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Not just for Christmas
19 December 2006
by Mark Restall

It may seem unlikely in an age of rampant commercialisation, but some people haven't forgotten that Christmas is meant to be the season of goodwill to all men. Gender blindness aside, these fine sentiments inspire many people to consider volunteering during the Christmas period.

While this is heartening to see, many people are left disappointed. As Do-it.org.uk, the online database of voluntary work, states on its Christmas volunteering page: "It's not always easy to find opportunities - most charities close over Christmas."

Although Volunteering England doesn't help people find voluntary work - we provide organisations with support on volunteer management - given our name, it's not unusual for people to call us wanting to volunteer. Every Christmas, we get a rash of people looking for something to do. There are a few large organisations that specifically look for volunteers over the festive period, but it's hard to come up with much, especially in terms of variety.

Local volunteer centres are also used to such requests. A volunteer centre colleague once broke the news to an enquirer that there were no volunteer roles of the type she was looking for, to be met with the lament: "But I promised myself I'd hold a sick child over Christmas."

Most people's reasons for volunteering are perhaps a little less disturbing - they want to give something back to the community, support others and so on - but it can still be hard to track down a volunteer role. Renja Salonen and her partner Gary Mills wanted to volunteer this Christmas, but have not yet been successful, as Renja explained: "We had some time free, and it seemed like a good thing to do. Christmas is a time when you think about others. We imagined that it would be fairly easy to find something, but it's beginning to look like we won't be able to."

Some of the disappointment people face stems from a misunderstanding of volunteering. It seems fairly logical to assume that you simply offer your time to a charity, and they'll make use of it. While this is largely true, one should remember that voluntary organisations are professional bodies; they have a range of tasks that need to be completed. The same applies where they are involving volunteers. While volunteering should be less formal and more fun than paid work, it needs to be well organised, and this often involves a decent induction and training.

This makes it very hard for a volunteer manager to find something to do for someone who only wants to volunteer for one day. Some organisations are trying to create one-off volunteering opportunities, but it's difficult to make this worthwhile for both the organisation and the volunteer. What organisations are really looking for is ongoing support.

Kate Bowgett from Off the Streets and into Work expands on this point. Her charity works in the homelessness sector to provide education, volunteering, training and employment. "It's great that people want to offer time, but the majority of charities don't use volunteers over the Christmas period, and those that do are often over-subscribed. What we need is people giving time regularly throughout the year. If people really want to make a difference they should make a New Year's resolution to contact their local volunteer centre. They will find that there are plenty of groups in their local community who are desperate for help all year round." None of this is to say that there aren't opportunities available. Crisis looks for 5,000 volunteers over Christmas. The Do-it statement I quoted above goes on to say "... but many organisations dealing with homeless or isolated people, or selling charity Christmas cards, do need extra help over the festive period." You might be lucky.

For that New Year's resolution of ongoing volunteering, try Do-it again, or for a personal touch, your local volunteer centre, which acts a little like a Jobcentre for voluntary work. Centres will have a database of local volunteer opportunities, and talk through what you want to do to come up with some suitable options. You can find their details at volunteering.org.uk/finder.

Mark Restall is head of information at Volunteering England, the national volunteering development agency for England.