I was put off volunteering at the age of 15. I volunteered on Sundays at the local old people's home, as it was called, although it was actually a hospice. My duties were basic: cleaning rooms, emptying bedpans and occasionally reading to the residents. I did it because my best friend at the time, Sue Trotter (nee Billis) had a strong moral conscience and felt we ought to. And it got me out of having to attend Sunday mass.
I didn't last long. The incident that killed my altruistic spirit involved an elderly gentleman who had, with joyful enthusiasm, smeared his room with the contents of his bedpan. I spent more than an hour cleaning it up. It was inspected by a member of staff who I overhead complaining to her manager that "the short, tubby girl who never stops talking" had "missed a bit".
This relatively small setback was the final straw for me. I'm sorry to say that the staff member concerned was fairly typical. None of the staff ever bothered to learn my name. I never at any stage felt that what I did mattered or was valued by anyone - apart from the residents, who did seem to appreciate what we did and who, I might add, always made an effort to remember my name.
Have things changed? In our Directory of Social Change e-newsletter last month, Ed Miliband, the Minister for the Third Sector, talked about some of the Government's initiatives to increase the number of volunteers. The Government, he said, was trying to support volunteering in a number of ways. "A programme called GoldStar is spreading best practice," he said. "Volunteering for All tackles barriers for certain groups, such as those with no qualifications or with long-term disabilities. Youth-led organisation v is promoting volunteering to young people. And we give long-term unrestricted grants to organisations that can help promote volunteering, such as Volunteering England and the Community Foundation Network."
The Government believes there is a problem in our society with what it calls 'active citizenship'. Being an active citizen is not only about having a view on how society should change, but being actively involved in changing it. Clearly, volunteering is part of that agenda, but is it really the job of government to solve the problem?
I actually don't believe that this is government's problem. It's ours, and our call to action is focused in the wrong direction - externally at government, rather than internally at ourselves.
In researching the issue of retaining volunteers, I heard the same story over and over again: volunteers feel unappreciated and voiceless. One man said he had written to a local charity offering his services and had received no reply. When he phoned to check they had received his letter, they said "he wasn't the sort of person they were looking for". Why didn't they bother explaining to him why he wasn't suitable, or even express their thanks for him volunteering his services in the first place?
Have we got so caught up in the idea of incentives and 'bribes' that we've forgotten that the best way to retain and attract people is to treat those you've got really well? Ask yourself: do you really care about your volunteers? And if you do, how do you demonstrate it?
I have five simple tips on managing volunteers, any one of which would probably have kept me at the hospice. First, communicate with them - regularly and face to face. Let them know what's going on with the charity generally, not just their bit of it.
Second, involve them in planning - they're often your front line and they probably know your service users better than you do. Third, solve their problems - don't ignore their complaints or difficulties.
Fourth, honour their contribution publicly as well as privately - demonstrate visibly how much they matter. And fifth, for goodness sake remember their names - you'd be amazed how many volunteers say they're not sure the more 'important' people in the charity know who they are.
The Government could do one really helpful thing. Ed, your last act as our minister could have been to amend legislation so that employers are required to allow staff reasonable time off either to volunteer or to be a trustee, just as they are required to give people time off for jury service. Let's face it, we're not talking about a huge number of hours.
- This article is based on Debra Allcock Tyler's new book, The Pleasure and the Pain: The No-Fibbing Guide to Working with People, published by the DSC at £14.95.
'It would be great if more people volunteered but I don't think they will'
- Marie Peacock, a volunteer for Home Start
I have been volunteering for various organisations since the 80s, beginning with Age Concern. I do it because I feel communities aren't as supportive or cohesive as they should be and volunteering can help to solve that in some small way.
I now volunteer for Home Start. I got involved with the charity after seeing an advert in the library appealing for help. It's a family-support charity, which I like because it helps families at home, whereas most government initiatives seem to be aimed at getting children into children's centres.
When I started volunteering, there weren't nearly as many checks and forms to complete. Back then, I wasn't really monitored or supervised. It's much better regulated now, which is good. I feel the volunteering sector has come of age over the past few years; it's so much more professional.
However, it has become dreadfully difficult to secure funds in recent years. There are so many hoops to jump through and people want to fund only special projects rather than core costs. Consequently, a lot of charities have to diversify unnecessarily to get funding and waste a lot of their time filling in forms.
The most rewarding thing about volunteering is making a difference to someone who otherwise would not be able to get the help they should. The most challenging thing is feeling you could do more. There is so much to do and you can do only so little.
It would be great if more people volunteered, but I don't think they will. We are all so busy these days that there are fewer and fewer people whose personal circumstances allow them to volunteer. We live in a work culture, which makes it difficult for people to get involved more.
'I get a kick out of supporting people'
Michael Boyes volunteers for Victim Support and Witness Service
The Sussex branch I volunteer for, Lewes and Hove, is one of dozens across the country. My role is to take care of prosecution and defence witnesses when they are giving evidence at trials.
I welcome them to the court and show them around. Some of them like to go to court before the trial, so we show them the empty room and talk them though the procedure.
I got into it by chance. I used to live in Rochdale - I went to an open day at the local police station and the charity had a stand there. I hadn't volunteered before, and I thought it sounded like a good idea.
I do it one day a week, from 9am to 4.30pm, because I am retired. The work is interesting and varied.
Some of it isn't enjoyable, but I get a kick out of supporting people and knowing I am helping. I think the greatest challenge is trying to convince people who are really nervous that it isn't as bad as they think. A lot of people are expecting it to be like one of those Judge Judy-style trials on American TV. It's not like that - it's a mundane, pedestrian process. Once it's over they always say it wasn't as bad as they thought.
I think the criminal justice system is unwieldy because there needs to be a greater emphasis on the needs of witnesses. They can't rely on volunteers. More publicity is needed to emphasise that volunteers are a necessity. There is a common misconception that we are cheap labour, and people have to be told that this is not the case. However, I would recommend volunteering to anyone.
'It could be advertised more'
Anthea Scotland volunteers for Hammersmith and Fulham Volunteer Centre
I'm a student doing a course on health studies and part of the course requires me to do some volunteer work. Someone gave me a leaflet about the Hammersmith and Fulham Volunteer Centre, so I decided I would do it with them. That was back in March this year. I have to do 10 hours a week, spread out over two shifts of five hours each.
I enjoy it because I get to meet people and gain new skills. Sometimes I work on reception and do administrative work; on other occasions the centre holds events that I help out at. During Volunteers' Week I helped promote volunteering outside Superdrug in a shopping centre.
I find volunteering rewarding, but it could be advertised more. I didn't know anything about it until I started at the volunteer centre. But they need to advertise in the right places if they want to appeal to more young people, otherwise they just won't know about it. I'm sure more would get involved if they knew about it. My friends know I do it, but they don't know any more about it.
I'm supposed to be at the centre for three months, but I think I will stay longer, probably through the summer. I would like to do something similar in the future too. People say you don't have time, but at the moment I also have a part-time job at the weekends at Argos, so I don't think that should stop people.
'I do it because I completely believe in the cause'
Aisha Hannibal volunteers at Simultaneous Policy
This is a global organisation that encourages governments to cooperate to solve worldwide problems, such as global warming or poverty.
I work on stalls at events and conferences to publicise the organisation. It usually works out at once or twice a month, but it is really just as and when. I live in Brighton, so I usually attend events here or in London so that I cut down on travel for environmental reasons.
I like the fact that volunteering is about talking to different people. The main challenge for me is explaining a new idea in a way that will help people engage with it. People want things explained in a concise way, and it's difficult to do this without a lot of extra publicity.
I have contact with a national coordinator by email and phone, but at events I'm managed by a project outreach coordinator. I also manage volunteers in my paid job, so I see both sides. People volunteer for all kinds of reasons, so they have specific needs. I don't do it to feel valued, or to meet people. I do it because I completely believe in the cause. Some people need to feel more appreciated because they don't feel as strongly.
Members of the public don't always appreciate us. They tend to think "you are only a volunteer and don't have much authority".
People on benefits lack self-esteem, and volunteering can help them. I think they should be made to volunteer, or strongly encouraged, to qualify for benefits.