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Mens Sheds volunteers

The V Word

Dawn Austwick – Chief Executive of Big Lottery Fund – reflects on the recent Centre for Ageing Better funding roundtable in Manchester.

This roundtable brought together a great bunch of enthusiastic and engaged charity and voluntary organisations and funders around a shared ambition.

We need to break down the barriers, misunderstandings, and perceptions around the language associated with volunteering.

I’ve been reflecting on the recent Centre for Ageing Better funding roundtable in Manchester, which brought together a great bunch of enthusiastic and engaged charity and voluntary organisations and funders around a shared ambition. We had representatives of the Big Lottery Fund Ageing Better programme ‘Ambition for Ageing’ from Bolton, alongside senior folk from Heritage Lottery Fund, Sport England and Arts Council England. It made for a thoughtful and lively debate.

One thing that struck me from the session was that there is a huge body of activity which people don’t self-identify as volunteering. Whether it’s running a local football club or collecting shopping for a neighbour, people are getting involved in community activity in spontaneous and informal ways. Hence avoiding the “V Word” which can put people off or just feel irrelevant to how they contribute to their community.

Breaking down barriers

Life doesn’t stop when someone retires. Capturing and mobilising the breadth of talent and experience that the over 50s have to offer, is a key challenge that the Government’s consultation and the Centre for Ageing Better are grappling with. We need to break down the barriers, misunderstandings, and perceptions around the language associated with volunteering and who it’s for.

One feature of the session was around the fact that the official language of volunteering can affect participation. Things like a mistrust of officialdom, or not being able to commit to a certain level of responsibility or time have been shown to put people off volunteering. Within this, we need to find a new discourse that doesn’t alienate, but captures and captivates the willingness and generosity of people to participate. And sometimes well-meaning institutions just need to get out of the way and let people get on with helping each other.

During the session we also talked about the accessibility of volunteering and social action. Part of the discussion focused on whether we should take advantage of the increasing role of technology in people’s lives by creating more virtual volunteering opportunities. This has huge untapped potential and could attract people who want to volunteer on a more flexible and informal basis. I was struck by how a group of Scope Face-to-Face volunteers provide support to each other, over the internet, in the wee hours of the morning – because that’s when the parents in the group were both up, looking after their babies, and needing practical and emotional advice for the day ahead.

Lived experience of volunteering

An interesting reflection at the end of the session was how we had talked very little about ‘older people’. It seems likely that the issues and opportunities that we discussed are common across all volunteer-led programmes. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) will consider volunteering further in their civil society strategy - and as we work together to tackle these challenges - it’s really important that we consider the views and experiences of people who have lived experience of volunteering: because regardless of age, it’s the volunteers themselves who know from experience what works.

The work of the Centre for Ageing Better is crucial in trying to answer some of the questions I’ve posed and those raised during the Manchester roundtable.

As a parting thought, and with International Women’s Day just passing, I wanted to leave you with a quote from Patti Smith, who once said ‘Make your interactions with people transformational, not just transactional’. This is precisely the type of thinking and imagination we need to bake in to our approach on volunteering.