15 million strong: among the volunteers

By Russell Hargrave 2 June 2015

When I’m not hunkered down in the NPC office, I spend a bit of my spare time volunteering. Not as much time as I used to, sadly—four or five hours a week has become four or five hours a month—but enough to help along a small charity project just down the road from where I live.

I’m not alone in lending a bit of time somewhere where I can. There is a whole army of us who volunteer at least once a month, more than 15m strong in the UK. Civil society would fall apart without volunteers—this may be a hackneyed thing to say, but it remains true nonetheless.

All sorts of claims are made about volunteering. I’m sceptical about some. The numbers alone show that volunteering isn’t really exceptional. In fact, it’s a pretty normal thing that loads of people do. I’m also not sure it is a ‘good’ in itself, either: volunteering doesn’t necessarily make people better citizens overall, and certainly there’s little point trying to force people to show up and do stuff they don’t actually want to do (I’ve written about this in more detail in the past).

But one volunteering cliché has proved true for me. It is a brilliant bit of my social life. It has opened doors on rich, varied new friendships and working relationships. And this is where NPC’s work on the Commission on the Voluntary Sector & Ageing comes in. What the Commission outlined in theory, I have seen unfold in practice.

From the moment it was established in 2013, the Commission called for less doom and gloom around the impact of our ageing population. A new conversation was needed, in which older folk were seen less as a burden and more as an opportunity for organisations smart enough to harness their experience and expertise. As just one example suggested by the Commissioners, charities could create an environment in which older and younger volunteers pooled their resources and specialist skills, all in the interests of making the charity as vibrant and effective as possible.

My experience suggests that such examples aren’t so hard to find. Where I volunteer, our community library is run by a retired British Library archivist with help from an apprentice who’s in the middle of her A-Levels. An arts club for school kids is organised by a septuagenarian professional artist—now one of my best friends—with a team of sidekicks who are all under 30. The board of trustees has been chaired over the last three years by a poet (retired), a senior civil servant (on maternity leave) and a fundraising expert (with two kids under ten).

Having seen how successfully a charity can harness the opportunities of an ageing population, and bring people with huge experience and insight into civil society, I doubt I’d now volunteer anywhere that didn’t at least give it a go. The age of ‘little old ladies’ helping out with tea and laying out the chairs is over, and volunteering is changing. Smart charities already know this, and are already adapting.