Oonagh Aitken: Volunteering can be a catalyst for social change - if all three sectors play a part

The sector must build long-standing collaboration with other charities and companies to ensure the future of volunteering opportunities

Oonagh Aitken
Oonagh Aitken

Volunteers' Week gives us an opportunity once a year to emphasise and celebrate the value of volunteering. We know from our own research, surveys and case studies about the tremendous reciprocal value of this practice: it transforms the lives of both the beneficiary and the volunteer.

At Volunteering Matters, we believe that volunteering improves health and wellbeing, combats social isolation, helps people of all ages gain confidence and resilience, and increases employability skills. In order for those opportunities to continue growing, the third sector will need to build long-standing collaborations and opportunities with other charities and private sector organisations in the future.

Our volunteers help some of the most vulnerable people, families and communities in the UK to improve their lives, gain agency and independence, and find their place in society. We believe everyone can be a volunteer – charities just have to find the right opportunities for them.

In order to create positive long-term impact through volunteering, being strategic is more vital than ever. These difficult financial times for charities should be seen as an opportunity for collaboration and partnership, working together to develop volunteering opportunities that help us all. At Volunteering Matters we are actively looking for charities that can deploy our full-time volunteers; young people from the UK, other EU countries and non-EU countries seeking to volunteer for between six months and a year.

Most of our young volunteers want to work with young people, older people or in the sports, heritage and environmental sectors, areas where there simply aren’t the opportunities for them. Here a clear opportunity could be developed through strategic partnerships with other charities, which could then benefit from their time and energy.

Charitable organisations additionally need to focus on working in closer collaboration with corporates. As a sector we must provide employee volunteering opportunities that align not just with people’s jobs, but also with their personal lives. In our experience, employee volunteers don’t want time-intensive activities, but will give up an hour to run a workshop for a charity using their professional skills or commit to being an online mentor once a week to make a huge difference in the life of a young person, for example. We need to be both more flexible and imaginative in delivering those options.

Happily, despite cuts to local authority funding, we are still working with lots of local authorities. We are proud that our volunteers are key to the delivery of care services, whether complementing the work of social services supporting young adults, providing additional support needs, being a mentor to a young person leaving care or providing a positive role model for a youngster at school.

Ultimately, matching the aspirations and skills of the volunteer with the right cause is key to what we deliver, and at the heart of this is making sure volunteers are happy. Volunteering improves the health of older people, a benefit that can’t be underestimated. This includes better general health, more access to company and social activities, and just enjoying the fact that they get out more.

Beneficiaries say exactly the same thing, and when their needs are met can often evolve into new volunteers themselves. Our Sporting Chance programmes focus on older men who have felt isolated for one reason or another. They join the programmes for the company and the sports activities, but soon find they are volunteering to run sports sessions and other activities.

The future of volunteering is healthy and thriving, but we need more of it, and public sector, corporate and voluntary sector collaboration might just be the magic ingredient.

Oonagh Aitken is chief executive of Volunteering Matters

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