Informal volunteering matters

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Sophie Bridger says informal volunteering is critical to building resilient communities and reaching those who need help most

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2nd April 2020 by TFN Guest 1 Comment

Helping a neighbour with the shopping, giving someone a lift, spending a Saturday morning on a community garden; or many of us, these small acts are part of our everyday lives (or were, before the lockdown), the ordinary things we do for our communities and neighbours. We do these things with our free time without any expectation of anything in return. But we often don’t see them as volunteering.

Informal volunteering is how we support the people around us. It’s not just individuals that benefit either – it’s how we build a sense of community spirit and mutual support. Communities become more resilient through connections like this, and develop the knowledge that they can rely on each other.

In the current Covid-19 crisis, everyone from our governments to charities wants to tap into volunteering as a way of meeting the nation’s needs. For many of us, it’s the best way that we can contribute to keeping our families and communities safe. And at difficult times like this, where many people are out of work or confined to their homes, having something positive and empowering to do makes an enormous amount of difference.

The challenge in front of us is one of scale – millions of people need to access to food, medicine, and social support.  To meet this, we need mass volunteering efforts, and that means initiatives run by governments and large NGOs with funded resources are essential.   It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the best way for informal volunteering to increase their impact is by adding more structures and increasing scale. But by doing that we lose the enormous tangible benefits of smaller, community driven initiatives, and the value of neighbours helping each other.                                                

Sophie Bridger

Sophie Bridger

Informal volunteering can help reach people in ways that larger organisations may not be able to. Large scale operations need procedure and process to function, and it’s in introducing these structures that people can fall through the gaps. Communities are more likely to have existing connections with people who need support and to be able to reach them.

Informal volunteering tends to be driven directly by need – by people asking for support or communities addressing their own needs. The support provided can be more relevant and feel more personal- a neighbour who rings you to ask if you’re alright is more personal and can be more desirable, than an organisation offering a service that does a similar thing. The personal connection that this builds, and the community knowledge that it needs, cannot be overestimated.

Critically, the community resilience and community spirit that this builds will be what we need over the coming months. It’s not just about how we look after each other when we need support, but how we treat each other more widely. Whether we hoard groceries for ourselves or think of others in our community. Whether we look after each other collectively, or focus on ourselves all volunteering is ultimately about generously giving our time – but volunteering for our communities means that when we look after each other, we look after ourselves.

The personal knowledge and relationships, the understanding of our communities that informal volunteering brings are valuable – and the community bonds that it builds are needed more than ever. Coronavirus affects every aspect of our society – and every kind of volunteering has a vital role to play.

Sophie Bridge is Scotland manager for Eden Project Communities

1st May 2020 by Ian Davidson

Good points. I have been a paid worker in and volunteer in a variety of organisations. Sometimes the formal bureaucracy of "organising" volunteers "snuffs out" the volunteer compassion & creativity! The national CV 19 volunteer recruitment exercises in UK/Scotland are I suspect too large to work effectively and many potential volunteers will be disappointed. I have decided that informal local volunteering; immediate neighbours and such like is the best way forward for me.