What is the first thing you think of when you hear the word ‘volunteer’?
You might be imagining someone wrestling with mothballs in a local charity shop, or maybe it’s the image of a young British student digging wells as part of a ‘gap year’. For some people, the word conjures up cosy, happy feelings of helping others and contributing to the community, but for others it might have more negative connotations.
People can view volunteering as anything from traditional examples such as helping with the guide dogs, all the way down to small acts of kindness that others might consider to be ‘just helping out’.
We have spoken a lot about micro-volunteering recently, the name given to voluntary activities which take under 30 minutes to complete and which do not require any kind of formal training. Is this really any different from helping an elderly neighbour with their food shop once a week, or coaching your local school’s football team on a Saturday?
At what point does general kindness end and volunteering begin?
It has been widely documented that businesses across the world are starting to recognise the importance of purpose and profit. They understand that they can help their staff and their stakeholders contribute to the causes they care most about through their business practices.
A common way that some employers support their staff to give back is through company volunteering schemes. Employees are given a set number of days throughout the year that they can step out of the office and lend their skills to charities or non-profits of their choice.
Some would argue that this is not actually ‘volunteering’ as the employees are still being paid for their time. However, one of the biggest barriers to volunteering for people of working age is a lack of time and these schemes completely remove that barrier.
As part of the Volunteering for All: National Framework study published by the Scottish Government, they discovered that a reluctance to identify as a ‘volunteer’ was related to common barriers to volunteering. These include sickness, disability, income and deprivation.
For example, The Scottish Household Survey found that ‘only 19% of the population volunteered in the 20% most deprived areas in Scotland in 2017, compared to 37% in the 20% least deprived’. You might be surprised by this statistic, until we mention that people from underrepresented groups often take part in ‘informal volunteering’.
In the areas that need it most, people are donating their time without the label of ‘volunteer’.
You would be forgiven for asking yourself this. Why does it matter what people call themselves if the end result is the same anyway? And it’s a valid point.
Except, as Susan Ellis pointed out in this excellent article from 2010, it really does matter. She explains that: ‘How government defines volunteering directly affects the funding allotted to support it’, and, on a more personal level, how organisations define volunteering affects the types of roles available for volunteers and the level of responsibility given to them.
The National Framework for Volunteering was commissioned by the Scottish Government to help support volunteers and encourage more people to get involved over the next ten years. They recognise that, for this to be successful, we need to widen our definition of the term ‘volunteer’ and they encourage funders to support ‘smaller and less formal organisations’.
At Social Good Connect we have worked with many organisation who believe what we believe – volunteering is important. Whatever form it takes and whatever name you give it. We want to encourage those who are put off by the formality of the term that they shouldn’t be concerned nor intimidated by the label of ‘volunteer’.
Volunteering doesn’t have to be a demanding, time-consuming commitment that eats away at your free-time and your mental headspace week after week. It can be a simple act of kindness offered to a neighbour, it can be supported by your boss and, yes, it can be a weekly agreement to walk a local shelter dog.
Volunteering shouldn’t just be ‘the preserve of a few’ , those who have enough time or money to work for free every now and again, but it should be an accessible and inclusive activity for all. And thanks to advances in technology and more progressive workplaces, this is becoming ever more the case.
If you are interested in finding out more about how you can support your employees to give back to local causes (or encourage your boss to get involved) please get in touch!
Written by Betty Henderson