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.)

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Pyjamas optional: microvolunteering

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Wanna work in a warehouse? Check out Fareshare (Photo: Rachel Stanley)

Yesterday, perhaps a little lost among the egg-based puns and the stockpiling of sweet things, was Microvolunteering Day. The occasion itself is fairly new (first celebrated in 2014), but the concept of citizens helping out with bite-sized, commitment-free tasks has been around for some time. Trying to flog Oxfam chocolates to commuters at a Brussels train station back in 2009 is still one of my few experiences of cold-selling (I’ve forgotten how many packs I managed to shift, though I do still remember how to say ‘have a nice evening’ in Flemish). And people have been baking for cake sales or rattling collection tins for decades.

Nowadays, though, new technology and new networks have made helping out more accessible, and more varied, than ever.

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Giving time

It was Volunteers’ Week here in the UK (as well as Women’s Sport Week, in fact – nice profile of boxer Nicola Adams here on role models). It doesn’t seem to make many headlines outside the charity sector – yet the scale of volunteer work in this country is much larger, surely, than most people realise. 15.2m people in the UK (nearly a quarter of the entire population) volunteer each month; 0f the 164,000 registered charities, an amazing 90% have no paid staff, not to mention an estimated 150,000 further, non-registered organisations, also run by volunteers.

It’s not only the actual work these people do that matters, though. It’s also how they do it, according to research recently published by VSO (my current placement): by giving time for free to help a good cause, volunteers are expressing values of solidarity and citizenship that can prompt knock-on effects on others. As a headteacher in Nepal said, according to the research, “when the volunteer came to help, the [local community] think if someone can come to help us, we can help each other”. Continue reading “Giving time”