a world where almost everything is mediated by the market, volunteering runs against the status quo. As Michael Sandel said recently, “In a market-driven society like ours, work that is not rewarded with money tends to be undervalued and unappreciated”. Volunteers subvert this by choosing to give their expertise freely, irrespective of market price, seeking a return based on their own individual and independent values.
Sadly not all charities who engage volunteers manage the same revolutionary thinking. A recent example that struck me was where volunteers frequently turned up to find insufficient desks, and to spend hours on inefficient administrative tasks. This charity would undoubtedly have automated these jobs if it was their paid staff doing the work, but because there is no direct financial cost associated with this wastage the charity didn’t feel the same sense of urgency in solving the problems.
Its easy to see how it happens, but if you step back for a moment and consider that this is effectively a charity not valuing its volunteers because their time has no financial value, then it looks very wrong.
Liberated from the financial contract that comes with a salary people choose to engage for far more personal, individual reasons. This is very evident at Reach itself. Working in an office where volunteers outnumber staff by more than 4 to 1 creates an unconventional working environment. There is a more human feel to the office – no-one feels impelled to present a bland work persona. The atmosphere is purposeful and there is certainly no clock-watching given that a bored volunteer can just leave.
What there is is an unusual frankness.
Volunteers feel free to say what they really think, or let loose a little eccentricity. Not constrained by considerations of career or paying the mortage, they have been at the forefront of challenging decisions, giving senior management a grilling, or giving more time or expertise to get us out of a difficult place. This is not just the long standing volunteers – the consultants who have delivered the most for Reach have all done it pro-bono.
Maybe it’s because there are no other issues to complicate the agenda such as the need to demonstrate their value for money. It’s just about their interest in the project, and the difference they can make. This Volunteers’ Week the emphasis is on celebrating volunteers’ contribution and thanking them. The best way of thanking volunteers is by valuing their work properly.
To illustrate my point, I recently bumped into a couple of volunteers who I had worked with some 14 years ago, to set up a credit union. My involvement was both fleeting and paid. More than a decade later, these volunteers had made over £4m of loans in one of the poorest parts of London. They are the last people to blow their own trumpets, but these are the people who really make a difference. Setting up and running a mutually owned, community-managed financial institution in one of the largest social housing estates in Europe.
Worthy? Or subversive?
This week is Volunteer Appreciation Week in the US, and that’s as good an excuse as any for us to take a closer look at how charities can make sure their volunteers feel, well, appreciated.
The internet is bursting with tips for rewarding volunteers- here are a few popular suggestions:
But while generous gestures make for great short term morale boosters, perhaps the most important part of making volunteers feel appreciated is making sure they feel understood– something which requires a bit more of a long term approach…
There’s an essential difference between somebody who’s hired, and somebody who volunteers. Somebody hired is incentivised to work by their wage; whether or not they enjoy their job, money is always a motivating factor. A volunteer, on the other hand, is only likely to pursue a role they find rewarding in itself. In other words, overtly tangible returns aren’t what make volunteers tick; their objectives are usually more personal. While rewarding them for their work is a vital courtesy, there’s an equally great- perhaps greater- value in knowing what drives it in the first place.
There’s also an obvious problem with over-relying on generalist volunteer rewards. As useful as they can be, different volunteers are inevitably going to react to praise in different ways. Some will delight at the idea of a cruise; others will get sea sick. Some will relish free publicity; others may shy from the attention. Some will enjoy baked goods; others will be violently gluten intolerant and require hospitalisation.
Ultimately, the lasting key to keeping volunteers happy is simply to communicate with them, and keep reinforcing the links between their specific goals and your operation. Why are they eager to work for this charity, what do they hope to achieve from it, and how can you reasonably help them meet these ambitions? Approaching volunteers as individuals helps tailor thanks to fit their nature, and more importantly, forges stronger bonds on a permanent basis. A volunteer who feels understood is more likely to feel properly utilised, and therefore fully satisfied- minimising the need for potentially costly short term morale boosts.
Of course, this doesn’t mean slowly romancing volunteers over dinner and scones- charities have their own priorities to manage. It simply means being alert to them whenever possible. How does a volunteer interact with other workers- are they feeling part of the team, or on the periphery? Is this someone who wants a brightly coloured merit badge, or a discreet tip on corporate advancement? This is especially applicable to skilled volunteer professionals, who often occupy prominent organisational positions with objectives ranging from career advancement to an active retirement to balancing commercial success with advancing the public good.
The UK’s own Volunteers Week is fast approaching, and it’s sure to be a brilliant celebration of the 20 million people a year who generously donate their time and energy to the sector. In the meantime, though, let’s not forget the importance of appreciating volunteers in the little everyday ways, as well as the big ones. After all, there’s more to keeping people happy than Christmas!
…Although, having said all that, it generally doesn’t hurt to bake them cookies every now and again.
Tony Clack guest blogs
At Laterlife, as well as running our web site, we run Planning Retirement Courses all around the UK. As a result we help thousands of people plan how they are going to make the most of their lifestyle in retirement and address the hopes and concerns that they have.
Continuing to work in retirement, paid or voluntary, is one of the areas we cover because it is a very important contributor to satisfaction in retirement. It’s important that we have a balance of things that we do in retirement and in particular we need to make sure that the things we do enable us to achieve three of the essentials of retirement: staying physically healthy, staying mentally healthy and maintaining or increasing our social network.
Many retirees also want to feel that they are continuing to use their knowledge, skills and experience once they leave the workplace and importantly this can also contribute to a feeling of self-worth.
As a result, at LaterLife, we are extremely supportive of volunteering in retirement, especially when the volunteering draws on the skills, knowledge and experience of the volunteers. That’s why we have supported and publicised Reach almost since day 1 of our web site back in 1999. So volunteering with Reach not only enables you to give something back but is likely to strongly contribute to all those essentials of retirement mentioned above and to overall life satisfaction!
Talking of life satisfaction, a survey by University of Greenwich showed that those attending a planning retirement course increased life satisfaction by 19% in retirement, compared to those that hadn’t attended one.
You want to take a look at Laterlife’s free ‘How ready am I to retire?’ or ‘Retirement MOT’ self assessors and if you are looking for things to do when you aren’t volunteering try the ‘What shall I do today’ one-armed bandit for a bit of fun!
Whatever you do make sure you make the most of your later life!
Tony Clack is the founder of LaterLife. He blogs in a personal capacity.
Today is World Suicide Prevention Day, a World Health Organisation sponsored event promoting worldwide action to prevent suicides.
An average of almost 3000 people commit suicide daily, and it’s estimated that twenty times that number make unsuccessful attempts to take their lives.
While promoting awareness of the issues is one of the aims, getting more people involved with making sure everyone has access to help if they need it is the other.
While you might think that means volunteering on a helpline or as a befriender, these aren’t the only ways you can make a difference.
At Reach we recently put a Surrey branch of the Samaritans in touch with a volunteer Treasurer, and we’re now looking for a volunteer to fundraise for a Hampshire counselling group. Whilst not on the front line both of these are classic cases of a back-room function without which front line service delivery couldn’t function.
Whatever your background, and wherever your strengths lie, there is a way you can make a difference.
Click on some of the links below to take the first step to acting today.
If you are experiencing suicidal feelings now, you can find support immediately by calling the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90, or following this link.