We are Volunteers – unpaid. Not because we are worthless but because we are priceless

volunteeringToday is International Volunteers Day! Last week I attended a Friends of Bowling Park meeting  where a group of dedicated Volunteers gathered in a cold hut (- 2c outside) to think about ways to develop an old stone building into a useful space for local  people to gather and run activities like a community cafe.  As I was listening to the Volunteers talk about the benefits of this venture I noticed a small note on the wall behind one of the volunteers 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 makes absolute sense as the priceless work Volunteers do improves the lives of others without squeezing already tight budgets.

We can see how society has much to gain from this arrangement but then the question arises – why do people give up their time unpaid?  Particularly, when a key motivational force in society, it seems, 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 wellbeing?   Equally, isn’t our social- economic status (SES) determined by our income and occupation?   If doing something for free doesn’t improve your bank balance and buying power 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 contribution of time.  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.  My colleague Zakra Yasin who is the Volunteers Coordinator at Better Start Bradford informs me that one of the most common motivational factors is the desire to give something back and help others. Often Volunteers choose causes that are close to their hearts and enable them to feel they are making a real difference to the lives of people they support.  A quote by one of the Volunteers is worth sharing:

‘I volunteer because I enjoy spending time with people from different walks of life and listening to their experiences. Above all I feel fulfilled when I can make a difference to the lives of expectant and new parents I work with.’ – Jaeesha Ali, Volunteer Doula, Bradford Doulas.

There are powerful recommendations for this motivation as Zakra and 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 recent report titled Volunteering and health: what impact does it really have?  stated the following:

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 a 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 you would gain from of being a part of a team and working in a real-world setting; the kinds of things employers really value and exactly the kinds of things you need to demonstrate in a competitive labour market.

So, volunteering is more than it is cracked up to be as it helps society, increases happiness, improves health and can boost career prospects.  For more details about volunteering opportunities in Bradford please visit the volunteering Bradford website through the following link http://www.volunteeringbradford.org/

Shahid Islam, Research Fellow Better Start Bradford Innovation Hub.

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