I recently chaired a roundtable for the Commission on the Voluntary Sector & Ageing. We discussed a whole range of issues, but one key aspect of the debate centred on the challenges of volunteering in this changing world.

We all agreed that despite the non-paid nature of the work that volunteers do, it is a very serious business indeed. As the Bank of England recently acknowledged, the social return of volunteering is between six and twelve times the money invested. Volunteers are the lifeblood of the voluntary sector. At Barnardo’s, we have over fifteen thousand volunteers, who make up approximately a fifth of the workforce and deliver over £20m worth of ‘value’ every year.

We are well aware that the population is ageing, changing with it the makeup of the labour force. Nearly a quarter of those who work in Barnardo’s 573 shops are aged sixty or above.

There is, however, a second dynamic taking place within society. We are seeing increasing black and minority ethnic (BME) populations, with the Centre for Policy on Ageing predicting that the proportion of minority ethnic people aged over fifty will increase from 10% in 2011 to 18% in 2026, and 30% in 2051.

Clearly business sense dictates that voluntary sector organisations engage with diverse volunteer communities. Beyond the figures, however, also lies the social imperative for gaining a varied volunteer workforce. One of our Independent Visitor volunteers, who has developed a rich and trusting relationship with a looked-after boy, recently told me that his Black British heritage has enriched his role: ‘I can provide a positive role model for this young person, as an adult and as a black male. It gives something back to the next generation.’

As the population becomes more ethnically and culturally varied, BME volunteers will play a crucial role in helping us reach out to the diverse young people we’ll be working with. Many of them already tell us they have multiple identities; caught between the need to impress their teachers, fit in with their peers, and communicate with parents and grandparents in their mother tongue. They tell us they need mentors who understand the conflict they face.

Colleagues at the roundtable all agreed that to engage with diverse volunteer communities, we need to recognise the complexity of personal identity for British BME citizens; that people with the same racial heritage are not a homogenous group. This means applying flexible and creative approaches to reach volunteers at every stage of engagement, from recruitment to development. For example, making sure prayer mats are available if requested in shops for retail volunteers to use, and giving them the time to say their prayers at the set times. Working hard to be inclusive and recognise and celebrate a range of festivals, religious and world events alongside the more traditional ‘Merry Christmas’ message. And much more.

This is not to say, of course, that we should concentrate on recruiting within one community or focus on solely older volunteers—around a quarter of Barnardo’s volunteers are young people who gain crucial employment skills through undertaking work experience. Rather, we should seek to engage across the spectrum of ages and cultures.

It’s right for us, it’s right for the volunteers and it’s right for the service users we will need to work with.

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