Volunteering is big news on paper - but who has the time?
Groups, charities and societies are perpetually under threat from a lack of volunteers – yet a new report says more of us are doing unpaid work for the community – Martin Hesp examines.
There's a Cabinet Office report called the Community Life Survey which measures general trends in what could be described as "citizenship" – and, like so much else that gets bandied up and down Whitehall's corridors of power, its findings do not seem to dovetail with what readers of this newspaper experience in everyday life.
For example, the survey states that more people are volunteering than ever before – apparently 44 % of the adult population reckons it embarked upon some kind of formal voluntary work in the early part of this year, compared with only 39 per cent in 2012.
Which sounds like good news – until, that is, you read newspapers like the Western Morning News which regularly report on the closure (or threatened closure) of organisations and charities that rely on volunteers.
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In Falmouth, for example, we've reported on the recent closure of the local Royal British Legion (RBL) branch which has shut up shop for the first time in a century. The branch had been overseen by the charity's county service since last year following a mass resignation of officers. Nominations for seven positions were required for a special meeting, but only five people put their names forward.
Meanwhile, also in Cornwall, we have reported on the recent closure of a Mencap branch which had been operating for 60 years.
Reg Broad, chairman of East Cornwall Mencap, said ill health among senior charity staff and a lack of volunteers meant that the charity was "no longer viable".
"We do not have enough people to do all the work necessary, the workload has increased beyond our capabilities," he said. "We have attempted to attract new family members with no luck."
Look at any weekly local newspaper and you will see endless calls for help in the letters pages asking for volunteers. Indeed, as I've been writing these words I have received an email from the Quantock Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty team telling me about a new scheme to recruit volunteers to help monitor scheduled ancient monuments in the hills.
I just told the AONB's communication officer Georgie Grant I was writing about people's willingness to do unpaid work for good causes – and she replied that, although her team had a hard core of dedicated regular volunteers, finding new folk willing to turn out all year round was a different story.
"We get lots of queries in the nice summer months, but come the wind, sleet and snow it's a bit of a different story," said Georgie.
Enter the subject of volunteer-shortage in to an internet search engine and you will find a plethora of sites and blogs dealing with the question.
The first I found was on a site about the Scouting movement: "A huge renaissance in the popularity of the Scouts and Guides is causing a shortage of leaders, with apathy being blamed by officials..." is how the blog begins.
When I contacted the RBL at a national level to ask if the Falmouth branch closure was typical, its spokesman wanted to talk about recently appointing a "head of volunteering" whose job was to maximise and make best use of the charity's massive body of "willing support".
But while such organisations undoubtedly enjoy unpaid help from small armies of volunteers (in excess of 350,000 in the case of the Legion's annual Poppy Appeal) I do find myself wondering about the realities of what the Prime Minister has famously described as "Big Society".
There was a time when I gave large amounts of unpaid time and effort to three different bodies while also working for this newspaper. I was a parish councillor, a school governor and vice-chairman of our local village hall trust, but am no longer a member of any organisation. I don't even find time to lend a hand for an hour or two with our village fete.
The idea that people who work very hard go home, eat and change, then go out again to work hard once more – only this time unpaid – doesn't really make sense to the great majority of us who weren't born with superhuman powers.
Yes, I will volunteer to work for the better of my community again – when I retire. But they've recently put the retirement age up a year, so that will have to wait.
I know of many other people who are forced to think like I do when it comes to balancing the wish to volunteer with a busy working life. So I can't help but wonder who all these people are who tell the Cabinet Office survey that they're out and about volunteering? My theory is many who say they volunteer might put in an hour or two here or there – helping for a limited period, maybe, with something temporary like a Poppy Appeal.
But real "hard-core" volunteering means endless hours of hard unpaid work and often requires special training.I'll bet you could count the UK's percentage of such authentic and heroic volunteers on the fingers of one hand.