Volunteering brings a real sense of self-worth so why is it in such a dramatic decline? – Stuart Callison

The horrendous events unfolding in Ukraine are a stark reminder of the volatility of the modern world.

Volunteers, such as people who delivered food parcels to elderly people during the Covid pandemic, benefit from the knowledge they are making a difference in the world (Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Volunteers, such as people who delivered food parcels to elderly people during the Covid pandemic, benefit from the knowledge they are making a difference in the world (Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Perhaps the only redeeming feature of the situation lies in the outpouring of support from individuals and organisations – many risking their own lives to ensure the people of Ukraine have food, shelter, emergency supplies and are as safe as possible.

The human instinct to help others remains strong. However, many formal, organised, volunteering charities are facing significant challenges in the wake of the pandemic.

Since early 2020, the number of people volunteering with such charities has reduced by close to 25 per cent, with a particular decline in participation among older people. But perhaps even more problematic are some of the long-term trends in volunteering, most of which were established well before Covid hit.

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This year, St Andrew’s First Aid is marking its 140th anniversary. Since we were established in 1882, our volunteers have dedicated around six million hours to keeping the Scottish public safe.

They have been first on the scene providing emergency response support at disasters including the explosion at Udston Colliery in 1887 and the Quintinshill rail disaster in 1915, which tragically resulted in the deaths of more than 200 people.

In more recent times, our volunteers were on site at both the Ibrox disaster and the 2014 bin lorry crash in Glasgow’s George Square. Throughout the pandemic, St Andrew’s First Aid volunteers have provided some 20,000 hours of support to the NHS and emergency services on the Covid frontline.

Traditionally, and right up to the present day, we have been able to draw on the expertise and dedication of our volunteers who made a long-term and regular commitment to the organisation, turning up week in, week out, for many years or even decades.

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Compare this with research recently carried out by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and you are faced with a very different picture.

It found that only 30 per cent of potential volunteers are now interested in giving up their time on a regular basis and that just seven per cent of those currently volunteering had done so consistently over a long period of time.

Nearly a quarter of existing volunteers do so either as a one-off experience, or else choose to “dip in” from time to time. That represents a major headache for charities like ours, which face the necessary costs associated with training, equipping and insuring volunteers, only to find that their commitment can be sporadic, with little guarantee of long-term support for the charity.

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This brings particular difficulties when committing to covering major sporting and music events, which require a large number of volunteers.

Given that these trends are more than likely here to stay, how can we adapt and modernise the traditional model to attract and keep a new type of volunteer? It certainly won’t be easy to find answers, but formal volunteering charities need to change with the times, adapt to the demands of the modern world and come up with innovative ways to encourage people to recognise the value in volunteering to keep it thriving in the future.

For example, organisations could look at making it easier for people to get involved by hosting taster sessions within communities, and also look at whether training periods could be reduced, where possible. We need to ensure we are demonstrating and promoting a diverse and inclusive culture by reaching out to people who may not currently be considering volunteering or are unsure where to start.

Just as in Ukraine, it will be vital that volunteers feel they are part of something bigger and purposeful, so they feel their contribution is making a genuine difference. This sense of belonging is a recognised way to encourage word-of-mouth recommendations, which can be hugely valuable.

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Organisations should be continually investing in training and development and seeking the opinions of volunteers on where improvements and enhancements could be made.

They also need to adapt to the evolving challenges that people face and demonstrate how they are responding to them to remain relevant. Over the last few years, St Andrew’s First Aid has developed a mental health first aid training programme to address the significant rise in mental ill-health, equipping volunteers with the skills to help spot and support individuals struggling with mental health issues.

Finally, there should be regular check-ins with the most committed individuals to reduce the risk of burnout, highlighting their value to their organisation and the vital role they play.

Looking to the longer term, we are increasing engagement with primary school children, creating the opportunities for them to become lifesavers through learning basic first aid skills.

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In addition to gaining the knowledge of how to save a life from an early age, they are also equipped with lifelong attributes such as improved self-confidence, communication and teamwork skills, all of which will also contribute to employability further down the line. Furthermore, it establishes a strong connection with the values of volunteering, which increases retention levels later in life.

We are also rolling out mental health first aid training across a number of secondary schools through our Ready for Life programme. Connecting with young people, particularly at the age of adolescence, not only equips them with vital mental health awareness skills that could help save a life, but encourages them to think beyond their curriculum to consider volunteering, where they can make a positive difference.

Just as it always has, volunteering can provide individuals with connections to others, a sense of self-worth, and of course the knowledge that you are making a difference in the world.

In a society beset by mental health worries and loneliness, among many other problems, the benefits of taking part are now clearer than ever. Now the challenge is for volunteering organisations to rise to the occasion.

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Stuart Callison is chief executive of St Andrew’s First Aid

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