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Lady gardening

Volunteering – we all gain

As we celebrate the contributions that people across the UK make to their communities, let’s also remember what they gain from taking part.

If organisations that work with volunteers were explicit about the benefits that people gain from helping, it could offer another way through these complexities.

At the Centre for Ageing Better, we’re exploring ways for more people in later life to contribute their skills, knowledge and experience to their communities. The evidence tells us that helping out can give people stronger social connections, a sense of meaning and purpose, and keep them physically and mentally active – all things that people have told us matter for a good later life.

When we asked people in later life for their views on volunteering, they were very clear on the benefits for them: “It makes you feel worthwhile. If you work in a job for a long time and then retire, then you need to get that self-worth from somewhere else.” (Deliberative workshop participant, London.)

And this isn’t just true for older people, it’s true across all ages. Recently, a young woman who volunteers with South London Cares told me how much she’s learned from interacting with her older neighbours. Indeed, over the 20 years I’ve worked with volunteers, by far the most common reflection people have is that they’ve got more out of volunteering than they’ve given.

On the other side, though, accepting help can be difficult. It’s hard to acknowledge that you need help in the first place, and sometimes it’s difficult to receive it. Being helped can make you feel helpless. Having something done for you can undermine your sense of dignity and independence. Especially if you’re being helped because of a particular need, it’s very easy for that need to become the label that defines you – instead of Dan, I become ‘a lonely person’ or ‘depressed’. And that’s if the help you’re given is what you need in the first place. If you’re anything like me, it’s almost impossible to say that you’d prefer a different sort of help, for fear of being rude.

When the National Centre for Social Research looked at informal, everyday help and support, they found that in practice people are well aware of these challenges: “People used a range of strategies and practices to manage the complexities of helping and being helped, including helping without appearing to help; minimising demands on the helper; offering help before it was asked for; and accepting help as a way of ‘helping the helper’.”

If organisations that work with volunteers were explicit about the benefits that people gain from helping, it could offer another way through these complexities. Instead of a one-way relationship, where the volunteer is giving and the other person is receiving, we could encourage two-way relationships, where both people give and both gain.

There are already some great examples of this kind of reciprocal support. It’s at the heart of peer support groups, where people with long-term health conditions like diabetes help and encourage each other to manage their own condition. Next week, I’ll be visiting a very different sort of group – the Men’s Shed in Camden. Men’s Sheds are places where men can come to do woodwork, metalwork and other practical projects. While the ‘shed’ is most obviously a shared space and a set of shared tools, it’s also a community of people sharing skills and helping each other in very practical ways.

So as we celebrate the contributions that people across the UK make to their communities, let’s also remember what they gain from taking part, and celebrate what the people ‘being helped’ bring to the party too.

National Centre for Social Research (2014), Understanding every day help and support, Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Rabin, S. and McKenzie, D. (2014), A better offer: the future of volunteering in an ageing society, Commission on the voluntary sector and aging 

Dan Jones
Director of Innovation and Change