03 January 2006
by Jamie Thomas
About 1,500 volunteer Santas converged on the centre of Edinburgh during Christmas 2005 to raise money for the terminally ill. (Photo: BBC News)
In 2004, UK Chancellor Gordon Brown declared that 2005 was to be the Year of the Volunteer. Although unexpected, his announcement provided a unique opportunity for the UK volunteering sector to come together, supported by £6m from the Home Office, to applaud the 20 million-plus people without whom so many public services and charities could not function.
Community Service Volunteers (CSV), the UK's largest volunteering organization, together with partners that included Barnardo's, the RSPCA and environmental charity BTCV, led more than 1,000 events driven by a themed monthly calendar.
Themes included volunteering by young and older people and those with disabilities.
Thousands of new volunteers got involved - Make a Difference Day in October alone attracted more than 100,000 - and events were supported by VIPs including the Queen, who visited a Millennium Volunteers project in London.
In addition, 2005 volunteers were presented with special awards, produced by the Royal Mint.
Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, executive director of CSV, is happy with the results: "Overall the year has exceeded our most optimistic ambitions in terms of new opportunities, improved access for volunteers and the extraordinary levels of media exposure."
In addition, the Media Trust, together with TimeBank and do-it.org.uk - a project run by online youth charity YouthNet - ran a campaign to get people to pledge a "billion minutes" to volunteer in 2005 and beyond.
The campaign was promoted on public transport and over the internet, radio and TV. Media support yielded regular coverage of volunteering on daytime and primetime TV. This included a key storyline in Coronation Street, and celebrity support from the likes of Lenny Henry, Mylene Klass, Nell McAndrew and Lemar.
But did it really make a difference? It would appear so. More than a billion minutes were pledged and at least 320,000 people registered on the official Year of the Volunteer web site and do-it.org.uk. TimeBank saw a 300 per cent increase in the numbers of people asking for more information.
Campaign manager Fiona McBain says: "If the message is strong enough we can inspire people who've never volunteered before... people really do want the experience and benefits."
The surge in interest did place a strain on small volunteering organizations.
The Home Office made £3.25m available to cope with greater numbers. Christopher Spence, chief executive of Volunteering England, the national volunteering development agency, welcomed the investment: "We have seen volunteer centres increasing both their capacity to handle enquiries and the range of opportunities they can offer. This has raised awareness of the importance of volunteering to society as well as the benefits it brings to individuals."
A significant achievement of the year was the collaboration seen within the sector, combined with the support of the media and government. Although many were critical over the lead-in time given by the Government, Dame Hoodless praises its involvement. "The commitment of the Treasury and the support of the Home Office were critical at a number of levels," she says.
Spence believes the relationships formed are important for the future: "The year has been a springboard for strong partnership working, nationally, regionally and locally, and maintaining this momentum will be a key legacy."
A promising start
The full impact of the year will not be realised until the Home Office completes its evaluation. But the early indications are positive. Of the total numbers of volunteers registered, 46 per cent were aged between 15 and 25. This is surely good news for the much-anticipated Russell Commission Implementation Body, which many see as the next big thing for volunteering.
Dame Hoodless thinks the true legacy of the year is already evident.
"I have not heard a single person say, 'I'm only a volunteer' since the year began," she says. "It has raised the respect levels of volunteering all round."
The auther, Jamie Thomas, was formerly the head of the Russell Commission review team and deputy director of the Home Office Active Community Unit.