The rise of Extreme Volunteering?

Most of my work is helping volunteers, or working as a volunteer myself, to achieve community and/or heritage benefits (to use funderspeak). I’ve spent years researching, consulting and developing ideas and definitions, funding proposals and organisational aims and objectves. It takes a lot of doing, a lot of time and skill, and so it should. This is public money that’s being asked for – it should be spent well. Whether it’s from the National Lottery, Central Government or Europe, these grants need to meet genuine needs of real people and places. However, there is a new need that is emerging.

Extreme voluntering is described by British “innovation charity” Nesta as regular people going beyond the usual levels of volunteering… amazing commitments of ‘people helping people’ (ref: Sounds good?

Undoubtedly, volunteers on the projects I’m working on are making a difference in their community and also gaining skills, knowledge, experience and crucially, huge enjoyment and companionship on a wide range of levels. However for them to get to this point has required them to give an immense investment upfront in time and expertise. To have the idea and seize an opportunity, find or create a group, manage organisational change, gather evidence, communicate with the public and stakeholders, plan the activities, get permissions, write contract briefs and job descriptions, and forecast the budget for the next 5 years. Some task list, and that’s before you get the grant funding, never mind start doing what you actually set out to do.

Luckily, at the moment, the baby-boomer generation of active retired and semi-retired people is providing a large pool of often highly skilled volunteers in communities. They have valuable capacity, motivation and skills to donate to projects and ideas they’re interested in.  On one project I am involved in, the lead volunteer – the Tinkerbell who kept all the plates spinning and without whom the project funding bids wouldn’t have  been submitted – will have donated five years to the project by the time it is finished. This is a huge commitment by anyone’s standards, and he feels that he (and the other volunteers) will have earned a break aftewards.

There has been a shift in emphasis since the 2011 Localism Act which enabled the transfer of assets and services to communities. Volunteering is no longer just a generous way for an individual to gain experience or put something back, it is becoming an integral part of how communities operate and develop. What happens where there are communities who don’t have a pool of skilled people interested and available enough to volunteer? What happens in those communities where the volunteers are so fatigued, or occupied with other projects that they don’t take on another unused building or decaying monument? It used to be part of the deal – we paid our taxes and the state took care of things on our behalf that were difficult to do on our own or needed expertise and understanding outside of the local context. I’m glad that the NHS relies on scientifc research rather than only potions from the local hedgewitch;  I’d rather have agreed and delivered national justice, than ducking stools, gallows and pillories.

The Parish Councils, charities and heritage businesses I work with are all begining to recognise that this is a period of change. Research and analysis by bodies including English Heritage and HLF is underway, and the outcomes of this may have significant effects on the operation of small social enterprises as well as the grant giving bodies. This could be an opportunity to inform our practice and business planning, build our resillience and in a small way perhaps influence policy development. Personally, I wonder about the sustainability of the models and policy approach that rely so heavily on volunteers within communities.  As the retierment age rises, and the population declines, these current volunteers are less likely to be replaced within their communities. What will then happen to the assets transferred in to community care?


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