Giving back to volunteers

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I joined Friends of Bowling Park in a voluntary capacity as a Trustee some years ago and remember my first meeting in a cold hut where the mercury dropped to a chilling -2C outside. As I was listening to the Volunteers talk about all the work they were involved in, I noticed a small note on the wall which read “We are Volunteers – unpaid. Not because we are worthless but because we are priceless”.

These simple words made me think about a question – what would happen if all of them suddenly decided to stop volunteering? In other words, nobody attended to brush up autumn leaves, pick up litter, remove weeds, carry out maintenance works and the countless other tasks they do?

The answer leads to two possibilities; either the park would deteriorate quite significantly, or two, against the odds, if the work continued then it would be contracted out which would inevitably lead to financial cuts elsewhere. Seen this way the logic of the note made absolute sense as the priceless work Volunteers undertake improves the lives of others without squeezing already tight budgets.

We can see how society has much to gain from this arrangement, where people do work for free, but the question arises – why do people give up their time unpaid? Particularly, when a key motivational force in society, we often feel is to increase personal wealth and goods. After all, aren’t nations measured by their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) with a popular assumption that the more goods and services we produce and consume the higher our level of happiness? Equally, isn’t our socio-economic status (SES) determined by our income and occupation – the idea being the more we earn and the higher we climb up the ladder, the more respect we command and the better we can possess? If doing something for free doesn’t improve your bank balance and status then does this not go against the grain of what GDP and SES stand for?

The answer, of course, is that these are not the yard-sticks by which Volunteers judge their self-worth. I often speak to Volunteers who tell me about the personal level of satisfaction they gain from doing something for others without a financial transaction and how that gives them a sense of worth that money cannot buy.

There are powerful recommendations for this satisfaction which is evidenced in many published reports. Just by way of one example, I flick through a book titled The 100 Simple Secrets of Happy People by David Niven and find that reason number 30 is (you guessed right) Volunteer. Niven goes on to say – “volunteering will not only help the world, it will also help you. Volunteers feel good about themselves. They have a sense of purpose, feel appreciated, and are less likely to be bored in their lives. Volunteers experience rewards that cannot be attained in any other way”.

Awareness about the happiness factor is well known to Volunteers and presumably, this is why they keep on taking this medicine. What is less well known, however, is the positive impact volunteering can have on their general health. A report which examined this closely, titled Volunteering and health: what impact does it really have? stated the following benefits:

“Volunteering was shown to decrease mortality and to improve self-rated health, mental health, life satisfaction, the ability to carry out activities of daily living without functional impairment, social support and interaction, healthy behaviours and the ability to cope with one’s own illness”.

When speaking to younger adults about the health and happiness factors we also need to include a discussion about the boost it can give to their career prospects. I often ask young people a question when they are nearing the completion of their studies, the question goes as follows: who do they think would stand a better chance of being offered the first job if everything was equal amongst the candidates but one of them had a spell of volunteering listed amongst their experiences? The discussion includes not only why it would appear to show initiative and a compassionate outlook but also the valuable experience they would gain from being a part of a team and working in a real-world setting. The kinds of qualities employers really value and exactly the kinds of things you need to demonstrate in a competitive labour market.

So, in summary, volunteering is more than it is cracked up to be as it helps society, increases happiness, improves health and can boost career prospects.

Shahid Islam
Senior Research Fellow – Bradford Institute for Health Research
Honorary Research Fellow – University of Bradford
Vice-Chair – Bradford for Better
Trustee – Friends of Bowling Park