NEWSMAKER: The mother of all volunteers - Elisabeth Hoodless CBE, Executive director, Community Service Volunteers

Emma Maier

Each year an estimated 22 million people offer their time, enthusiasm and expertise to help causes and projects across the UK. Some give up the odd weekend to help redecorate the local community centre or tidy up a public park, others commit more regularly by giving up an evening every week.

Elisabeth Hoodless has gone one step further - she has dedicated her entire working life to the growth and development of Community Service Volunteers.

As the 40th anniversary of her time at CSV approaches, Hoodless remains as fresh and enthusiastic as ever. In fact, it is clear from the excitement and passion that Hoodless exudes when she talks about CSV and its numerous projects that volunteering is her life-blood.

Indeed, such has been her involvement that volunteering has become an integral part of who she is. Even some of her earliest memories are of voluntary projects.

"I remember visiting prisoner of war camps during the Second World War and having prisoners come to our house for tea," she recalls. "I can only have been three or four at the time."

She later recollects the disappointment of being barred from visiting a voluntary project for a week as punishment for being naughty at school.

It therefore seems logical that Hoodless should go on to dedicate her life to volunteering. However, in reality it was more a chance of fate than a planned course of action.

Hoodless trained as a social worker and only applied for a job at CSV on a whim. The charity had been established a year earlier by Mora and Alec Dickenson, who had also founded Voluntary Service Overseas. The job was a two-year contract, and Hoodless had every intention of returning to social work when the time elapsed.

"I never believed that I would stay for that long," she says. "And to this day I am always on the lookout for new challenges."

But despite making an effort to stay abreast of new opportunities, Hoodless has never come across anything else that could offer her the same fulfilment or motivation as CSV.

"Volunteering goes much wider than just helping beneficiaries - it has really positive effects for those giving up their time too," she says.

"It reduces the blood pressure, lowers cholesterol and prolongs life, and I think that it is infectious - when you work with volunteers you benefit as well."

Next week CSV is holding a celebration at the Palace of Westminster to honour Hoodless and her 40 years of service. As this milestone approaches, she certainly has plenty to look back on and be proud of.

A lot has changed since she joined the charity as its first member of staff in 1963. Back then, CSV had an annual budget of only £2,000 and operated out of a single bedroom. Today, it boasts 700 staff, an annual budget of £39m and 120,000 volunteers.

Many of the innovations that Hoodless has pioneered and developed over the years have now been accepted as the norm, and some have even been adopted as government policy. The decision to introduce citizenship into the national curriculum in 2001 followed years of work by Hoodless, who first worked on a schools and community kit with CSV back in 1969. She targeted senior and retired volunteers in the late 1960s, long before the current Government hit on the idea after the last election, and her Citizen's Service Project was also taken up and later evolved into Millennium Volunteers.

However, it is not these high-profile successes that Hoodless cherishes most. "In 1963, when CSV was just finding its feet, being a volunteer was viewed with great suspicion," she says. "Now it is as normal as going to the pictures - you don't have to apologise or explain why you are a volunteer. That is how it should be and it is easy to take for granted, but it is a great achievement."

Hoodless credits some of CSV's success to her own experience of voluntary work. Among other things, she has been a juvenile court magistrate since 1969 and was also a member of Islington council between 1964 and 1968.

"My voluntary work has been hugely beneficial to me and has been of great value to CSV as well," she says. "Working at the council, I learned so much about the political system and how charities and organisations are perceived."

However, there have been challenges, not least being a trustee for the Government's ill-fated Experience Corps. When she's asked about it, her disappointment at its failure is clear. Hoodless says the corps was based on initiatives already running, such as CSV's Retired and Senior Volunteers Project, but was never integrated into the sector.

The initiative was slow to meet its targets and, last month, the Government announced that it would not renew its funding beyond March 2004. Hoodless is clearly saddened by the outcome but accepts that the corps, which was held in contempt by many of her peers, has little chance of revival. With characteristic optimism she adds: "It is very important that we move forward and do better next time."

She is far more bullish about CSV's prospects. "CSV must continue to be innovative, creative and to blaze new trails so that we can share our knowledge and expertise and engage more citizens," she says.

As for her own future, Hoodless is undecided. "I definitely won't be retiring this year," she says. But even if she does manage to tear herself away from the charity that she lives and breathes, Hoodless is unlikely to sit back and wait for her pension book to arrive. For her, retirement brings not only the chance to spend more precious time with her two granddaughters, but also a wealth of flexible new volunteering opportunities.


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