Chief Executive, Oonagh Aitken talks about barriers to volunteering and reaffirms our commitment to ensuring that everyone has the chance to transform their lives and the lives of others through the power of volunteering.

Over the last week thousands of volunteers have been celebrated at events across the UK to mark Volunteers’ Week. The annual campaign recognises the contribution volunteers make to our communities every day and with over 30,000 Volunteering Matters volunteers, we have seen first-hand the impact volunteering can have.

We know, through over 50 years of successful work, that investing in people through the power of volunteering makes a tangible difference to the volunteer, the beneficiary and society as a whole. Our volunteer programmes help to build stronger, more inclusive communities and improve the health and wellbeing of volunteer and beneficiary alike. In fact we wholeheartedly believe in the reciprocal nature of volunteering, that volunteers get as much from the experience as those they support.  But we want as many people as possible to enjoy these benefits – not just a lucky (some might say privileged) few.

Our recent review of volunteering, inequalities and barriers to volunteering, which was carried out by Leeds Beckett University found major variations in volunteering. While volunteering is seen as a way for individuals to boost their personal, social, financial and cultural resources in order to overcome exclusion, volunteering also requires access to some resources to take part. This means that those with less social, cultural and economic capital are less able to volunteer and gain the associated benefits. We will be exploring this further in a seminar with Leeds Beckett on the 15th of June.

So what should we be doing to address the barriers?  All too often organisations begin with the volunteering opportunity, and then try to find the person to fit it.  For volunteering to truly become something that makes a difference for all, do we as a sector need to work together to ensure that potential volunteers are better able to shape opportunities based on their interests and needs? Volunteering covers a whole range of activity, some of which is more detailed in its design, other types are more co-productive. There is an opportunity for everyone – conveying that is part of the solution.

We believe that there is a real need for the statutory sector and voluntary and community sector partners to offer and support volunteering in a more personal way. We aren’t advocating for everyone to have a volunteering opportunity tailor-made to them, but for organisations and the wider sector to remember and consider how many people can and could benefit from volunteering, and perhaps check our attitudes and recruitment practices accordingly. Are there requirements in place that aren’t actually necessary?  Could we make the training adaptable and / or less intensive?  With a slightly more flexible attitude towards expenses could we enable more people to take part?

There are of course many instances where volunteering roles require specific skills and parameters in order to deliver their aims. Take our work with families for example, we recruit, train and support volunteers to help vulnerable families and children, mentor young people leaving care and befriend children with challenging behaviour. With the support of our volunteers families improve parenting skills, reduce isolation and improve their overall quality of family life. This type of volunteering requires a commitment of time and willingness to receive ongoing training and support, but importantly it is not prescriptive. The volunteer’s own lived experience is fundamentally intrinsic to success of the support.

We sincerely believe that volunteering programmes need to be as adaptable as the individuals who fill them are diverse. Our Active Volunteering projects empower adults on the autism spectrum, with a learning disability, mental health condition or a physical disability to capitalise on their skills, interests and goals for the future. We believe that having any kind of disability should not prevent anyone from making a meaningful contribution through volunteering and this project aims to empower all to feel confident and able to do this.

So, this Volunteers’ Week we obviously want to thank our remarkable volunteers, but we also want to reaffirm our commitment to ensuring that everyone has the chance to transform their lives and the lives of others through the power of volunteering.