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A 75 year volunteer showcase, what lessons should we have learned?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013



It is sometimes said of the West that we do not value our old people and, because of this, we have lost the art of sharing stories and gaining access to experiences outside of our immediate environment. We end up always trying to re-invent because we have no sense of ‘living’ history, something quite different from the history books and yes, the memoirs, although I have read a few powerful ones.

Volunteering is not new, even though everyone, government and parts of the voluntary sector alike, seem to be screaming it from the rooftops with slogans such as ....’Get the perfect volunteer’, ‘Free charity guide on volunteering’ and ‘Help your volunteers improve their skills’. 75 years ago the civil population was challenged, as never before, to prepare itself for whatever combat it might be its misfortune to experience as we teetered on the brink of war. This heralded the birth of organised mass volunteering in the ‘Women’s Voluntary Services’ under the auspices of Lady Stella Reading whose mandate would be equally at home today as it was then, there being “no restriction to volunteering by virtue of age, background, position or possession, the job description being that the person offering herself needed the ‘discretion of a sage, the speed of lightning and the quietude of femininity’” [Patricia Routledge] As Lady Reading said then: “the greatest disservice a woman can do at this moment is to consider herself useless”.

75 years on and, for many, we are on the brink of economic downturn, not just at home but worldwide. The civil population is again challenged, so what might the response be? Back in 1938 government gave resources to build civil society infrastructure – this is not true of present day government although, in the dim and distant memory, we did have the blip of a Volunteering Czar. Lady Stella Reading claimed no glory for herself however, declaring that “the work we have undertaken, in so many different ways, can be accomplished not by the genius of one, but by the faithfulness of the many”. Volunteers came from every walk of life, not because they were forced to, but because they were all prepared to undertake any work they might be called upon to do in the service of their country, for there is nothing glamorous in voluntary service; "it is not given by the leisured person...voluntary service is given by the person who, thinking it is right to do the thing, makes the time to do it. It is the mark of the strength of a nation, which lies in the character of the men and woman who are that nation, and Voluntary Service is an integral part of that Character” [Lady Reading].

So what mark are we making - we give a damn, or who gives a damn? There might not be any breadlines you can see, but we have a growing foodbank sector. We may not see the old, the lonely or those who are ill, but we have an ageing population, the greatest single household population ever, and the numbers of those being diagnosed with mental ill health are on the rise. The economic downturn is not a business sector problem, a skills problem or a housing sector problem, it is a nation’s problem.

Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) alone are not the answer, LEPs and social enterprises alone are not the answer. Civil society is integral, is necessary and needs infrastructure funding - this is the lesson government has not, and is not, learning. Her Majesty the Queen recognised this by becoming the patron of what became the WRVS in 1966 and, last year, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess Of Cornwall agreed to support ‘Diamond Champions Awards’ which recognised exceptional service by volunteers aged 60 and over.

We have many lessons to learn, if only we learn how to listen, how to recognise that a lifetime service is just that, a lifetime, and no amount of short term thinking or funding will bring about such achievements. As the WRVS, newly re-named the ‘Royal Voluntary Service’ enters its 76th year and once again begins the nomination process of finding Diamond Champions, government resource civil society infrastructure, commissions and funders seek out the hidden gems in civil society and resource them, volunteers know much has been, and will be, achieved through them, the silent army.

In writing this I am indebted to Patricia Routledge CBE, Royal Voluntary Service Ambassador who provided the inspiration for this blog in her address at the RVS 75th Anniversary Service of Thanksgiving at St Paul’s Cathedral on 22nd May 2013.