It is tough to describe the impact of 14 million volunteers in England and to do them justice with millions of different stories about volunteers and their work.
Most of us will have seen the fantastic contribution of the 14,000 volunteers at the Commonwealth Games, with some taking a 2-week holiday for the event.
I could tell stories about the positive efforts of 25 volunteers at our local community centre.
However, the total number of formal volunteers with a charity, organisation or group was reduced during the pandemic by about one-fifth, presumably as volunteers were isolated.
On the other hand, there was a significant increase in regular informal volunteering: in other words, offering unpaid help such as shopping for someone who is not a relative; in 2020/21, 33% of adults did this, about a fifth more people than before.
Research suggests it was likely that individuals who previously volunteered informally increased the frequency of their support, as opposed to an increase in the number of people doing it.
Small charities depend heavily on the efforts of volunteers, with some run exclusively by volunteers.
In small charities, there is an average of four volunteers for each staff member, and I found in the smallest of charities (those with an income under £100k), there are 16 volunteers for every staff member.
I found several volunteer schemes that were interesting, some of which can lead service users to employment in the sector.
St Mungos, the homeless charity, uses 400 volunteers in crucial roles, including former service users.
A case study is Nizar, who was homeless on the streets and then moved into accommodation when he settled.
He started volunteering with the charity as a service user in 2019, and from the beginning, he made it clear that his motivation was to get employment in the sector.
Nizar is now working as a Care Assistant at one of St Mungo’s care homes.
Volunteering with St Mungo’s gives access to their e-Learning portal and monthly online events to support professional development, equipping volunteers with new skills and knowledge.
St Mungos also established a Volunteer Development Pathway, which supports volunteers using their skills to apply for and secure employment opportunities, often via apprenticeship schemes.
Another former client said: ‘I gained support and advice from St Mungo’s to clear debts and salvage the situation surrounding my home. I then started volunteering between 2016 and 2019, then that same year, I applied for an apprenticeship with St Mungo’s, and fortunately, I was successful. Moving from volunteering to apprenticeship was quite straightforward. The initial volunteering really prepared me for what was to come with the apprenticeship.’
Recently I talked to a friend, an experienced Samaritan with around 25 years of service. Samaritans already took calls from prisoners, but my friend described an interesting project, the Listeners, which was new to me, though it had run for 25 years.
She and other Samaritans go into prisons and train prisoners as mentors to listen to other inmates. The scheme sounded incredibly useful and would also have longer-term benefits for participants over and above the direct interactions.
One former Listener has set up a social enterprise to help ex-offenders find work. During 2020, trained prison Listeners based in almost every UK prison responded to calls for help 34,000 times, spending over 17,000 hours supporting fellow prisoners!
It is obviously one of many schemes set up by the Samaritans, who deploy 20,000 volunteers. My friend, who has worked on this for 7-years in 2 prisons, said: ‘Working with Listeners has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my volunteering life.’
However, as well as success stories, there are dark clouds on the horizon for volunteering. The Community Transport Association and other charities are worried about high fuel prices, which deter people from volunteering, putting volunteer-run transport and services at risk. They want the Government to increase the approved mileage allowance payment in line with inflation. Another concern is the cost of living crisis, which many feel will cut volunteering significantly, while at the same time demand for services will grow.
Charity income is likely to be hard hit as they struggle with inflation, with smaller ones having fewer resources.
So fingers crossed for a rocky ride.