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Giving and getting something back

An Cailín Rua

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

National Volunteering Week takes place this week in Ireland, from May 14 to May 20. The week, run in partnership with the network of Volunteer Centres and Volunteering Information Services, is dedicated to highlighting the contribution of volunteers to communities across Ireland. And boy, is that contribution significant.
It is fitting, particularly in rural Ireland, that this year’s theme is “Volunteering Builds Better Communities”.  
Every so often, it occurs to me just how heavily communities rely on volunteerism, just to make the wheels turn; to function as a society, to care for our vulnerable and generally make things happen. From Tidy Towns groups to Community First Responders, to festival committees, sports coaches, charity fundraisers, search and rescue services, political and social canvassers, the range of activities for which we rely on people to give of their time and effort is nothing short of astounding.
When I moved back west, volunteering was a way of meeting new people and re-integrating into my community. I’ve benefited immeasurably from it – I’ve gained professional experience, learned new things, made new contacts, found new friends, lost many hours of sleep. And over the course of almost three years I have never once found myself with an hour where I have ‘nothing to do’ (it’d be nice, the odd time!)  
However, it is a mixed bag; volunteering can also eat up your time and energy, place you under unanticipated pressure, and occasionally leave you feeling very under-appreciated. Such is life, however and like anything else, you generally get out what you put in, and the sense of community, camaraderie and satisfaction you get from volunteering at a successful event is incomparable to any other feeling.
Of concern is the fact that it is getting harder and harder to recruit younger volunteers. Older people, who have devoted years – even decades – volunteering in their communities are fatigued; fresh legs and new ideas are needed, but where are the twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings? In this neck of the woods they’re tied up with family, work commitments, struggling to pay mortgages, some are enduring long weekday commutes and many of them don’t have the time or energy – or sometimes, let’s call a spade a spade here – the inclination to give something back.

Level of reliance
Of concern too has to be the sheer level of reliance on people’s goodwill to prop up essential services. Many charities who provide vital health and support services – hospices, mental health services - admit that they simply could not do so without volunteerism and fundraising. Some emergency services rely on volunteers to operate, such as Search and Rescue. Where is the State’s genuine acknowledgement of their contribution; the recognition that without volunteer hours, we would essentially be a third world country?
On that note, if you are running an event, it is strongly advisable to include both in your budgets and your post-event reports a Volunteer Impact Assessment, which quantifies your volunteer hours, and even assigns them a monetary value, as well as measuring the impact of their activities. Sadly, as cuts in public expenditure continue to impact negatively on community-based initiatives, the need to quantify the worth of volunteer time and effort is increasingly important. But the exercise is also a good reminder to committees of the value of volunteerism – including their own.
That said, if we started measuring volunteerism solely in terms of monetary value, we would destroy the spirit of it entirely. No-one volunteers for entirely altruistic reasons; we all want something back, whether it’s a sense of satisfaction, recognition, social connections, professional experience or just the bit of craic. And why not? Studies have shown that volunteers live longer, are less likely to experience loneliness and depression and are healthier. And the warm glow you get from giving something back to your community and society is a feeling that’s hard to beat any day of the week. So if you haven’t already, why not give it a go?
Mayo Volunteer Centre offers a variety of interesting volunteer roles from office work, PR/marketing, photography, carer roles, retail opportunities, mentoring, gardening and art. Visit www.volunteermayo.ie and try your hand at something new!