Volunteering a view

“We are looking for volunteers”.  What goes through your mind when this is said to a group or  perhaps directly to you!

I think you would be quite unusual if you did not begin to process the request at high speed, to come up with plausible reasons why it would not be possible! At least without much more thought and time to question! 

My feeling is that there is a leadership crisis in this country. I don’t mean “them up there” but at our community level. Why do I say this?

Random Acts of Kindness

There are numerous random acts of kindness every day by people supporting families, neighbours and neighbourhoods. The majority of acts and individuals helped are neither known nor recorded. 

However it is important that there is some community awareness of this happening. Lo, North Yorkshire County Council and Whitby Gazette have launched the Salt of the Earth campaign. It highlights examples of individual citizens doing good for others in a dedicated way. With names and faces and in some detail so readers understand “what and why”.  The intention is not to place people on a pedestal but simply to recognise them as salt-of-the-earth examples to the rest of us illustrating the ways we can make a difference at almost any age.

This initiative is to be welcomed. Groups are often celebrated but some of the best individuals are overlooked for their contribution – although that may be what they want. Not everyone likes to be in the limelight even when they deserve to be!

The introduction to the first Salt of the Earth mentions a challenge too. “Life is busy and we don’t all have time to sign up and formally volunteer for an organisation as much as we would like to, which is why Salt of the Earth has a particular focus on the informal but impactful ways that we can be kind and help those around us”.

The challenge is in the first few words – life is busy. That is impacting on the availability of volunteers for undertaking what I call Life Support!

Life Support Volunteering

I certainly don’t mean hospital intensive care. That’s probably above a volunteer’s pay grade! I’m referring to support required on a regular basis (weekly or more frequently) to an individual to improve their quality of life or their potential. For someone elderly it might be providing some company and conversation or supporting them to help themselves. Building up confidence and helping people to adapt to possibly unwelcome changes in their lives.

However, also think of youngsters and the challenges they are facing in a world many of us did not have to handle. Bullying stopped at the school gate but with the popularity of social media bullying can extend into the home, possibly unknown to parents. Hence the importance of out-of-school activities (e.g. the Scouting movement and youth clubs) that can provide a safe place for kids to develop individually. That requires committed, regular volunteers that are there regularly.

The Life Support example familiar to me is the Men’s Shed movement. Life Support for men (and indeed some women) who are, as we say, at some kind of a loss – leading to isolation and social disengagement. Sometimes when reporting progress to a funder we are asked how many beneficiaries there have been, and how many paid staff and volunteers there are to supervise. Sheds rarely have paid staff and the unique feature of Sheds is that the volunteers and beneficiaries are one and the same. Every attender makes a contribution to the successful operation of their Shed, even those with advancing dementia. All contribute to the banter. Sheds provide therapeutic distraction and foster independence.

Therefore Sheds tend not to lack volunteers at the level of work being done  although few Shedders want to be responsible on paper for their Shed! However, there have to be a few pressed men to cope with administration and compliance. Otherwise, Sheds sort of run themselves!

Another example is help to those who are housebound. There may be weekly or daily agency provision for home care but that may leave many hours alone with TV and radio for company. One of our new Shedders used to deliver Wiltshire Farm Foods in Northampton to clients on a weekly basis . For some clients he was the only assured contact they had with a person. Loneliness is a killer.

A Regular visit by someone with a little time to chat with cup in hand is so important. A person may be waiting and longing for that bit of contact. Continuity is important by having the same visitor. The lonely seek friendship. This volunteering requires reliable, responsible, trusted and checked volunteers. They will often be dealing with vulnerable people in their homes. An extended family may develop.

Such voluntary work can be demanding because a volunteer is giving themselves in friendship to a client. There are several local organisations who provide such managed, personal befriending in Whitby district. Caring Together and Carers Resource are but two.

Short Term Support in unexpected situations

These too are often life support but in a crisis; foodbank4whitby is a good example.  People get into a situation from which they cannot see a way out. Usually it is an underlying financial problem (for one reason or another) and often not of their direct making. A team of volunteers is needed to collect donated goods, sort and store them in orderly fashion and fairly distribute to those referred by agencies such as CAB. The referrers will endeavour to unwrap the circumstances and provide help with resolution but meanwhile the food bank can provide food for the table and understanding. 

Street Angels is another action that tries to help those in potentially vulnerable situations at the adult end of the spectrum. Street Angels patrol Whitby town centre late at night looking out for people who are in a vulnerable situation. They can be many and varied situations from a fall (those high heels!) to forgetting where their accommodation is. Pub door staff, CCTV operators, police and the ambulance service play roles together in this.

In both operations some volunteer training is required but essentially a rota manages the use of volunteers and nobody is trapped into unmanageable responsibilities. Duty swaps can be made. Significant camaraderie builds in the teams.

Support for personal development

in my past, regular activities required equally regular committed volunteers. It was thus in my church youth club 60+ years ago (a man  came straight from work on a Friday night to run the club for kids like me), It was the case 20 years later when I helped run a disco for teenagers. 

It was also the case in a night shelter for the homeless and supporting offenders on release. Some people had to take  responsibility to be there, open up, ensure insurance cover, organise training and be prepared for the unexpected! 

You might call these people leaders (and they are a leading part of it), though often they don’t want to be thought of that way. It sounds like taking responsibility for the success of the activity and any perceived risks. Things do go up and down in any project and the path of starting anything has bumps in the road.

However regulation, best practice and public funding require there to be people willing to poke their head above the parapet and organise “enough”, to make sure things work adequately (or even superbly!). There needs to be enough regularity of involvement for experience to build. Ideally that means a small team with some in-built redundancy so that “leaders” can take time off when needed.

Think of Scouting and similar work with young people. Training and commitment are prime requirements. Often it is parents who step up to the plate to be trained, invested and be fairly regularly available. It is commitment. Similarly work with those who are vulnerable and/or isolated when relationship building is involved.

What is it that attracts volunteers (unpaid) to give the commitment required? There are two main drivers for me and I think many others. It is seeing needs that people have and feeling I might be able to do something to help them. Preferably, to encourage them to help themselves if at all possible. It is called compassion. Not sympathy which helps us feel better.  Not empathy that allows us to try to understand the situation of another as if in their shoes. But compassion that builds on the other two and causes us to decide to act on our feelings.

The second driver is realising (reviewing) the help and encouragement I received from people at virtually every stage of my life.  One of our recent new Shedders said he was looking to do something that allowed him to put something into the community he was now part of (having moved to Whitby 6 months before). Giving back is a strong motive. A reinvestment of experience to benefit others.

This is the deeper commitment end of the volunteering spectrum. We (society) need to value the work of all volunteers and salt-of-the-earthers, and particularly those for whom the commitment is sacrificial, not casual. 

Why Volunteers at all levels are so vital to us

For many years we grew used to services being provided through government, councils and agencies with employed support staff. About 13  years ago I saw the wind of change coming in the South where I lived and where I did similar community engagement as now in the North! A significant sized town to the west of London had, for instance, 4 County Council locality coordinators, one for each district across the town. Over less than 3 years 4 became 1. How could they cope? With difficulty.

Services were centralised (no longer as accessible as before though more modern maybe), grants were awarded to less affluent areas of the town  for the community to develop services themselves (i.e. voluntary ). I recall at the time the phrase Big Society was coined. Volunteers would be the driving force somehow.

How did I cope? Well I was already working with the council staff (at Borough and County levels), voluntary sector leaders (like our CaVCA),  churches and visionaries from various organisations (including the university) in an informal Community Alliance where we shared ideas. We made progress together, but now cuts threatened that. How did I cope personally? I just carried on doing what I believed was right with those trusted individuals. 

Moving North at the end of 2011 I began looking into my new community through the lens of a church or two. Street Angels and a food bank were active in the South and  it was natural to join with others in establishing these in Whitby – working with relevant agencies, church workers and community volunteers. 

The austerity decade was firmly taking hold and I saw much the same shrinkage of council and agency leadership that I’d seen before. Councils no longer have the money to do what they would like to do. They have had to retreat  from the front line staffing of services and place as  much reliance as they can on lower-cost voluntary run services.

What happened in the South began to be very apparent in the North. Active voluntary work is now welcomed with open arms by the authorities. Working collaboratively. Trust building. Jointly tackling needs as they are identified. The Sheds have worked this way but other organisations too. Collaboration moves things forward. Secrecy and competitiveness   slow progress. I saw that in my working life too.

VOLUNTEERS hold the key unless a magic money tree is found! I

However, it has become increasingly difficult to recruit leaders for activities. People to take responsibility rather than help ad hoc.

That is perhaps inevitable in an area favoured for retirement to enjoy some hard earned freedom from work and maybe family responsibilities. Understandably, people don’t want to be unnecessarily tied into commitments. 

IF . . . .

If someone came to me now and said they needed ten volunteers to meet commitments to help people say in Sleights on a rota I could not. I would not (I’ve stretched myself too often!). However, if there were to be 30 volunteers for the equivalent work I may well seriously consider volunteering. Why? Because it would represent a net of support and if I could not help on an occasion then someone else could. I might even specialise. This would allow already busy but equipped individuals to also join in as part of the bigger team. 

Compassionate Communities

A compassionate community is one where not only do people care about each other (that’s valuable because it leads to greater inclusion) but actively care for each other – without burn out. 

I want to introduce Frome in Somerset (and refer to Fleetwood in Lancashire similarly also). Frome has been nicknamed a Compassionate Community. Over 6 years, pioneered by a doctor in a medical practice, Frome has evolved into a place with than 1000 volunteer Community Connectors, some of whom are already busy people in their own right. They include a mixed bag of people, past skills and experience (and none). Importantly, with such numbers there is inbuilt redundancy and flexibility.  Nobody seems trapped in high expectation to be volunteering excessively. 

There seems (from my visit) to be a deep sense of caring for the community across organisations of all types in Frome. They seem to know each other well and work comfortably with each other.  Why has this come about? What was discovered as the “experiment” moved forward and measurable benefits were sought was that this “low level caring” had a massive impact on emergency ambulance trips to hospitals about the same distance away as ours in Whitby. Just relieving people of practical concerns through some prompt basic help (non medical) took a load off the doctors, the ambulance service and the hospitals. It has been the same story in Fleetwood featured on TV news recently.

Sheds are small compassionate places where Shedders help each other in ups and downs!

Look at this earlier blog on Frome  here

Adaptive Change

These days things need inevitably to be done differently. More for less is the challenge! Resources dictate that. The question is can what the community needs (the people) be done in a more effective way through different methods, changed mind sets and new tools? Of these, mind set is probably the big dictator of successful change. 

We all need to be adaptive – as individuals, voluntary groups, agencies, statutory bodies and funding agencies. It will take time and one cannot prescribe how partnerships may be made and in what order. For me it all comes down to trust because barriers and defences need to be lowered to achieve collaboration. So, we take some measured risks (yes, even of failure) but with the  potential for significant gains through frictionless collaboration :-).  Or as close as GDPR allows.

For me, Australia seems built on volunteering. Below is an article on volunteering,  expressing support to fire ravaged communities in NSW and Victoria.  In case you do not reach the end, this is the final sentence:   The generosity of fellow Australians will go a long way to helping the long rebuilding process that lies ahead for so many families and communities, as well as the country’s unique wildlife.

Australians open wallets, hearts for fire-ravaged communities


Tens of millions of dollars raised for fire service, animals and communities through donations, creative fundraisers.


Australians have opened their wallets and hearts amid the country's devastating bush fires [File: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters]
Australians have opened their wallets and hearts amid the country’s devastating bush fires 

An estimated 17 million hectares (42 million acres) have been burned, more than 6,000 buildings destroyed, and families in every state have been left devastated and homeless. Amid the tragedy, Australians have stepped in.

In New South Wales, the Rural Fire Service has received donations that have now surpassed 50 million Australian dollars ($34.1m) said RFS spokesman James Morris.

The funds have come from everything from fire-helmets and donation buckets placed in local shops to celebrity GoFundMe campaigns, he said.

In that good old Australian community spirit, people just want to get out and do their bit,” Morris told Al Jazeera. “But they can’t always physically assist or donate physical items. So their way of showing their support is through financial donations.”

‘Thank you for being our heroes’

Barbeques, fun runs, boot camps and benefit concerts, large and small have taken place across the country.

The Muslim community hosted barbeques for firefighters and displaced locals in fire-affected towns including Lakes Entrance, east of Melbourne, where one local tweeted that between four and five trucks of supplies had arrived and “the first round of snags are already cooked”.

The Lakes Entrance volunteer fire brigade have received some creative letters of thanks as well as supplies of baked goods.

Australia fire donations
Volunteer firefighters in Lake Entrance, Victoria have received muffins and  letters from young children 

“You are so brave to fight fires. We are thanking you every day,” said one note signed by Grace. “Thank you for being our heroes. You are the best,” said another.

Children have also been donating pocket money to their local fire brigades and one primary school student from Western Australia raised $500 and delivered half to the Lakes Entrance crew and half to the Save the Koala fund.

James Pendlebury, a call centre team manager in Melbourne, has been finding creative ways to raise funds in his office.

The team are fundraising in two-week cycles between victim relief, wildlife assistance and volunteer firefighter support. Among the initiatives so far have been raffles, bake-offs and an office artisans market.

“We wanted to give everyone a chance to be involved, including people who couldn’t afford to give money,” Pendlebury said.

The artisan’s market allowed people to show off their handiwork, with diverse items for sale including tote bags, homemade preserves and sauces, red wine vinegar and crocheted coasters.

“We’ve got a lot of talented people at work and a lot of different ideas can come out of people’s need to help,” Pendlebury said. “It’s just a very simple way of getting people encouraged … there’s a sense of accomplishment.”

They have so far raised 5,100 Australian dollars ($3,480).

“People get entrenched in the horror,” he said, “Knitting a beanie, making pouches for wildlife or something else which they feel is constructive helps people’s self-worth.”

Help for animals

John Grant of the wildlife group WIRES said they had been “overwhelmed by the generosity and concern for our wildlife from around the globe.”

He spoke of one fundraiser by Blue Mountains resident Joshua Elston, who has cerebral palsy, and his carer Hannah Shore.

“Joshua wanted to do something for the animals impacted by bushfires so he made cakes for a cake stall in Springwood,” Grant said. “It went up on the community Facebook page and the community rallied with even more cakes and slices.”

Last weekend, the cake stall raised 2,116 Australian dollars ($1,445).

Jacob Angelino, a volunteer firefighter in Victoria, said they have been delivering donated goods to areas affected by the fires for several weeks.

Australia fires
Joshua Elston, who helped raise thousands for wildlife group WIRES by organising a cake sale 

“A lot of people are just buying things to try and help people get back up on their feet,” he told Al Jazeera.

“The other week, we picked up a huge delivery. Locals had put together trolleys full of supplies and they loaded the truck with heaps of slabs of water, long-life food, that sort of stuff for those people who were stuck in relief centres.”

Thousands of Australians have also opened their homes to evacuees and their pets.

After offering the paddocks behind her home to evacuees with animals via Twitter on New Year’s Eve, PhD student Erin Riley not only received requests, but also found more offers of accommodation flooding in.

Within days she created FindABed to match the now 6,500 offers of accommodation with those in need.

Celebrity fundraisers

Benefit concerts are also being used to raise funds as local bands play pub gigs and international stars including Alice Cooper, Olivia Newton-John, Queen and popular children’s group the Wiggles organise concerts in the coming weeks with all proceeds donated to fire relief causes.

US punk band Blink 182 released a line of merchandise specifically to raise funds for Australia’s wildlife, while actress Rebel Wilson auctioned a private lunch at her house for two fans and Shane Warne, a former international cricketer for Australia, raised more than one million Australian dollars by auctioning off his baggy green cap.

Australia fires
Some offices have held markets to raise funds for fire relief

Many celebrities, including Chris Hemsworth, Elton John and Pink have publicly donated large sums to bushfire relief, while Australian comedian Celeste Barber’s Facebook fundraiser has raised more than 50 million Australian dollars ($34.14m).

Businessmen across the globe have also raised or pledged millions, while dozens of Australian companies have donated goods or percentages of their takings.

Stories of less conventional means have also spread via social media as some models offered nude photographs to those who donate, and a message to clients from an alleged local drug-dealer spread on social media after he promised to give 10 percent of the weekend’s earning to fire relief.

A lot of my family have been affected,” the circulated message read. “Not a joke. Actually being legit. Thank you all.”

For now, long-awaited rain is easing the situation in much of the country but the risk of new outbreaks will remain high throughout the summer.

The generosity of fellow Australians will go a long way to helping the long rebuilding process that lies ahead for so many families and communities, as well as the country’s unique wildlife.

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