A special piece in response to National Volunteers Week
Written By: Matt Maclure – Programmes and Advocacy Intern
Volunteering has become an occupation synonymous with ‘giving something back to the community’. In our current economic climate this is no longer the reality, and it is increasingly important that our youth today recognise the mutual exchange of skills and services that volunteering has become. The benefits for youth range from developing their professional skill set, to increasing self-confidence and beginning to build the foundations of their future professional networks. Youth today sadly live in a time where grades and good references do not open up the doors that they used to, and to progress you now need to demonstrate the lengths you will go to learn and grow. Due to these circumstances volunteering has evolved into a sector where the volunteers can and should demand just as much from the organisations they seek to support as the other way around. The misguided conception adopted by many of volunteering as purely supporting a cause is not only outdated, but also threatens to drive our youth away from an area that can be key in providing the stepping stones to their future success.
I am currently nearing the end of a 6 month internship at AbleChildAfrica and it is by no means an exaggeration to say that the time I have had here has helped shape my future prospects. I have been able to learn and acquire skills that will now enable me to pursue the areas in International Development that I’m most interested in and I have begun to construct a professional network that I can take with me moving forward. As a voluntary intern I have also had the ability to request areas that I would like more experience in and projects that I would like to be involved with, a degree of flexibility which is not necessarily afforded to you if you are a paid member of staff. Granted, there is a time and a place for internships. As I am also currently studying for a full-time Masters I have been fortunate enough to take on the role, but my point is that too many people underestimate the value of building their professional networks and taking on internships while they study, travel or when taking a sabbatical or career break.
Career progression, however, is not the only reason why we need to work on changing the perception of volunteering. Quite aside from what I like to call the ‘warm and fuzzy’ feeling that is the associated benefit of giving your time to a cause, volunteering has been recognised as an integral economic part of our civil society. The Office for National Statistics last year valued the ‘output’ of formal volunteers at an astounding £23.9bn, and that does not include any informal volunteering. For those who undervalue the worth of volunteering, I question whether they could raise their nose at such figures. Of course the age old argument of how you quantifiably measure what is a social phenomenon remains at large, but you may begin to think differently about the sector if I frame it differently.
Forgetting the economic benefits to society, ignoring the professional, personal and emotional benefits people gain from giving their time…what would happen if all the volunteers in the UK stopped giving up their time tomorrow? What would the cities around the UK look like? What would come of our parks, our libraries or our social services? How significantly would all our emergency services be depleted? Or even more fundamentally, what basic services of ours would not be met without these volunteers. I dare anyone to undervalue the worth of volunteers when they take all of these questions into account.
It is important at this point for me to acknowledge that there are a number of contentious areas where volunteering may not be the best answer, or even the right one. The ongoing controversy over paid and unpaid internships, or organisations getting rid of full-time paid staff and building out a large part-time volunteer base are two of the areas that represent a moral minefield with no obvious or easy route forward. I make no attempt at hiding the fact that volunteering is not the answer to all problems. What I do dispute is the definite stigma attached to the area and the perception of what volunteering means for the individual, the organisation and wider society.
It is not just youth that must better understand and subscribe to the concept of volunteering. The people who currently give their time are an eclectic mix of age, gender and ethnicity and there are huge benefits even if you are a high flying corporate executive with very little time on your hands. Everyone has heard of ‘mid-life crisis’, however a new phenomenon of the ‘quarter-life crisis’ has appeared in the last decade as people become more stressed about holding on to their jobs and leaving little time in their lives to experience anything else. Work life balances have deteriorated and happiness and well-being has subsequently plummeted. Although the term ‘quarter-life crisis’ seems almost comedic, it’s something to be taken very seriously as it can lead to emotional and mental issues such as depression. Speaking from experience, I have already seen friends of mine go through such shifts in confidence, and I genuinely believe volunteering for many is a therapeutic way of combatting such emotions. It’s not for everyone, but the opportunity to network and expand your social circle, as well as having the opportunity to get involved with something you are passionate about can help many people work through such issues.
Regardless of age, volunteering can benefit everyone in some form. We must alter our perception of volunteering away from that of a linear one-way donation of time and energy, and towards what it actually is: a mutual exchange of skills and services that benefits both parties. Not only that, but our society would be a much bleaker and harsher place without volunteers. It is imperative we stop undervaluing volunteering because it is a non-economic activity, and start celebrating volunteers for all that they do for our society.
*This is not an official position of AbleChildAfrica but an opinion piece written and owned by Matthew Maclure, Programmes and Advocacy Intern at AbleChildAfrica.