Diversify to survive

The government is reaching out beyond the
traditional sources of volunteers in recognition that volunteering
is itself a route to social inclusion. Maxine Vernon reports.

Volunteering is about to receive a 21st
century makeover. A major effort is under way to recruit people who
are often under-represented in voluntary organisations: people of
different faiths and from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds as
well as men, teenagers and disabled people.

The Experience Corp and the Diversity
Challenge form two elements of the government’s attempt to recruit
voluntary workers – volunteers who, ideally, will reflect the
make-up of the neighbourhoods in which they live. The campaigns aim
to encourage one million volunteers to become more active within
their own communities by March 2004. The hope is that their efforts
will renew a feeling of community spirit and regenerate some of the
country’s most deprived areas.

Prime Minister Tony Blair demonstrated his own
commitment to the project in March 2000, when he told the Active
Community Convention: “Everyone in this country has something to
contribute. But too many voluntary organisations have volunteers
that all come from the same background, and their recruitment
drives target the same group again.” Now, through the Diversity
Challenge, he hopes to achieve “a really diverse involvement of
people within organisations – a diversity that reflects the nation
we live in”.

Cynical observers might suggest that Tony
Blair’s government is hoping to persuade volunteers to provide
essential public services for nothing. But instilling a strong
culture of volunteering could certainly bring benefits to
communities as a whole in the longer term – by creating a society
of more confident individuals, better services and empowered

Older people might find themselves in demand.
They are the fastest-growing segment of the population (estimated
to increase to 11.9 million by 2011), but, according to new Home
Office figures,1 volunteering decreases markedly among
people aged over 49. But the figures also suggest that those older
people who do volunteer tend to do so more regularly and are more
likely than any other age group to become involved in visiting and
befriending people, volunteering through local community,
neighbourhood or citizens’ groups.

David Brooks is 70, in good health and
comfortably off, and is the kind of person the Experience Corp
wants to recruit. A retired commercial fire engineer, Brooks wanted
to continue working but was asked to step aside to make way for
younger employees. After a successful stint of volunteering and
then paid work with cancer research charity Tak Tent (Gaelic for
“take care”), Brooks approached the Retired and Senior Volunteer
Programme, a scheme aimed at older volunteers.

That was four and half years ago and Brooks
now organises the work of six other volunteers. His team, who are
all 50-plus, are happy to do a range of tasks including picking up
prescriptions, taking clients to hospital and befriending older

Older people thinking about volunteering
should remember their own parents, Brooks suggests. He admits that
it is all too easy for older people to feel neglected and grow
lonely, but adds: “Volunteers who join the befriending scheme can
also gain a lot, including a circle of friends which grows.”

Disabled people form another group which is
under-represented within voluntary organisations. The Diversity
Challenge campaign, run by the National Centre for Volunteering,
aims to change this by encouraging voluntary organisatons to create
opportunities for disabled volunteers.

Sumita Paul, who is deaf, works for Community
Service Volunteers (CSV) on its Student Independent Living project.
She began volunteering at 19, working with the sensory service wing
of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People.

She says: “I went there one morning a week to
help out with anything they needed me to do. It could be office
work, talking to clientsÉ typing and printing in Braille for
blind people and so on. I felt good at the end of the day, that’s
why I love doing voluntary work.”

The 23 year old, who has a sociology degree,
provides full-time support to Clare, a disabled physics student at
Reading University. Paul says: “It’s hard work and I admit some
days you want to give up. However, when I look back on why I am
doing this I smile – because what I have been doing is actually
helping Clare.”

The CSV placement has given Paul her first
experience of living independently on the Reading campus and has
given her the drive to consider a career in social work or
campaigning. “This project gives me the chance to be independent
and start learning more about myself. My confidence is improving
because I see myself doing the work and talking to hearing

Research by Barnardo’s in Scotland into the
experiences of 1,400 volunteers showed that 86 per cent found the
work satisfying. Alison McLaughlin, Barnardo’s corporate volunteer
development manager, says: “Voluntary work is sometimes seen as
worthy but unexciting, but our helpers are telling us that they
love the variety and challenge on offer.”

Jonathan Vannuil, 31, who works with the West
Lothian Family Support Team and is a volunteer for Barnardo’s
Scotland, was admitted to a psychiatric hospital after a breakdown.
Once discharged he began attending a day centre. He found he needed
something to occupy his time, and began working with the family
support team providing one-to-one support to disabled children
during school holidays.

Vannuil also works on Barnardo’s befriending
and homesitting scheme, visiting three families each month.
Although working primarily with the disabled child in each family,
his role is to give the parents a period of respite.

“You get amazing satisfaction out of
volunteering,” says Vannuil, who now has been volunteering for five
years and is proud of his work and achievements. “All you need is
commitment to the project. With an organisation like Barnardo’s it
doesn’t matter how many hours you can give. Even an hour a week is

Vannuil is now studying to work in the child
care profession, and is an example of how much volunteers can gain
personally from their work. His efforts have been recognised with
the award of Barnardo’s/ Marsh Christian Trust Volunteer of the
Year prize.

Daphne Phillips was diagnosed as a manic
depressive in 1984, largely brought on by a stressful job. She now
works full time in Mind’s policy and parliamentary unit but also
spends time as a volunteer with Mind’s Infoline. She says: “It has
helped me in my own life. By dealing with solicitors and doctors I
now know what questions to ask and where to look for information
about my own situation.”

Phillips answers the telephone taking calls
from people who are suffering in much the same way as herself. In
talking to carers, professionals and clients with mental health
problems she finds that her volunteering “makes you feel you’ve
done something to help”.

After undertaking a thorough training course,
her confidence has grown. She has recruited volunteers from day
centres as well as art and music therapy classes in order to
encourage those who may not otherwise consider volunteering.

“Volunteering has really helped me,” says
Phillips. “Some calls can be strenuous and distressing but I have
managed to do it without feeling stressed myself.”

1 The Home Office research
is from initial findings of the Citizenship Survey. The
survey took place between March and October 2001 in England and

– Contact: The Experience Corps (for people
aged over 50) on 0800 106080 and www.experiencecorps.co.uk
  Further details on the
Diversity Challenge from www.diversitychallenge.org

Experience and diversity

– The Experience Corps is a government-backed
not-for-profit company set up to encourage people aged 50 and over
to offer their skills and life experience to benefit others.

– The government has invested £20m in the
company – the largest chunk of money ever invested by the
government in a volunteering project, according to home secretary
David Blunkett, who has warned local authorities not to cut funding
to small voluntary and community organisations.

– It has a target of attracting 250,000
volunteers by March 2004.

– Diversity Challenge is a scheme run by the
National Centre for Volunteering with funds from The Home Office’s
Active Community Unit.

– The scheme aims to broaden the range of
people who are volunteering by encouraging voluntary organisations
to sign up to a diversity charter.

– More than 200 organisations have signed up
to the pledge to date.

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