I believe in volunteering, I believe in supporting in it, and I try to engage in volunteering where possible. This “where possible” is an important detail; in a common complaint many seem to empathise with, days and weeks tend to run away with themselves in the midst of work and desperate attempts to exercise enough, read the stack of books that hasn’t been touched since January, keep up with family demands, and still manage to relax enough to make the week manageable. The voluntary donation of time can be hard to achieve when the malaise of seemingly more pressing activities dominates the week, and months can easily slide past without time being put aside for voluntary work.
Despite experiencing and recognising these difficulties, the concept of days of obligatory volunteering insisted on by your company as part of your day job, initially led me to feel some reservation and feelings of doubt. Is volunteering still valid if you’re ‘made to do it’ and if it’s expected as ‘part of your job’ or ‘commitment to the company’? I also had been exposed to critical positions on Corporate Social Responsibility as a concept, and I suppose I’m a bit naturally cynical about why a company might choose to do one thing or be associated with one charity brand over another.
However, in the six months that I have been working with corporate volunteers, my perspective has changed dramatically. Firstly, given the previously mentioned competing range of clamouring demands on time that one experiences in the 9-5 existence, the provision of two days’ worth of time for voluntary activities is not to be disregarded. Secondly, a day’s exposure to volunteering activities can also be a great starting point for engaging in further voluntary activity.
Most importantly, I have realised that whether a voluntary activity is actively sought out by an individual or offered to them by the organization for whom they work, the attitude they come with is their own. Among the hundreds of volunteers I have met, I have repeatedly encountered enthusiasm, dedication and the genuine desire to make a difference, and I have seen people take to a range of tasks from the strenuous to the downright messy with fervour and impressively good grace and humour.
Corporate volunteers engage in a range of activities with Community Links, from gardening and constructing fences and play equipment at our Community Hubs to interview and employability skills training with young people, from literacy sessions with local children to mentoring entrepreneurs in their business journeys.
Beyond simply measuring volunteering in terms of allocated time, there are a number of ways to assess the impact of these voluntary activities. Often the measure is practical, as the impact that a team of volunteers working on and outdoors project or site is visually demonstrable. Similarly, the impact of volunteering on the volunteers themselves can also be measured through the assessment of the feedback they provide after participating in one of our projects. However, what is harder to quantify, but in my opinion of overwhelming importance, is the impact that volunteering can have on extending a person’s personal understanding.
The UK – and particularly east London – is at once extremely diverse and desperately unequal. Perhaps no place other than this part of the capital shows both the cultural richness and economic disparity of the nation so clearly – between Canary Wharf and Canning Town it can be hard to draw comparisons. It is dangerously easy to exist in one of the dimensions of this part of the city without often straying into others. After several months working in Canning Town, a five minute tube journey to Canary Wharf can make you feel like you are in another world. Volunteering can offer us a chance to gain a new perspective, and allows a temporary window onto a contrasting reality to be opened. My experience working with corporate volunteers has shown this in a powerful way; even volunteers who are from or who know Newham have commented on how much they have learnt about the realities of the borough as a result of volunteering with Community Links.
And this is the best bit. After spending time volunteering with Community Links, many people have contacted me asking to be involved in subsequent events and activities in a personal capacity. As a charity we’ve got a big vision and there’s a lot to do – we need an army of partners, supporters and volunteers to help us.
In conclusion, be it a result of personal impulse, organizational engineering or even peer related pressure, almost all of us could and should volunteer more. Similarly, we all need to ensure that we regularly open our eyes to worlds which are not our own. I celebrate organizations and individuals who are willing to give their time and energy to voluntary work, and those who are open to learning about the actions, lives and activities of others.
If you’re inspired by volunteering, why not find out out how you could get involved at Community Links.
An edited version of this blog post was first published by Third Sector