‘Volunteering is the vital ingredient that breathes life into our communities’

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By Wendy Osborne, above, Chief Executive, Volunteer Now and guest editor of our VIEW issue on volunteering

Some 30 per cent (429,174) of the population of Northern Ireland, over the age of 16, volunteer. This volunteering involves them giving time to help others and their communities. Their initial motivation to take part will vary but their motivation to stay will overwhelmingly be ‘to make a difference’. Without doubt volunteering is both powering and empowering our communities and our citizens.

It is this dual role that makes the concept of volunteer involvement an important component of participatory democracy. Where people voluntarily, of their own free will, have the right and feel they have the responsibility to engage because they want to help others, to right an injustice, to improve the environment, to enhance the wellbeing of their community, to support the interests and causes they care about, to give something back.

Take any community in Northern Ireland, large or small, urban or rural. Think of the sports clubs; community groups; arts clubs and societies; the local Lions, soroptomists and rotary clubs; schools with school governors and parent-teacher associations; youth clubs and organisations; faith-based groups and activities; neighbourhood watch groups; health and social care related groups; environmental and heritage organisations; playgroups; the emergency services and first responders such as mountain rescue, the Red Cross; local hospitals and social care facilities – the list is endless. It is about mutual aid and self-help, traditional service giving, advocacy and campaigning and building community resilience. Volunteering is the vital ingredient that quite simply breathes life into our communities.

It is amazing that while volunteers can be found in every townland, village, town and city we still have a tendency to take this important resource for granted. A very huge part of why this happens relates to the dynamic of being a volunteer.

My own experience over the last 45 years is the same as any volunteer I have ever met. We all say we get out as much, if not more, than we give. We make friends, we feel a sense of belonging, we learn new skills, and we feel enjoyment and a sense of satisfaction when we know we have made a positive contribution. We just do it.

This volunteer experience is replicated across the communities of these islands and across the communities of the world.

Through my involvement with IAVE (International Association for Volunteer Effort) I have met people doing work similar to Volunteer Now in Europe, Africa, Middle East, Asia Pacific, North and South America.

It is heartening to realise that a sense of working for the common good is something that transcends nations and cultures. This is of paramount importance to the United Nations as they have declared that the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals will not be delivered without the input and mobilisation of volunteers. Tackling the big challenges, which touch our lives as well as those across the world, such as eradicating poverty, zero hunger, good health and wellbeing, quality education, gender equality, sustainable cities and communities, climate action, peace, justice and strong institutions is underpinned by the global commitment ‘to leave no one behind’. It is not an option to take volunteers for granted.

Volunteers Week is our annual reminder to value and recognise the contribution of volunteers. In Northern Ireland we have a voluntary and community sector that depends heavily on volunteer involvement and we have a public sector that already involves volunteers in a range of services and is likely to require the involvement of many more. We have communities that benefit from people being neighbourly, showing care for others and being ready to help out. We are fortunate that at a policy level Northern Ireland has a volunteering strategy and the potential to provide a greater focus on and investment in volunteering.

We also have 70 per cent of the population over the age of 16 that do not currently volunteer, an untapped resource of time, energy and skills. There is therefore unlimited potential to grow volunteering, to create more opportunities, recruit more people and engage the widest diversity to ensure that civic participation is fully representative of our population. We can and should make it happen.

• To read the latest issue of VIEW on volunteering, go to http://viewdigital.org/2017/06/05/latest-issue-view-celebration-volunteering/

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