Today is the UN’s International Day of Charity. Much of our work at Traverse is directly or indirectly related to volunteering as a form of charitable giving. Rob Francis has recently blogged about collective action in his hometown, which has seen a self-forming community group raise the money, volunteers and audience base to set up a community cinema. At the other end of the participation spectrum, but no less important, is research we’ve completed for the Centre for Ageing Better in Leeds, Bristol, Settle and Scarborough to understand the barriers and enablers to the kinds of under-the-radar informal community contributions which are often the social glue for our neighbourhoods. The evidence we uncovered has been used to secure funding for a ‘Street by Street’ project which encourages informal volunteering amongst the younger old for the benefit of the older old as well as gardening projects and a #sayhello campaign, among a range of other local small scale initiatives.
Evidence for the wide-ranging positive benefits of volunteering as well as the routes to volunteering are well known. There is a significant body of evidence around the benefits of formal volunteering to those who give their time, in terms of skills and confidence, social interaction and friendship and sense of purpose. Recent research has found consistent evidence that older people who help others have increased self-esteem and a sense of purpose (Centre for Ageing Better, 2016) as well as associated benefits for wellbeing and mental health. There is also evidence that voluntary action improves the quality of people’s current relationships (De Wit et al., 2015).
The young people we recently engaged with as part of work for Defra to understand the barriers and enablers to environmental volunteering among young people, reflected on how the benefits they experienced were greater than they anticipated, and included:
- Increased confidence and higher perceived self-efficacy
- Increased ‘sense of place’ and connection with their community
- Meeting new and varied people and building friendships
- Improved physical and mental wellbeing
- Alternative routes to gaining new employability skills and experience
However, our research suggests that across the life course some of the biggest hurdles to volunteering, either formal or more informal, can be confidence and identity based – Will I know anyone? It’s not for people like me. Will I fit in? What’s in it for me? What do I have to contribute?
Our work for Defra identified a set of enablers and communications to address some of these barriers. While designed to be specific to young people, we hope some of these might be useful for organisations working to diversify their volunteer base.