Whether you’re dog walking, becoming a school governor or running a sporting event, volunteering your time free of charge can reap huge benefits for your community – and also for you. From confidence boosting to socialising and skill building, volunteering can be much more than simply ‘lending a hand’. “If you do good, you feel good,” affirms Will Downs, trainee volunteering development policy officer for the National Council For Voluntary Organisations (ncvo.org.uk), the umbrella organisation for the voluntary and community sector in England. “More than 12 million people are already volunteering in our communities every month and, while there’s a lot of talk about it being a divided society, over the last 20 years the overall level of volunteering has remained the same – showing that many of us are taking time out to help others and reap the rewards.”
Giving with benefits
In fact, as well as helping a cause you care about, research suggests that giving back to your community can have significant health and wellbeing benefits. “It can help you develop new skills and consolidate skills you already have. If you’ve been out of work, for whatever reason, employers also look favourably upon a volunteering history in job applications,” says HCPC registered psychologist Dr Glenn Mason (glennmasononline.com). “People often avoid volunteering, as they feel they just don’t have time, but research suggests those who volunteer feel like they are less time constrained, due to engaging in meaningful activities. Plus, volunteering can bring structure and routine to the day. It also has many other significant physical health benefits, with some research suggesting it can even increase life expectancy.”
Indeed, recent studies have shown volunteers, particularly those over 40, are more likely to have a more positive outlook than those who do not volunteer. “We surround ourselves with technology that makes us feel connected but, more often than not, we’re disconnected,” says life coach Danielle Marchant, author of Pause Every Day (£6.99, octopusbooks.co.uk). “Volunteering makes us feel part of something and gives us a sense of belonging. It focuses us on something bigger than material things and brings meaning. For this reason, it has great psychological benefits.”
Volunteering in sport, in particular, has been shown to bring some of the greatest benefits. While just one volunteer can entice 8.5 people to participate in sport and physical activity – and bring the equivalent of £16,000 worth of social value to communities in the UK – research suggests that sports volunteers have higher self-esteem, emotional wellbeing and resilience than volunteers outside of sport. “Sport has that ability to provide social cohesion, develop skills and bring happiness,” adds Chantel Scherer, director of marketing, communications and member engagement at the Sport and Recreation Alliance. “And this happens regardless of whether you are physically participating in that sport or simply volunteering.”
Do your research
Before you embark on a volunteering project, choose something that is close to home as it will be much easier to sustain. There are lots of places online that can help you learn more about volunteering and search for the right opportunities. Check out:
– a search engine for UK-wide volunteering places.
– an opportunity finder for sports (sportandrecreation.org.uk).
Local volunteer centres
– the NCVO has a finder map which matches you with a local volunteer group (ncvo.org.uk)
How to volunteer?
1. Go with your gut
“When you’re exploring volunteering opportunities, go for causes that connect to your values, your own ‘internal compass’ that guides and directs you through life,” says Dr Glenn Mason. “When you live a life truly aligned to your core values, you will be living a value-based life that brings purpose and meaning.”
2. Assess your skills
Consider what you can personally bring to an organisation. “Accountants or lawyers might not think they have anything to give but bookkeeping or legal advice might just be the skill a local club or charity is looking for,” says Danielle Marchant. It’s also worth considering what might give you credible work experience for your own CV.
3. Take time to make time
“Volunteering can be a big time commitment so ensure you can allocate enough time for it, otherwise it could breed resentment,” says Marchant. “Make the cause a part of your life rather than something extra on your to do list. It will mean you are more likely to keep going with it.” Or join the ‘micro-volunteering’ revolution, which allows you to volunteer your time in short and convenient bite-sized chunks. Check out skillsforchange.com.
Where to volunteer?
Hold a cocktail party in a care home
Join the Magic Me (magicme.co.uk) project and be part of a monthly cocktail party in a London care home, helping to address issues of social isolation.
Go to a gig
Become part of the 3,000+ workforce of coaches, drivers and first aiders that help disabled children and adults take part in the Special Olympics GB (specialolympicsgb.org.uk).
Take an ethical holiday
Take one of the RSPB’s (rspb.org.uk) full-time conservation placements and spend the summer working at a nature reserve.
Run your way to a good turn
Forget the treadmill, join a Good Gym (goodgym.org) and volunteer at local organisations along your jogging route.