Volunteer Ireland welcomes surge in citizens keen to make that difference
THE CHARITY CRUNCH:“It’s not surprising that the numbers are going up. It’s a well-known fact that in times of recession, volunteer numbers go up,” says Phil Boughton, communications officer with Volunteer Ireland.
The organisation has 22 regional centres around the country. This year alone, there have been more than 14,800 additional volunteers registering with the organisation. In 2008, that figure was 7,545.
While some people go directly to organisations such as Focus Ireland, Simon or St Vincent de Paul to offer help, others go through Volunteer Ireland.
“They come to us, because they know they want to help, but they don’t know in what role, or for what cause. We can help match people’s skills and interest to an organisation that would suit them.”
The cohort with the biggest rise in applications are those in the 18-25 age bracket.
“One area we have really seen an increase in is that of skilled volunteers, people who have expertise in certain areas. For instance, we had senior executives working on boards of charities, people with PR backgrounds helping out with publicity, graduates helping out with social media and marketing.”
Every year, there are noticeable trends in which areas volunteers are interested in. This year, the top three have been: arts, culture and media; health and disability; and youth and children. Last year, they were: practical work; older people; and befriending. In 2010, they were: youth and children; education and literacy; and health and disability.
There are more than 15,000 community and charity organisations in the country. And all of them rely on volunteers to some extent.
Each year, January sees a spike in numbers registering with such groups, possibly as a result of those new year resolutions.
Boughton believes people are motivated to do it because it makes them “feel happier”.
“The feel-good factor can’t be overstated. And there is no age limit.”
Age does not matter
Betty Wall who lives in Sutton, Co Dublin, and who recently won a Volunteer of the Year Award, is proof of the fact that age does not matter when it comes to giving of your time.
Wall is 80. For the last 46 years, she has volunteered with the Variety Club Children’s Charity, which helps sick, disabled and poor children.
“I do it because there are so many children who need things,” she explains.
Along with others at Variety, Wall runs fundraising events. “I once had the cheek to ask Michael Flatley to come to one of our balls. He came, and we raised €90,000 that night.”
Of all her many years of working for Variety, Wall’s proudest memory is of bringing Liberty Swings into Ireland. She and her late husband, Kevin, first saw them on a holiday in New Zealand.
The specially-built playground swings can accommodate wheelchairs.
Variety raised enough money to buy nine, which are at several locations in the country, including St Michael’s House, and Child Vision in Drumcondra.
“Children in wheelchairs in playgrounds can usually never play on anything there. Now with this swing, they can. It has proved to be very, very popular,” she says.
While Wall has volunteered consistently for the same organisation for decades, Boughton stresses that volunteers who turn up for just one day can still make a useful contribution.
Offering your skills and time does not require an ongoing commitment, he says.
“There is a common misconception that volunteering must take years and years. It can be something as simple as shaking a bucket for a day, or working on a one-off project.”
He also gives examples where one person started doing something locally for the community and how that grew. Friends of the Grand Canal meet monthly to clear the rubbish out of the canal.
The group grew from just one person who lived locally near the canal and wanted to do something to improve the environment.
People can also be virtual volunteers these days. These are jobs that involve working from home on technology-related projects, including designing websites, helping with social media, writing and editing. “It’s a small but growing area.”
The main challenge around volunteering that Boughton identifies is an ongoing one: matching people with suitable opportunities. It’s particularly marked at this time of year.
Every charity that organises anything to do with serving dinner to poor people on Christmas Day, for instance, is inundated with members of the public asking to help out; far more people volunteering their time than can be accommodated.
“It can be a difficult time for people, because Christmas is so family oriented. Maybe that’s why we see so many people wanting to work on Christmas Day,” says Boughton.
“It’s also when we are most aware of people who are less fortunate than us.
“But what we would really like would be if those people who want to volunteer at Christmas time would think about looking at doing it at other times of the year.”
Census 2006 revealed that one in six people in the Republic spent time volunteering. But the question was not asked in Census 2011, so there is no data with which to establish trends or make comparisons.
However, if you think one in six of us volunteering is a heartening figure, Sweden’s statistics are truly impressive: one in two of its citizens volunteer their services.
750 phone calls a day: life in a poverty call centre
Following the money: the sector’s income, costs and earnings