Peter Stanford: My resolution for 2017 - get out more

Our columnist's head was buzzing after he spent some time at the International Volunteering Day

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

You need to get out more. If you have teenage children, especially of the stroppy variety, the phrase will be all too familiar. Coming home at 2.30am is too late, I try to tell my 17-year-old. You need to get out more, comes the reply.

It was echoing in my head recently in another context. One of my occasional frustrations with the trustee role is that, too often, it is about sitting round a table in an anonymous boardroom and working down an agenda – studying paper, not people. Yes, you can invite outsiders to attend and make presentations, and even try a bit of interaction with the trustees, but it can still feel a bit detached from the everyday context.

In some ways, that is good. It gives distance and encourages cool heads, but perhaps we need to work a little harder to achieve a better balance. So my resolution for 2017 is to get out more and experience what is happening at the coalface. Not to interfere with the day-to-day running of the charity, but just to see, feel and hear how the work actually affects lives and, in that corny old phrase, makes a difference.

So I accepted an invitation to spend a day at City Hall in London at the International Volunteering Day, run by Team London, the Mayor of London's initiative to promote more Londoners to volunteer. They had tried a long list of better-known comperes for the day, and ended up with me.

There were formal things to be done. London has just ended its year as European City of Volunteering and was handing the gauntlet to Sligo in Ireland for 2017.

The event was an opportunity to exchange good practice, and pitfalls, with delegates from previous host cities – Lisbon and Barcelona – and the 2018 venue, Aarhus in Denmark. Brexit might mean Brexit, but there is still much we can gain for European cooperation and the sharing of ideas.

Then there were the various workshops, where a range of organisations working with volunteers came together. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations' delegate highlighted the importance of language and gently ticked us off for talking about "using" volunteers. "Engaging" is better. I can be sceptical of tripping over ourselves to chant PC language, but he had a point.

There was also talk about how far volunteers could and should replace state provision. The case of libraries came up. Yes, without volunteers, many more would be closing, but are not reading and books fundamental to the health of a society? And will the availability of volunteers let the state off the hook in an area where arguably it has an obligation? No firm conclusions emerged, but food for thought.

I came out with my head buzzing. How many of us can say the same at the end of a trustee meeting? I'm not talking about doing something similar every day, week or even month, but as trustees let's all try in 2017 to put ourselves in a place where we will learn something new - and challenging. Get out more.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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