Volunteers at heart of charity work

2015. Mark O'Donnell Chief Executive of Chest, Hearts & Stroke Scotland. from May 2015.
2015. Mark O'Donnell Chief Executive of Chest, Hearts & Stroke Scotland. from May 2015.
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This year, to mark St Andrew’s Day, the Scottish Government has started a new initiative to encourage people to share the spirit of our patron saint. The message is “Share for St Andrew, give 30 minutes for the 30” – an important sentiment at any time of the year, but even more so as we rapidly approach the Christmas season. It’s a familiar call, to carry out random acts of kindness, whether by supporting a neighbour, helping in your community or giving to a charity like Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland. But it’s a particularly welcome one on St Andrew’s Day, giving a timely reminder that it’s not only money that can make a difference, vital as that is.

There are, of course, numerous Christmas charity campaigns underway and this time of year can be hugely important for charities’ income. Our own is a four-day fundraising drive underway now called the “Big Give Christmas Challenge”. It is raising funds so we can continue to provide a volunteer Befriending Service in the Highlands to people affected by chronic heart and lung conditions. Every £1 raised by midday on Friday 2 December at www.chss.org.uk/biggive is match-funded by key donors.

Volunteers at Chest Heart and Stroke Scotland shop at Court Street, Haddington   Mandy Hughes (Manager), Joy Cullen & Kerrie Reid.

Volunteers at Chest Heart and Stroke Scotland shop at Court Street, Haddington Mandy Hughes (Manager), Joy Cullen & Kerrie Reid.

Crucially though, the delivery of that befriending service isn’t just money-dependent, it also needs volunteers to operate. We work very hard to recruit, support and to keep our volunteer workforce, which is currently 1,500 people strong, with people supporting every part of our organisation. Some people provide direct one-to-one support, whether through befriending schemes, or communication support for people living with the effects of a stroke. Other volunteers work in our shops, our head office, or support the many fundraising events such as our famed abseil from the Forth Rail Bridge.

We receive no core government funding, and are hugely reliant on the income we get from retail and fundraising, both of which depend on volunteers’ time. These are challenging economic times, and the role of volunteers is more important now than ever to us, meaning we can provide support to people where it is most needed. Not everyone can afford to donate money to charities – but their time is just as important. With over 500,000 people in Scotland affected by chest, heart and stroke conditions, every contribution matters.

And there’s a bigger picture too – volunteering is proven to provide wider economic benefits to communities, helping them thrive by becoming healthier and safer, empowering them through active citizenship. At a personal level, actively volunteering also helps people’s mental and physical health, can improve life skills and employability, and importantly, give people a sense of belonging within a community, which is a huge factor in preventing social isolation.

The Scottish Government’s St Andrew’s Day initiative is a welcome step in the right direction towards championing the importance of volunteering to Scottish society. What we need now are coordinated strategic efforts across both central and local government which help volunteering to become the norm in Scottish society, affording everyone the opportunity and the time to contribute. Employers can help create the right conditions by supporting staff who wish to volunteer. Schools and colleges can highlight the benefits of skills development and experience afforded by being a volunteer. And the third sector, including ourselves, can provide opportunities for everyone to play a role.

So to help everyone get started, here are some suggestions for how just 30 minutes of your time could help make a difference today through Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland:

Take time to look at local volunteering opportunities. Look through your wardrobe or bookshelf for quality items you can donate to our shops. Find a New Year challenge and look at our fundraising events and races

Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland is Scotland’s only national health charity, meaning every £1 raised stays in Scotland to support half a million people affected by chest and heart disease or stroke. See www.chss.org.uk for more information.

Our Freephone Advice Line is available Monday-Friday for support and information on chest, heart and stroke – call 0808 801 0899 free from landlines and mobiles.

Mark O’Donnell, Chief Executive of Chest, Hearts & Stroke Scotland