‘The desire to do good spans race, age and gender’

Globalisation. Technological advance. The growth of mega events. In the last 40 years, academic Colin Rochester has seen these trends and more shape the way we volunteer. But, he notes, the human spirit of volunteerism remains a constant

My career in volunteerism – which spans more than 40 years and encompasses work as a practitioner, researcher and teacher – began with a question.

Why, I wondered, in one of my first meetings at a voluntary organisation, did the members engage in so much social chit-chat instead of concentrating on the business at hand?

I eventually realised that this small talk was an integral part of voluntary action. Building interpersonal relationships and improving social cohesion, both between the volunteers and the communities that they served, was a large part of the pleasure volunteers derived from the process.

This realisation gave me a real understanding that volunteering was not just about getting things done but was also a means of expressing values.

I have seen myriad shifts in the role that volunteerism has played in our society,  and how that role has been defined by the 21st century. This has raised further questions. In what ways is technology helping the sector’s progress? And how can businesses and organisations inspire, rather than impede, a culture of volunteering?

Catalysts for change

There have been significant shifts in the way we practise volunteering over the last two or three decades. The growth of nonprofit sectors that started in the 1970s had implications for how we volunteer, and gave rise to bureaucratic organisational models and a closer relationship between voluntary action and the state.

This has had its positive side. Government intervention can help with levels of assistance, creating organised initiatives for people to get involved in. But while this kind of model can lead to increased recognition for charities, it can also introduce processes that are not appropriate for more informal approaches, particularly where smaller voluntary groups are concerned.

Another trend is globalisation. Increased population mobility has witnessed far fewer long-term volunteers, and more individuals who move in and out of volunteering.

Someone might volunteer at a school for a year, move, and then help out at a mega-event six months later. It is harder to keep track of these nomadic volunteers, but encouragingly research suggests that while they may take breaks or change the type of volunteering, they tend to stay involved in voluntary action in some way.

It has been heartening to see how the internet has galvanised smaller volunteering efforts

Colin Rochester, Practitioner and academic

Meanwhile, as populations shift, technology has become outstandingly useful for connecting people. When I first started out, charities had no way of reaching out to their communities beyond their physical presence, and it has been heartening to see how the internet has galvanized smaller volunteering organisations.

Technology has also been pivotal in actively assisting those in need. I have been impressed by programmes that engaged online mentors to provide help to people to cope with bullying, with significant benefits in building these kinds of important and long-lasting interpersonal relationships.

Alongside these changing trends remain the continuing personal, social, economic and “soft power” benefits of volunteerism. The impact of volunteering to nations, both economically and from a nation-building perspective, is undeniable.

Legacy and learning

Although research is still required on whether volunteers at mega-events such as an Olympic Games can be converted into longer-term voluntary involvement, their input can certainly lift the perception of a country and, perhaps inspire volunteerism in the immediate aftermath.

But volunteering isn’t just about major events. There are many levels of assistance that we don’t hear about. Even in countries like the UK where there are communities that appear to have low rates of volunteering, there are important sources of informal care that are often overlooked.

This may not be widely recognised as volunteering but the motivation to help those in need is an integral part of our humanity. Volunteers span class, nationality, age and gender, but all have the same concern: to support others and enact change in their lives.

This is why it is so important that we maintain the distinctive identity of volunteering and voluntary organisations. They encourage our health, vitality and moral purpose; and play an integral part in shaping the kind of society in which we live on a global scale.