alan_bighamI first volunteered without knowing it.  As a 19-year old who had been asked to coach the youth American football team I’d just progressed from, I saw myself a coach not considering the nature of what I was doing.

By chance, I ended up working in the third sector for most of my life.  In advocacy, volunteer development and organisational development roles.  I’d seen the difference it made and had found a way to be a part of that – which has ultimately led to my current role managing the Volunteering in NHSScotland Programme.

Across Scotland, over one million people regularly volunteer in the communities, from their homes and in local and national charities.  The public sector is no different: we have over 5,000 people regularly volunteering in the NHS in Scotland.

We can often get caught up in the language of what is and isn’t volunteering.  I was once caught up in a conversation with a retired gentleman, very politically active all his life who told me he never gave to charity or volunteered on the basis that it was “letting the state off the hook”.  He was adamant that for him to support charities or to volunteer was in supporting of the abdication of the state in its statutory duties to provide services for its citizens.  I asked him if he considered his political activity as volunteering – he didn’t, because the word ‘volunteer’ had this other, negative, association for him.  Like many people who volunteer, he thought of the ‘cause’ before the action, the term ‘volunteering’ can at times be a barrier itself.

I’ve been fortunate to have met many people who volunteer, who recognise it as something positive that transcends political argument above or the various theories of volunteerism.  One could summarise common motivations as “doing it because it’s good” – good for them, people around them, communities, the country, the ecosystem, the planet.

The concept of altruism is often misrepresented in volunteering.  Volunteering isn’t about giving your time or your skills for nothing in return and most certainly not to your detriment.  It’s about you making a free choice to do something, and should be beneficial to all concerned.

I have learned much from volunteering and the cross-over of learning from work to the various roles I’ve had and vice-versa would now be difficult to disentangle.  I know the experience I’ve gained has helped me move into jobs I would otherwise not have been considered for.  I never set out with that intention, it just happened, much like how I found myself volunteering in the first place.

In Scotland, we’ve seen a decline over the past few years in the number of people who volunteer.  We don’t know why.  There are various theories about why this might be: how people interpret the term ‘volunteer’, increasing external influences and commitments on people’s lives, economic factors and the emerging episodic nature of volunteering (where people will drop in and out throughout their lives).  One of the most startling findings in the last decade was that primary reason for not volunteering was that people simply hadn’t been asked (you may now consider this blog post, an ask!).

I still coach but I have also been a sports assistant for children with additional support needs, a citizen advocate, a child protection officer, conservation volunteer and a driver for older people.  I’ve seen young people grow and develop, the impact of conservation work, the enjoyment of social contact for isolated people on Christmas day.

If there’s something you’re passionate about, if you want to put your skills and experience to use, if you want to push yourself, if you want to be a part of something that’s greater than the sum of our individual’s parts – why not have a look at what you can do?  If not today, then in the future?

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