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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

TFN is published by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh, EH3 6BB. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) is a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation. Registration number SC003558.

Volunteers or climate change ‘revolutionaries’? 

This opinion piece is 11 months old

Sarah Latto wonders whether it is time to rethink ‘volunteering’ and consider how we can best utilise people’s time to bring about real and lasting change

While researching our response to the Scottish government consultation on the Circular Economy Bill, published on 1 September, I was amazed and inspired to read about the important contribution of volunteers in this space.

There are so many interesting examples of people giving their time either generating intelligence about the impacts of climate change, or spreading the word about the changes we all need to make. 

This got me thinking about the many emerging volunteer roles, often related to climate change, that have system change at their core. Susan J. Ellis, the late American volunteering expert, made the insight that “no one gets paid to rebel.  All revolutions start with volunteers.” I love this quote and agree with Susan that people giving their time are often at the forefront of change, or ‘revolution’. But are we, as facilitators of volunteering, doing enough to encourage people to lead the charge? 

One important way that volunteers support the circular economy agenda is through the large-scale gathering of data, or citizen science. The Marine Conservation Society asks volunteers undertaking beach cleans to record the types of litter they are finding, building a body of data that was instrumental in the Scottish Government committing to a Deposit Return Scheme. Similarly, Scottish environmental charity Fidra supports The Great Nurdle Hunt, a global campaign to understand the scale of plastic pellet pollution in the oceans and to campaign for change with policy makers and industry associations. 

I’m keen to find out more about other forms of citizen science, particularly given that it’s seldom framed as volunteering. The Big Garden Birdwatch, the UKs biggest citizen science wildlife survey, is a good example. I’m sure I’m not alone in dutifully standing at the kitchen window with a cup of tea and a checklist each year, giving my time so that the RSPB can track how our feathered friends are faring, but I’ve never thought of this as volunteering. Should I? Should we? 

Passionate volunteers also support the fight against climate change by raising awareness of the growing emergency created by the amount of waste we generate, and this takes many forms. The Scottish Communities Climate Action Network supports almost 500 local and national projects which promote community-led action against climate change. My own wee village has its own, very active, climate action network – maybe yours does too? Other people use their time to make a more public statement about the climate emergency, the most notorious being Just Stop Oil campaigners. Regardless of your views on their methods, they are undoubtedly giving their time to try and bring about systems change. Are they volunteers too? 

There is growing evidence that volunteering participation is in decline, and that some volunteers are not quite as satisfied with their volunteering experiences. This is particularly true for young people in Scotland. We also know that the primary motivation for many volunteers is ‘wanting to improve things’ or ‘making a difference’. Perhaps it is time to rethink ‘volunteering’ and consider how we can best utilise people’s time to bring about real and lasting change? 

Volunteer Scotland is undertaking a research project over the coming months into what we have termed ‘transformational volunteering’. We’d love to hear your views on this, or any examples you might have of volunteer change-makers in your organisations or communities. 

Sarah Latto is policy officer at Volunteer Scotland