Volunteering – What’s In It for Me?
Millions of people in the UK volunteer – about 20.1 million, according to the NCVO, (in 2017-18), or fast approaching one third of the population. At the last count (June 2020), 183 of them volunteer for Gloucestershire Archives.
I, too, have volunteered several times during my life; on a rural community project, based on access to clean water, in rural Turkey, in 1979, organised through UNESCO; at 2 Citizens’ Advice Bureaux in the 1980’s; at several homeless shelters at Christmas time, and with a community based project, for elders, in New York, between 2002-05 (not full time, but during my annual leave, when I would travel to New York to be part of a non-profit providing social work, and community development, with sections of New York city’s aged population).
So, let’s get back to Gloucestershire Archives, and our 183 volunteers. What, exactly, do they do? Well, collectively, they donate around 12,500 volunteer hours each year. This equates to £264,000 per year in monetary value. Volunteers have always mobilised at times of national crisis, or emergencies. In the current covid-19 pandemic, for example, the UK government, in April 2020, asked for volunteers to step forward to support the efforts of the NHS, key-workers and infrastructure. Their target was 250,000 but, in reality, the government received treble this number of volunteers. This will mean millions of volunteer hours in the coming months, and millions of pounds in monetary value. For a very personal and engaging account of volunteering during lockdown, please see a blog, written by one of our volunteers - A CATTER-LOG-ER-AT-HOME
Some of our most cherished, and well known, volunteer-led organisations, emerged during times of national crisis, including the National Association of Citizens’ Advice Bureaux and RVS (formerly the WRVS), which both mobilised huge numbers of volunteers during World War II. And we should not forget the voluntary organisations that grew out of eighteenth and nineteenth century philanthropy, such as the organisation founded by Dr Thomas Barnardo, largely led by volunteers in the nineteenth century. More recently, in the 1960’s, volunteer-led groups like the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) came into being, following reports in the press about the “rediscovery” of poverty in the UK, following several academic studies, notably by Prof. Peter Townsend at Bristol University, and works such as Family and Kinship in East London by Malcolm Young and Peter Wilmott. Arguably, volunteers in the UK have lobbied, pressed for change, helped many millions of people and causes, and this rich and varied tradition of civic engagement in the UK is probably unsurpassed anywhere in the world.
So why do people volunteer? I’ve always thought it’s to do with passion – having a passion for an interest (like heritage), a cause (like civil or equal rights) or as a response to some kind of crisis (whether global, national, local or personal). Above all, it’s about making a difference. Of the 183 volunteers at Gloucestershire Archives, they all, I can very confidently say, have a passion for history. And a good number of them want “to give something back”. Our volunteers are engaged in a wide range of activities; we have 19 separate Volunteer Role Descriptions (a bit like job descriptions) for tasks that volunteers can do. Many are project related (e.g. last year’s Never Better project, on the history of mental health provision in Gloucestershire), some are very task orientated (e.g. cataloguing or transcribing) and some require very specific skills and abilities (e.g. gardener or meet & greet). One of the volunteer roles I’m keen to create is that of Volunteer Mentor, for volunteers who would like to mentor others in specific volunteering tasks. This has been widely used in the museums sector, with great effect.
So, we know what volunteers do, but what’s in it for them? It would appear, from our 2019 volunteer survey, a huge amount. From that survey, we learned that 60% of volunteers come to us because they want to learn new skills, 94% do it because they have fun and enjoy themselves, 70% because it improves their wellbeing, and 90% because they want to do something “meaningful” with their spare time.
Lots of organisations that work with volunteers – or, in fact, rely on them – have learned that people will more readily volunteer (and stay) if they are having fun. So what does this mean, in practice? Well, we can all say thank you to volunteers, with coffee mornings and trips out. But having fun is also about staying connected. And this is one of what the NHS calls The 5 Ways to Wellbeing. In order for people to thrive and feel well, psychologically and emotionally, there are 5 things we can all do to help ourselves: give, keep learning, stay connected, be active, take notice. All of these, I would say, define the very essence of volunteering: it is about being connected and learning, it is about giving and being active, and it is about taking notice.
The 5 Ways to Wellbeing (which sprang out of research done by the New Economics Foundation, and which was quickly adopted and promoted by both the Office for National Statistics, and the NHS), underpin what I believe volunteering is all about. In short, the 5 ways, the 5 actions, go a long way to ensuring one’s wellbeing
In answering the question, volunteering – what’s in it for me? I think we need to look at the complex relationship between volunteering and wellbeing. When we can choose to do so many things in our free time we will, I think, do things that make us feel better. This could be a hobby, spending time with loved ones, engaging in an artistic pursuit, and, for many, volunteering. Volunteering in the archives sector is just beginning to be explored in terms of its connection to wellbeing. This year, the National Archives will be launching their Wellbeing Toolkit for archives to use, and this seeks to shed light on the link between volunteering (in archives services) and wellbeing. It will be an important piece of work, and we can’t wait to get involved!
Sally Middleton – Community Heritage Development Manager.
Volunteer Sally Self sent a photo of the lovely sweet peas that have grown from
the seeds Archives presented to our volunteers, earlier in the year, as a thank you.