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The enduring spirit of volunteering

VSO/Peter Caton

The coronavirus pandemic has prompted a rush of volunteers - it's an inspiring moment, and a reminder of the benefits and lasting power of volunteering. 

The next few days will see an army of people start work as volunteers for the National Health Service in the UK. This follows a staggering public response to a government call for 250,000 people to help bolster the response to the Covid-19 pandemic: in just a few days, over 750,000 people enlisted in the scheme.

It’s an inspirational example at a time of crisis and a reminder of the value of volunteering, but it doesn’t surprise us here at VSO.

VSO/Peter Caton

Community volunteer Rosaria teaches Gloria, 65, how to wash hands with ash, soap and water in a cholera prevention campaign after cyclone Idai.

The desire to offer one’s time and skill is an almost universal impulse, and indeed it is one we see in communities across the world where we work. Time and time again, we see, even in extreme times of personal uncertainty and fragility, people stepping forward to help their fellow citizens - whether it's those delivering food parcels in the aftermath of cyclone Idai in Mozambique, or those delivering vital public health messages to prevent the spread of Ebola in Sierra Leone.

The UN has estimated that over a billion people around the world volunteer each year. Much of this volunteering, even in the UK, is informal - communities coming together to support each other in a spirit of reciprocity.

In the UK, the Bank of England has estimated that volunteering is worth as much as £50 billion to the national economy. But we know that the benefits of volunteering go far beyond the financial: volunteering brings mutual benefits, both to the communities we work with, and to the individuals volunteering themselves.

Ground-breaking research we conducted with the Institute for Development Studies in 2015 found that volunteers make a unique contribution to sustainable development. Embedded into communities, volunteers can get to places that others can’t. They build trust, create new kinds of partnerships, and help people to create ownership of solutions to development challenges.

Volunteers themselves report that they too reap huge rewards. Surveys of our returned volunteers show that the vast majority say they have gained from their placements, with 84 percent saying they feel more confident afterwards, and 82 percent saying they feel more personally resilient. That additional confidence and adaptability may be one of the reasons why well over half of returned VSO volunteers become more socially active following placements.

Do no harm  

But for all the good intentions, volunteering can only be truly impactful when it is carried out meaningfully, responsibly and with a 'do no harm' approach. This is particularly important when working with vulnerable and marginalised people.

Last year, we were proud to work alongside volunteer-involving organisations around the world to develop a set of Global Volunteering Standards to provide a framework so that development programmes respond effectively to community needs, community members and volunteers are kept safe, and volunteers are fully prepared, trained and supported during their placements. As governments and communities across the world gear themselves up to respond to the new global crisis, we will be ready to support volunteer-involving organisations to respond, and ensure that volunteers are adequately prepared to engage in this vital work.

In a world full of depressing news, such an outpouring of desire of people to support their fellow human beings brings a welcome uplift. Let’s celebrate all those who are volunteering to step forward, and our community of global active citizens.