Volunteering is the lifeblood of a robust civil society

By Baroness Amanda Sater

A successful society has vital contributions from charities, community groups and voluntary organisations at its heart. Their motivation and delivery of vital services and functions are maintained by passionate individuals who believe in helping others and making day-to-day society a better place. Valuing and supporting these organisations and their volunteers is crucial to help strengthen civil society.

However, in these financially challenging times, these organisations face increased demand, as well as an ever-increasing reliance on them to help and support those in need.

My time working with many charities over the years has taught me that when you talk to civil society organisations about their essential ingredient, their answer is almost always the goodwill of individuals who give their passion, effort and time to support others.

The Covid pandemic taught us the importance of neighbours, neighbourhoods and local communities coming together, collaborating, and working to support each other. We also saw innovations and an expansion of virtual volunteering, as well as a new and more diverse group of volunteers getting involved. This work was primarily driven by the goodwill of so many. Seeing that huge contribution throughout the pandemic has cemented my belief that volunteers are the lifeblood of any successful civil society. However, there are existing barriers – as well as new challenges as a result of the cost of living crisis – that are preventing many volunteers from staying and getting involved, and that puts at risk the development of a more sustainable volunteering landscape.

With the pressures on our economy and ever-increasing strain on our society, it is crucial that the sector continues to look at how it can evaluate and develop new ways to improve retention. At the same time, government also needs to rethink and re-evaluate what they can do to better support the sector.

In recent years, we have seen increased interest from the private sector in helping to build better communities. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is the starting point to involve them and increase their ambition and involvement in creating a better society. However, some businesses remain hesitant about undertaking their own CSR, seeing it as too much of a burden – but in fact it can be a huge opportunity. For example, it can have a positive impact on the workforce, giving them new skills, supporting good morale, retention and delivering empowerment.

With an increased willingness to be part of delivering meaningful and impactful civil goals, some large corporate companies are not only investing in infrastructures, including community buildings, but also developing exceptionally good programmes where their employees can participate and help deliver long-term charitable support.

Increased support from government to the private sector could produce extremely effective and impactful contributions long-term, and crucially get more businesses and corporations engaged in this endeavour.

Volunteering can never be a substitute for people’s jobs but rather a healthy addition to supporting the common good. It can reduce isolation and loneliness, as well as provide opportunities for personal development and improve mental and physical health for those that get involved.

Now is precisely the time for government to re-evaluate and rethink how to engage new volunteers and retain them. If we don’t, we risk losing the new group of volunteers that we have seen coming forward in recent years. We also risk missing out on the potential of better CSR. In doing so, we will lose an opportunity to give the sector the valuable new impetus and support it will need in the difficult years ahead.

Valuing and making sure that we recognise the work that volunteers do is essential in moving towards a more successful and sustainable civil society.

In the UK we are lucky to have an embedded and longstanding culture of volunteering, seen through large sporting events like the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and through people helping out in their local communities every day; from supporting their local sports clubs, food banks, the elderly and so much more. We must therefore endeavour to capture as much of the goodwill that is out there. We should strain every sinew to give people the capability they need to help their local communities, and in doing so, play an even bigger role in society in the future.

We need to look at how we can create more flexibility and engagement to deliver the more free-flowing environment in which more volunteers can participate, thrive and grow.

Unleashing the full potential of volunteering across the country will help deliver a more meaningful, valuable and stronger civil society.

This piece was written in response to the publication of the report ‘Unleashing the power of civil society’