Debra Allcock Tyler: The real spirit of volunteering is a lot more than a few weeks at the Olympics

Our columnist says the Olympics were more like a street party than the real thing, which is not always fun

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

I am genuinely proud of this country's achievements with the Olympics and Paralympics, especially the volunteers. But I swear that the next person who tells me that the Games Makers exemplify the spirit of volunteering is going to be bopped on the head with the Directory of Social Change's Guide to Managing Volunteers.

As far as volunteering goes it was, in truth, a pretty easy gig. There is no doubt they worked very hard. But the spectators and general public were enthusiastic, happy and pleased to see the volunteers. They got (ahem) 'striking' outfits to wear. The sun mostly shone. They didn't have to commit for long - only a few weeks - and they got shed-loads of praise and plaudits for being awesome. Deservedly. They did a great job.

But that isn't typical of everyday volunteering. It was more like a big street party. I am not decrying how well they did it - far from it; but to compare that with the sort of volunteering that goes on day in and day out in this country is like saying watching the marathon on TV is like actually running the thing.

Does it matter what people's motives for volunteering are? Yes, I think it does. In my experience, sustained volunteering usually comes when individuals feel so committed to the cause they still turn up even when it isn't all that much fun - because everyday volunteering can often be far from fun.

There's nothing fun about being on the end of a phone trying to talk someone down from a ledge; getting up at 5am on a cold, wet January day to do your shift at the shelter; cleaning out the bedpans in the hospice, then comforting the family when their loved one finally passes; driving Mrs Patel to her weekly hospital appointment (in your own car), listening to her complain about how you were late; being spat at by a young offender you are trying to help rehabilitate; trying to help put back the pieces when a young, vulnerable mother has her children forcibly taken away from her because she is unable to care for them properly.

Everyday volunteering can be tears and tissues; tantrums and tough love; back-breaking, heart-breaking, brain-aching effort. For me, it's this sort of effort that exemplifies the spirit of volunteering in this country. So many of our citizens do it on a regular basis for no other reason than that it matters. Will the new Olympics and Paralympics volunteers go on to that sort of volunteering? I suspect most won't - although I would be so very happy to be proved wrong.

So government - for goodness sake, don't set up yet another blooming agency to foster the post-Olympic volunteering legacy. You don't understand volunteering and you don't know what you're talking about. If you've got the cash to splash, shower it on existing organisations such as Volunteering England and our hundreds of local volunteer centres, many of which have had to shrink or close. They do understand what volunteering is. That should be your Olympic volunteering legacy.

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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