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On volunteering…

I was speaking to a friend in Russia recently about youth work.   “There’s something about you Westerners that puzzles me,” she said, “What is it with your fixation on volunteering?   Why don’t you expect to receive proper payment for all the time you spend working with young people? ”

It’s an interesting question.   I can’t imagine my life without volunteering.   As a young Scout, I saw service as a necessary (if not very exciting) part of the programme.  I remember a number of cold and wet afternoons clearing rubbish from the Stroudwater Navigation.   At fourteen, I visited an old people’s home regularly for about six months, talking to residents and drinking tea with them, whilst I worked for my Duke of Edinburgh Bronze Award.   I’ve been a volunteer leader in Scouting since I was 17, kick-started by the service element of my DofE Gold and since then an activity that, in many ways, defines me as a person to others.   I’ve been a school governor, served on boards as a trustee of several charities, spent my summer holidays working on community projects, delivered flyers for my chosen political party, have occasionally cooked lunch in a soup kitchen, raised money for good causes.    I don’t see myself particularly as a “do gooder”.   I know lots of people who would share a similar profile and many who give much more of their free time than I do to their volunteering activities.
But why do I volunteer?   Part of the reason is because I just believe that I should.   Whether that’s a result of my Judaic Christian upbringing or post Colonial guilt, I cannot say.  But I would feel uncomfortable if I were not doing some kind of volunteering during a week.    I recognise that part of the reason is also that I do, genuinely, want to leave the world a little better than when I entered it, and volunteering helps me to go some way towards achieving this.    The major reason, though, is that I enjoy volunteering and benefit personally from it.    I sometimes find it immensely frustrating, but most of the time I just love it.    I have seen countries I would never otherwise have visited, met people I would never otherwise have met.   I have developed self-confidence, grown in self-esteem, learned new skills, widened my horizons.  Indeed, I recognise that I owe my professional career to the various experiences I have had through my volunteering. 
It feels rather egocentric to admit that a major reason for doing what I do is because it does me good rather than that it benefits others, but I’m comfortable with that selfishness.  Indeed, I find myself doubting the motives of those who tell me that the only reason they volunteer is ‘for the kids’ or ‘ to save the planet’.   I wonder if this is a ‘generation X’ issue.   Perhaps the generation before me really was more selfless.  Perhaps today’s young people are more altruistic than me and my peers are or ever were.
Whatever the case, I am now in a position where I am encouraging others to volunteer.   What advice should I offer?   I think it would be this:   Recognise your own drivers for volunteering and be honest with yourself about them.  It’s OK to want to improve your cv, to develop your networks, to change the world or to challenge yourself.    Choose your volunteering carefully.   It needs to meet your needs, but it also needs to live up to Google’s corporate maxim of “do no evil”.    Volunteering is not of worth just because it is volunteering.   Volunteering is only worthy when it does real good – and is seen as positive by those it seeks to support.  
Now, where’s the Skype address of my Russian friend?

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  1. Liz Liz

    Thanks for justifying my drivers too! I volunteer because I enjoy it, and I too have travelled to places and made friends that I never would have without 'my volunteering'. Sometimes we feel guilty for this, so thank you for making it ok!!! Lx

  2. Mike Kerrigan Mike Kerrigan

    I think you are spot on, John. The stock answer for why I volunteer is that I believe in helping young people achieve. But I get a sense of fulfilment from it. I feel more valuable because I am using my skills for something useful and having the stimulating interactions that working with other volunteers brings. If we are really honest, we are all in this for something we get out of it as well as what our volunteering delivers to others.

  3. Amanda Amanda

    An ESRC report a few years ago said that there were four main reasons why people in the UK volunteered:

    -Mutual aid – people volunteered to help those within their own community. They want to put something back;
    – Philanthropy – people from outside the community volunteered out of a sense of altruism. They felt fortunate and wanted to make a difference;
    – 'Getting by' – people volunteered in reaction to a personal need or as a result of an individual life event like retirement or bereavement. This is volunteering as a form of self-help;
    – 'Getting on' – people who volunteer as a way of developing new skills and experiences that are valued in the labour market. This is volunteering to get a job or for career development.

    Like you, volunteering is a key part of my life and without going overboard, sort of defines me. However, as someone that promotes volunteering as part of the day job too; it's not just in Russia where one has to present the concept slightly differently. But that's part of the joy of volunteering – being able to find ways to help others get the bug; without using the 'v' word

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