Year of the Volunteer: Half way there ...

The Year of the Volunteer, launched by the Government last year on an unsuspecting voluntary sector, has already gone some way to achieving its goals. Indira Das-Gupta reports.

Year of the Volunteer may only have reached the half-way mark, but it is already being hailed a success by most of the organisations involved.

Given that the year is essentially one of the Government's bright ideas and the sector was given precious little time to prepare, it could easily have turned out very differently.

"The first we heard of Year of the Volunteer was in Gordon Brown's Budget last year - then there was silence," admits Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, executive director of CSV. "I contacted the Home Office to see what was happening.

They asked us if we would like to help to organise it and said the budget was £1m. Then they gave us three days to come up with some ideas about how it should work. Despite the rush, we have stuck to that original plan."

One of the key elements of the original plan was to give each month a theme that would keep the momentum going - starting with January, which was designated 'health month'. After the plan was submitted, CSV was met with yet more silence. Hoodless says: "I called again and they said they would double the budget if we would work together with Volunteering England. So we talked to them and made sure our proposals were complementary."

CSV's £1m budget was broken down to give £38,000 for each of the themed months, with several different charities involved in organising events around each theme. It is this, according to Hoodless, that has been one of the most positive outcomes of the year. She explains: "We have seen an enormous degree of co-operation between agencies that would normally be competitors."

The real purpose of the year, however, is to recruit more volunteers.

In this year's Budget, the Chancellor committed himself to securing funding for a million new volunteers, and in 2002 the Treasury said it wanted to increase voluntary and community activity by 5 per cent by 2006. So far, 120,000 people have visited the Year of the Volunteer website, 5,000 of whom registered to volunteer through it.

Partner organisations have also reported a success. Age Concern's Big Knit event in March, which was older people's month, generated 1,000 phone calls from people volunteering their time. BTCV was one of the main organisations involved in environment month in May and felt it was such a success that it has already committed itself to running another one next year.

Chief executive Tom Flood says: "We organised a 'save the bluebells' event at Kew Gardens. We got 350 volunteers and had to close the list. Of those, 61 per cent had never volunteered before."

Recruiting more volunteers is one thing, but if the sector can't harness their enthusiasm by matching them with the right opportunities, then they are unlikely to stay.

Hoodless admits: "In terms of opening more doors for volunteers, I would describe it as 'work in progress'. Too many still leave after their first experience because they don't feel appreciated. We are not very good at thanking in this country - that is why we will be awarding 2,005 medals and have produced special thank-you cards."

It is too early to say whether a significant number of volunteers recruited as a direct consequence of the year are new to the sector, but connecting with traditionally harder-to-reach groups and people who have previously considered volunteering must be a priority if the year is to leave a legacy.

There has been a steady stream of coverage in both national and local media, and the initiative has been promoted in several unusual places, such as on lottery tickets and on table-top leaflets at Starbucks. But does the average member of the public even know it's Year of the Volunteer?

Ben Furner, A PR expert, is not convinced. "I don't think the year has been exploited as well as it could have been," he says. "The very name Year of the Volunteer is not to me the most effective way to capture people's imagination, because we are inundated with themed days, weeks and years."

But Jane Asscher, managing partner at 23red, which is involved in signing up corporate partners to the year, couldn't disagree more. "One of the potential barriers we faced was a lack of urgency," she says. "If you are talking about an environmental disaster for example, there is a very clear sense of urgency. But making 2005 the Year of the Volunteer has helped overcome that because we have just 12 months in which to achieve our goals."

Qualitative research conducted for the Home Office shows that awareness of the year increased from 8 per cent of adults in January to 20 per cent of adults in May 2005. Although 20 per cent is a considerable improvement on the start of the year, it is still only a fifth of the population.

But the Billion Minutes campaign, which encourages people to register their time, aims to take the campaign to the next level by targeting the mass media.

One of the biggest challenges the year still faces is how to improve its image, which even Hoodless describes as "worthy". Asscher says that 23red has attempted to address this by linking up with organisations that have widespread appeal. "Getting well-established brands to disseminate the message can give the year more credibility than if it came straight from government," she says.

Furner believes the year's organisers could have broadened their appeal still further by emphasising the volunteering aspect of this year's other big charity campaign, Make Poverty History. He says: "I think the organisers have missed a trick by not trying to cash in on the huge success of Make Poverty History - all the people who are planning to travel to Edinburgh are volunteers, and Bob Geldof is probably the most famous volunteer there is."

Even if 2005 becomes the year that volunteering throws off its 'worthy' image once and for all and large numbers of new volunteers are successfully recruited, the year is essentially a starting point. As Tom Flood from BTCV says: "The Government needs to realise that we have created a demand for volunteering; now we need to build on it, and for that we need more support."

FROM APPRECIATION TO REJECTION: Third Sector staff share their experiences of volunteering

GEORGINA LOCK

Charity: Comic Relief

Role: Media and communications

What it was like: "With experience of working in eastern and southern Africa, I was interested in Comic Relief. I wanted to learn more about a variety of charities and thought volunteering at a grant-making charity that gives money to projects throughout Africa and the UK would be the perfect opportunity.

"I hoped to help out in the press or communications department, but made it clear that although I realised I might not be able to write, I would be happy to help out in any way that was wanted.

"I was working on a freelance basis at the time, so I could only volunteer quite random hours around my paid work. Comic Relief was very understanding.

"Having sent in my CV, I was asked to go along for an informal interview and then to join a communications meeting to brainstorm ideas and stories that would be interesting to journalists.

"I was taken on during February in the run-up to Red Nose Day 2005. I was immediately given a bunch of case studies to choose from and to write up as press releases. I ended up mainly working from home, writing press reports based on case studies written by the communication officers from interviews with those helped by Comic Relief-funded projects.

"I found the experience really interesting. The people were welcoming and seemed pleased to have some fresh ideas. It was fascinating, not to mention emotional, to hear about some of the projects.

"I was amazed at how easy it was to get into - I was expecting to do press cuttings or make tea.

"Comic Relief offered to pay my expenses. I was thanked by email for my work and asked to visit one of the projects I had written about."

INDIRA DAS-GUPTA

Charity: Chance UK, Friends United, CSV

Role: Mentoring, press work

What it was like "I contacted Chance UK about becoming a mentor and was told I had to attend training sessions over three consecutive Saturdays. I wasn't able to do this because of other commitments. I explained my predicament and asked if I could split the training over two months, but was told that this wasn't possible.

"I went on to speak to several different volunteering organisations, but kept getting pointed in the wrong direction until one suggested I contact a charity called Friends United. It took a few weeks for the application pack to arrive and when it did I discovered that they wanted a commitment of at least several hours a week for two years, which I wasn't prepared to give. After hours of research I was demotivated and stopped looking.

"I had a more positive experience when I volunteered for CSV's press office. The work was interesting and useful because at the time I was thinking of trying to get a job in that area. But I felt a bit overworked at times, given that I wasn't being paid. While I was there I heard one person complain that they didn't have time to reply to all the letters - the implication was that they were doing the volunteers a favour, not the other way round.

"I think charities often underestimate how hurtful it can be for an individual who has offered to give up their time for free to be rejected."

DOMINIC WOOD

Charity: Greenpeace

Role: A day polling Londoners about the increasing use of 4x4s in the capital

What it was like: "I telephoned volunteer co-ordinator Blake Ludwig, who sounded appreciative and told me he needed a man for his team of eight, because he already had seven women.

"He emailed the details to me within 15 minutes, including a link to a good map. He even advised me on clothing (fingerless gloves would allow us to grip the pen in the frosty February conditions).

"The day itself passed off without any problems. The session began with a summary of the Greenpeace position - including the justification for raising the congestion charge for 4x4s and other 'gas-guzzling' vehicles to £20. Blake was good at putting the quieter ones among us at ease in the face of the mean and moody shoppers of Oxford Street: 'Approach them as you would a friend and tell them you're not raising funds.'

"We worked in pairs - Blake regularly scooted around each pair and introduced an element of competition by saying how well others were doing.

"When I spotted EastEnders actor Adam Woodyatt, I hoped for a response, but was dismissed with a 'no thanks, mate'. Nevertheless, my group polled 50 people in three hours (half the number polled by the experienced campaigner who joined us).

"At the end of the day, all volunteers were verbally thanked and travelcard costs were reimbursed for cash without hassle. No thanks came in writing, but I'm sure they will contact me when they want my services again.

"Given my performance compared with that of the experienced campaigner, I would give myself only seven out of 10 for effort; but the voluntary action team deserved an eight or a nine."

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