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Will Volunteers Always be There?

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Will Volunteers Always be There?

by Denise Hayward, Chief Executive, Volunteer Now

I have been working in volunteering for over 20 years and I can not remember a time when volunteering was so challenging.  Every day organisations are telling me of the challenges they are facing to recruit and retain volunteers.

On the upside, I am also hearing stories of how volunteers are transforming lives and continuing to make our communities better – the line dancing group recently set up by a group of older people in Belfast, the football clubs, the Sunday school teachers delighted to see the children returning again for a new term.  However, in the middle of the brilliant work being done there are signs of strain.

I have asked some other people to tell us their stories.

“My name is Dean Nutt and I have worked for Larne YMCA for the past 13 years coming on placement from UUJ Community Youth Work course and staying on after my initial 10 weeks to volunteer and then into paid employment.  I have worked my way up from working one night a week to 10 years ago becoming the leader in charge on a 24hr contract to more recently becoming their full time senior youth worker and now the Interim Director of Operations.

In my time at Larne YMCA, I have seen a big shift in volunteering with people moving away from it due to many reasons.  Some of these reasons have been the lack of physical reward for volunteers, pressure on home life, unsociable hours and most recently the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID and now the cost of living crisis has meant that people have had to return to the paid work environment to support everyday household costs but also to ensure that with the upcoming winter that any fuel prices pressure can be absorbed. This has meant that volunteering has become something of an afterthought to people however community organisations such as mine need volunteers now more than ever to support the work that we do and volunteering is at the heart of our work.”

Alejandra Arcila is a young person centred at Greenhill YMCA and is dedicated to providing quality leadership and programmes to assist young people in their physical, social, mental and spiritual development.  Greenhill YMCA provides opportunity and encouragement for individuals and groups, within a safe and supportive atmosphere, to broaden their experiences and take on new challenges in pursuit of a new and deeper learning.  Alejandra says,

“All of this is possible because of our volunteers.  Our volunteers are one of our biggest assets and they have a special place in our hearts.  No matter their background, with our dedicated training with professionals they learn to lead fun and active sessions, have a blast, learn new skills and make unforgettable memories.  COVID hasn’t stopped our volunteers from coming as this is a challenge that has highlighted the need of the outdoors in young people’s life.

However, new immigration regulations have had a massive impact on our volunteering programme.  For European volunteers our programme has a high cost that most of the times they cannot cover.  This has compelled us to think outside the box and reach out to volunteers from the UK/Ireland as well but has also opened our eyes to many brilliant candidates from the global south and further places that keep making Greenhill a diverse and intercultural family.  This is an ongoing challenge and we are working hard on making sure our volunteering programme meets the needs of our volunteers, whether they are local or international.”

Paschal McKeown is Charity Director with Age NI, her story underlines the importance of volunteering and the amazing impact volunteers are making.

“As the leading charity for older people in Northern Ireland, Age NI’s vision is ‘a world where we can thrive as we age’.  As many of us now live longer lives, Age NI’s work is centred around supporting older people to make the very best of later life.

Last year, we had almost 85,000 direct engagements with older people across our care and wellbeing services, ranging from one-to-one emotional and practical support, through to peer group sessions, and long-term care.  We handled over 10,000 calls to our Advice service and helped put over one million pounds of unclaimed benefits into the pockets of older people.

Volunteers are at the heart of what we do and we simply couldn’t do all of this without them.  It is only with the amazing commitment, skills and support of over 680 volunteers that we are able to reach, engage and make such an incredible difference to the lives of thousands of older people.

Our volunteers come from a range of backgrounds, but the common characteristic that binds them is empathy and an ability to connect with older people.  Many are female, aged under 60, although a significant number are 60+, including 9 volunteers who are over 80 years old!

As a volunteer with Age NI, you become an extension of our team and our caring ethos.  In return, we aim to provide a warm, welcoming and supportive environment.  Every volunteer has a named contact, and we provide training and ongoing support and supervision appropriate to their role. In our last survey, 96% said they enjoyed their role, 90% said they feel valued, and 93% said they were satisfied with the training and support provided.

Age NI has a wide variety of volunteer roles and opportunities available to match the personal interests and time someone might have to offer – whether this is by chatting to an older person on the phone, supporting fun activities at one of our day centres, volunteering in an Age NI shop, or supporting our fundraising activities and events.

Listening to older people and finding out what matters most to them shapes our service delivery and campaigning priorities.  Playing a unique role in this is our Consultative Forum, a team of up to 40 volunteers.  Their purpose is to identify the needs and concerns of older people and advise and challenge Age NI on policy and our strategic direction.

Like other voluntary organisations, our Board of Trustees are all volunteers, providing strategic direction, advice and governance support.

During the pandemic, we watched in dismay as levels of isolation, loneliness, and anxiety rapidly escalated.  Thanks to an incredible network of volunteers, we were able to launch a new service, Check in and Chat, with the support of the Commissioner for Older People.

Our volunteers transitioned from face to face to telephone support, providing a weekly telephone call to an older person – often providing the only contact they had from one week to the next.  For the volunteers, this also proved to be very personally rewarding.  One said, “I’ve found I get so much more out of my weekly chats, the same if not more than the person I’m calling.”  Another said it was “the most rewarding thing I’ve done.”

For Age NI and age sector networks and groups the pandemic brought about new, innovative ways to involve and support volunteers in the work we do.  The step down of services and activities along with the need to keep loved ones safe meant, however, that older people were no longer able to play their part as active volunteers in their local community.  For many this withdrawal from volunteering also meant a loss of connection and a sense of purpose.  There is some evidence that groups which provided opportunities for older people to come together, often run by older volunteers for older people, have not returned.

As we emerge from restrictions and seek to rebuild community and volunteer activation, there will be a number of significant challenges for the age sector.  This includes the effects of the pandemic on older people and how our society now operates, the loss of experienced, long standing volunteers, along with spiralling energy and living costs, which affects both volunteers and organisations.  In responding to these challenges, it will be more important than ever to engage with volunteers about what works for them and to try out new ways to involve, recruit and value the contributions they make to civic society and to improving the lives of thousands of people across Northern Ireland.

For Age NI, volunteers will continue to be an integral part of who we are and how we engage and support older people.  We know – because they tell us – that volunteering has also made a difference to their lives.  We will continue to rely on the kindness and generosity of people who want to help and contribute to our work. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to every single one of them.”

So, you can see that volunteers are continuing to make a difference despite the struggles with cost of living and bureaucracy like visas, charity registration and Access NI processes.  However, the pandemic has closed the chapter on volunteering for many older people and we need to focus our efforts to recruit a new generation of volunteers to continue to support our community life.  We need to make sure that the route into volunteering is as easy and flexible as it can be.  As Alejandra says,  we need to “think outside the box” and adapt and change if volunteers are to continue to be the great resource they have always been for us all.

Volunteer Now launched our Pathway to Volunteering plan on the 11 October, click here to download it.

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