Sticking around

How can we help: Exploring how and why we give, and how we might do it better

Planning ahead

A former colleague told me recently that he’s started mentoring a kid. It’s not just the occasional phone call or a few trips to the cinema, though: he has signed up to a programme that commits you to meeting up with the same child on three weekends out of four, for a minimum of two years.

How many of us stick at anything, consistently, for a full two years? It’s so easy to set good intentions, then find that other stuff – work exhaustion, family demands, travel plans, life admin – gets in the way. I’m hugely impressed by the volunteers who sign up for two years, but also by charities that aren’t afraid to require it of their volunteers, because they know that for vulnerable kids, consistency matters. 

A day after that conversation with my former colleague, I got a handwritten thank-you letter, out of the blue, from the kids’ charity where I’ve been volunteering on and off for some years. It was completely unexpected, and also unnecessary – like many other volunteers, I do it because I enjoy being there, because I love what the charity does, and because I’ve grown to feel proud to be part of a lovely little community. (Other volunteers include primary school teachers who give up their Saturday mornings to spend more time with excitable children; another, a writer, recently turned up directly off an overnight flight from the USA – she could easily have skipped that session, but said volunteering was the highlight of her week.)

There was never a requirement to commit for the long term, but it turns out that I have been there most weeks in term-time over the past two years. During Covid lockdowns, Wednesday one-to-one sessions helped break up monotonous, tiring weeks of screen time and little interaction with people in real life. Working with the same kids each week meant I could prepare ahead, and notice little signs of progress as the term went on. For the past few terms, we’ve been back to group sessions, with a small core of Wednesday volunteers turning up each week to meet the same kids, whose characters and quirks we’ve come to know well. It’s nothing like the two-year, almost weekly commitment required by that other mentoring programme (and nor would that be essential in our case), but the consistency that seems to have happened organically with us has, I think, been good for volunteers, kids and workshop leaders.

That’s not to say that one-off volunteering isn’t valuable – in some setups, it’s good for kids to work with or meet new people regularly. From a practical point of view, it vastly widens the pool of available volunteers, and it makes volunteering accessible to many more people. But recruiting, training and managing volunteers takes a big chunk of a charity’s resources. Those interested in volunteering are often looking for something meaningful to get stuck into and to learn from; for many, the long-term association with a project or organisation reinforces a sense of identity and community. Maybe more of us are ready to commit than we think.

Photo by Jess Bailey on Unsplash