The UK’s Office of National Statistics has recently released figures that show a worrying trend in the amount of time that volunteers give to their communities. Measuring formal volunteering, that is work contributed via groups, clubs or organizations, the figures show a decline of 7% in the amount of time given between 2012 and 2015 as part of an ongoing decline in overall volunteering time since 2005. This pattern is not, however, evenly spread across age groups. In the younger age group, of 16 to 24 year olds, time spent volunteering has gone up, while the time given by 25 to 34 year olds has gone down. The figures hide a complex back story combining a challenging labour market, constrained public spending, transformations of higher education, changing family structures and a proliferation of initiatives aimed at promoting volunteering and providing new digital infrastructures. Clearly these factors hit different demographic groups in different ways and what drives some towards volunteering may drive others away, at the same time as volunteer work is as sorely needed as ever. Delving into individual stories and tracking cohorts over time may give some clearer insights into what is going on.
Voluntary Action South West Surrey focused their annual conference on 4th April 2017 on the theme of inspiration and the event certainly delivered with a stimulating series of sessions exploring both why volunteer efforts are so highly valued and rewarding and how to face up to the challenges of finding, supporting and recognising volunteers. A packed hall of delegates listened to Jessica Taplin, CEO of vInspired talk about the challenges of raising a new generation of young volunteers. Jessica explored the distinctive needs of this grouping of volunteers and stressed their huge potential to contribute, provided that opportunities are tailored to their motivations and their availability. These points were revisited later on in the day by Maddie Thomas, Volunteer Coordinator at the University of Surrey with an overview of the huge potential in the voluntary workforce offered by students in Guildford, tempered by realism about what the right kinds of role might be. Giles Mahoney and Dominic Wright, representatives from the local hospital and clinical commissioning group, talked about their bold plans to transform healthcare provision and keep the community at the heart of their decision-making and about the integral role of the voluntary sector in health and social care. Helen Cammack of interests.me gave a plenary session and later workshops that explored the promised offered by social media as a way to advance the work of voluntary and community organizations. Again, the inspirational message was one of hope (recognising the huge potential of social media as a way to advance a cause without a massive media budget) tempered by realism (that social media require creativity and persistence if they are to make a difference and that messages delivered online often don’t hit home as reliably as we think they do). The day ended with some compelling stories of individual efforts to set up organizations to make a difference across areas as diverse as time banking, tree planting and storytelling. The day as a whole demonstrated both the vibrancy and the struggles of the voluntary sector and emphasized the commonality of many of the issues being faced, across an incredibly diverse set of activities.