Paul Reddish reflects on Volunteers' Week and examines what must happen now
Volunteers' Week was a much-needed moment to share and celebrate the incredible contribution of every person who gives their time, skills and compassion to support their neighbours, community and country. It is important each year, but never more so than this year as we reflected on the vital role volunteers have played in supporting communities through the pandemic.
People have supported their communities in a myriad of ways: delivering vital food and prescriptions to people isolating or shielding; driving people to hospital appointments; befriending isolated people with regular calls and Zoom groups; volunteering in emergency departments, and now tens of thousands of volunteers are supporting the vaccination drive across the country. Many people who volunteered during the pandemic to support their communities previously volunteered in other roles; many are completely new to volunteering.
It’s important to take time to thank all these people and more. Many people provide vital support to their neighbours or others but wouldn’t think of themselves as ‘volunteers’. To me, volunteering spans informal acts of neighbourliness to the uniformed, clinically trained volunteers and everything in between. Volunteers’ Week was about thanking each and every one of those people. This may well include you – if so, thank you.
Many people ask me, what now for volunteering? How can we make the most of the increased interest in volunteering from Covid? These are important questions and Volunteers’ Week provided us with an important moment to look forward and build on the political and public interest and support for volunteering.
Whilst the nature of the incredible volunteer response to the pandemic has brought a much welcomed and needed focus on the importance of grassroots, hyper-local, often informal volunteering, there is still an important role for national government, in unlocking volunteering opportunities, and supporting schemes and approaches to be truly inclusive and thrive. Looking at barriers to volunteering and what prevents people in communities of identity and place from becoming involved and reaping the rewards of volunteering personally and within their communities, many of these issues are structural, and exist everywhere.
It makes sense therefore to have a systemic response. We need to make it easy for everyone to volunteer their time, skills and energy to causes and issues that they believe in, from tackling climate change to loneliness. This would have huge benefits for individuals volunteering as well as the communities or issues they support. If the UK government is serious about ‘levelling up’ communities, they need to recognise that we need to ensure equal opportunities to participate in volunteering across all communities, and to see the potential for volunteers in communities to lead the change they need locally.
Volunteering is a spectrum from informal to highly regulated and everything in between and offers opportunities for individuals and communities to benefit from community action. The current moment, and the focus on levelling up across the nation, is the perfect time for UK Government and us all across volunteering organisations in Scotland to look at how we can ensure these opportunities are open to all, and to tackle the common barriers faced across this spectrum, to enable volunteering of all kinds to truly flourish.
A national conversation about what is needed to address barriers to volunteering faced by people across communities of place and identity and to share learning and positive outcomes that may be relevant and useful across communities is already taking place. The Volunteering for All Framework, which was developed by the Scottish Government and partners before the pandemic in 2018 is helping provide a space for these conversations. This wider group involved in the framework are already working with Scottish Government, focusing our efforts on addressing the structural and systemic issues that prevent people from being able to volunteer, and where organisations can hope to strike the right balance between when to get involved, and when to get out of the way.
As these conversations continue in the coming weeks and months ahead, we welcome others to consider what role we can all play in collaborating as a sector and collectively addressing these issues to enable positive outcomes.