Volunteers’ Week – the annual festival of volunteering – drew to a close earlier this month, and you couldn’t help but be inspired, grateful, and proud to hear about the amazing contributions millions of volunteers make across the UK… week in, week out.
In Wales, like the rest of the UK, volunteers are the lifeblood of community organisations. The WCVA[i] estimate that volunteers in Wales contribute 221 million hours every year, and that this has a value of £2.2 billion, equivalent to nearly 4.6% of Wales’ GDP. Staggering figures. And yes, it’s clear that volunteering contributes significantly to the economy, but for all of us who either volunteer or who have been the recipient of volunteers’ time and skill, volunteering also has significant value in terms of social cohesion, inclusion, and the development of social capital. This has led me to reflect on the impact that volunteering has had on my life.
In my previous blog, I talked about the concept of connecting dots. The dots represent our experiences, people, places, information. The connecting element is the process, our behaviours, our learning, how we make connections between things. The more dots we have, the greater the options we have to connect and be creative.
I guess for me, volunteering has been both the dots and the connections.
The dots in terms of my volunteering roles. The short-term volunteering roles – selling programmes, working on a stand for the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme at the International Eisteddfod, clearing vegetation on the Welshpool and Llanfair Light Railway, serving refreshments at the North Wales International Music Festival, organising tours of the Geography Department at Aberystwyth University for prospective students.
And the longer-term volunteer roles – working in a gift shop, helping pupils in a Year 7 Geography class who needed additional support to take an active part in their learning, supporting a Year 3 teacher at a local primary school, coaching netball to children and young people, committee member of Aberystwyth Town Netball Club, Vice Chair of the Friends Association at my daughter’s nursery, a trustee of a charitable Housing Association supporting vulnerable people.
These roles have given me a range of experiences. They have also enabled me to operate in different locations, and meet and work with people from different backgrounds with different experiences.
Volunteers have also helped to create dots for me. Dots in the form of choral singing and netball playing. The musical directors, the committee members, the umpires… all have given me experience, happiness, and fulfilment.
Then there are the connections… connecting the dots.
I recognise that exposure to, or the creation of multiple dots, does not in of itself create the connections. Connections are about behaviours and critical thinking. They are about how we make connections between things.
Volunteering has provided me with amazing learning opportunities. Whether this is informal learning – my interaction with different people, learning from their skills, knowledge, and experience. Or the more formal learning – netball coaching, data protection, leading strategic development through people, Board behaviours and culture.
Connections can only be made if there is willingness and skill to apply the learning.
So what does this all mean?
Whilst we have a situation where volunteers are the lifeblood of community organisations; they are the creators of dots – theirs and others’. We also have a situation where people report feeling disengaged.
Championing public participation and involvement in decision-making is one of Sophie Howe’s, Wales’ Future Generations Commissioner, priorities [ii]:
We know that volunteering has significant value in terms of social cohesion, inclusion, and the development of social capital. What we need to do is ensure that everyone has the opportunity to create more dots, and with it, more connections. That way we are going some way to have more inclusive, engaged, agile, and creative communities.
[i] WCVA (2014) Third Sector Statistical Resource 2014
[ii] Future Generations Commissioner for Wales (2017) Draft Strategic Plan, 2017-2023 https://futuregenerations.wales/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Draft-Strategic-Plan-ENG-1.pdf