Karen Turnbull: Energetic, noisy, united - creating a youthful volunteer community

The Teenage Cancer Trust's director of people on how the charity nurtures a sense of connection

Karen Turnbull
Karen Turnbull

Back in 1990, the Teenage Cancer Trust was founded by two ambitious volunteers: Myrna and Adrian Whiteson. Since then, our team of volunteers has grown immensely but has remained at the heart of the charity. This National Volunteers’ Week, I have been reflecting on what makes Teenage Cancer Trust volunteers such a unique and dynamic force.

We are a young-hearted organisation, both literally (we’re celebrating our 30th anniversary next year) and in spirit, and we’re proud to have this reflected in our volunteers. Our volunteers are lively and driven and many are young (or young at heart). We have volunteers across all age ranges and recently reduced the minimum age to 13 for some opportunities so that younger teens can get involved.

Given that we are a youth organisation, it is important that we attract and retain this vital demographic. Many volunteers have a strong connection to the charity, whether they have had a cancer diagnosis themselves or a close friend has. By joining our volunteering community, they can play a new role in supporting us.

The recent report from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, Time Well Spent, said that 77 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds agreed volunteering made them feel less isolated – the highest percentage across all age groups. Feeling part of a community is therefore essential when it comes to retaining our volunteers. We believe in nurturing a sense of connection. Our running events, for example, aren’t just about our runners, but also about the hundreds of volunteers who form #TeamLegend, an identity they wear with pride.

Volunteering can also be a family affair and a fun way to spend time together while supporting a cause that means a lot to them. One young woman supported by Teenage Cancer Trust now regularly volunteers with her mum and dad. They love volunteering at our Royal Albert Hall gigs and events across London.

We recognise that our volunteering offers have to be quick, flexible and accessible to fit around people’s busy lives, but also offer opportunities for personal and professional development. This forms a key part of the volunteering journey: our office volunteers can work with various teams depending on their interests, and we also recruit volunteer photographers at fundraising events, people who are often at the very beginnings of their careers and gain the chance to build their portfolios.

These opportunities offer a valuable career boost for young people. Two of our office volunteers have gone on to become staff members at the Teenage Cancer Trust in the past year.

Finally, bringing volunteers together for events and celebrations is a huge part of sustaining that community. We give loyal volunteers and supporters the opportunity to support gigs and festivals across the country, including our iconic week at the Royal Albert Hall. Music is integral to the Teenage Cancer Trust and hugely important in young people’s lives, so our young volunteers jump at the chance to be a part of these incredible events.

I’ve been privileged to meet many of our inspiring volunteers over the past eight years. One stand-out moment was the 2018 London Marathon, when we were the charity of the year and had 250 volunteers in London cheering on #TeamLegend. Our volunteers really got into the spirit of things with loudspeakers, cow bells and pom poms, and we got fantastic feedback from runners who said the cheer points got them through the race. It really captured the spirit of our whole volunteering community – energetic, noisy and united.

Karen Turnbull is director of people at the Teenage Cancer Trust

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