When the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, Locog, started recruiting volunteers to help run London 2012, it was clear it was building up a valuable database – a list of more than 70,000 people ready and willing to volunteer. Add to that the contact details of people applying to buy tickets for the games, and the result was a database of more than five million people.
Combined with the experience of managing 78,000 Olympics Games Makers and Ambassadors, the database was seen as potential gold dust by a government intent on driving up volunteering levels in the UK. In the summer of 2012, the Office for Civil Society invested £2.1m in a new charity called Join In, with a view to making the most of the Olympic legacy.
Alice Hunt (right), the charity’s new chief executive, says that one of its roles will be to help organisations learn from the Olympics and improve their own offerings to volunteers in the hope that they will come back for more. "We’ll be talking about what worked to get people to volunteer and what we did to encourage a quality experience," she says.
Join In’s first venture was to encourage people to volunteer with local sports clubs during a weekend between the Olympics and the Paralympics. This year, it is planning to do the same, taking advantage of the Locog database. This database is now controlled by Sport England, but Join In and Team London, the volunteering arm of the Mayor’s office, have an agreement that their messages can be included in Sport England newsletters sent to those on the database.
Last month, a report on the Olympics by the Public Accounts Committee of MPs warned that the government had no clear plan for capitalising on the legacy of the games, which was in danger of "fizzling out". This drew a rebuttal from the Cabinet Office. Last week Join In announced that it and Team London would use part of a new £1.5m grant from the Big Lottery Fund for an event in July in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, just before it opens to the public, that will give priority to last year’s volunteers and "encourage them to continue their volunteering journey".
But Hunt wants to take things further in the future by expanding the reach of Join In to volunteering activities other than sport. To explore this, she has invited some of the country’s biggest charities, including St John Ambulance, Barnardo’s, the British Red Cross, Age UK and Cancer Research UK, to a meeting on 13 May.
The early response to Join In from existing volunteering organisations has been wary. Why has a new organisation been set up, they ask, when the serviceable network of existing organisations is drastically underfunded? Debbie Usiskin, vice-chair at the Association of Volunteer Managers, says she welcomes the creation of an organisation to encourage more volunteering, but thinks it would be more helpful for the government to invest in existing services, where there is already a wealth of expertise. "I don’t think we really need new organisations," she says. "What we need is proper investment in the organisations that already exist."
Some charities invited to next week’s meeting have said their diaries are full. But Paul Breckell, chief executive of Action on Hearing Loss, says he is going because volunteers have become increasingly important to his charity and he wants to know how Join In can make volunteering more accessible to people with disabilities. "There are some really positive lessons to be learned from the experience of managing volunteers for the games, but there are also some differences to note," he says. "Recruiting people for a high-profile, one-off event is different from regular, continuing volunteering on a week-by-week basis. What I hope is that we learn the positive lessons from 2012 without creating more infrastructure."
Join In’s invitation to next week’s event says that there is "some concern about our role" within the sector, but Hunt says Join In has no intention of competing with existing organisations or becoming a general volunteering agency. "We’re not trying in any way to duplicate organisations that are out there and have been delivering volunteering for decades," she says. "We’re trying to find a way of complementing what’s out there. I suppose it’s about building on existing infrastructure and expertise rather than trying to go in and say ‘you’re not doing it right, so we’re going to do it better’."
Justin Davis Smith, who was chief executive of Volunteering England before it merged with the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and is now the NCVO’s executive director for volunteering, is a trustee of Join In. He sees the Locog database as a tool that can be used to encourage people to do more in their communities. "Lots of people have come to us to say we would love to get the people on the database involved," he says. "Join In now has access to that database and we’re thinking of strategies for working with local groups so that they can get in contact with those groups of people. We’re working on a communications strategy.
"Although Join In started with the aim of capturing the games, I know some people have said they are concerned it is going to branch out and become a general volunteering agency," he says. "I definitely wouldn’t support that. It’s a big task to prove our worth in the sport world. What we have done so far is just a drop in the ocean. Most of our work this year will focus on sport and community groups. Once we’ve cracked that, there will be a question about the value Join In can add elsewhere."
Davis Smith says local and national volunteer organisations are struggling with budget cuts. He believes Join In could have a role in lobbying the government for more funding. "London 2012 was so successful," he says. "There was a huge amount of investment and a huge amount of support for volunteer managers. It’s a great ambition to recreate that, but we can’t get it on the cheap. Join In has a responsibility to bring home that message."
Joe Saxton, co-founder of sector consultancy nfpSynergy and an experienced observer of volunteering, questions why a new body has been set up when there are already volunteering organisations around the country struggling to make ends meet. He agrees that access to the Sport England database gives it an advantage, but says this could be overestimated.
"If there were 10 stepping stones towards getting someone to be an active, long-term volunteer, then I would say that access to the database would be one of those," he says.
"But the database is useful, without a doubt. If they got 1 per cent of the people on it to say ‘yes, I’m interested’, I would say that was a fantastic achievement. If they then managed to convert one-third of those people into volunteers, I would say that was pretty good going too."