Volunteering: Why and how you should get involved

With everything from renovation to quick phone calls, there’s a role to suit everyone, plus 20 ways to give back in 2019

Volunteering can have a number of personal and professional benefits

Volunteering can have a number of personal and professional benefits


We all love a random act of kindness. It makes everyone, whether giver or beneficiary, feel good – and, if caught on smartphone, might earn several thousand YouTube views to boot. But what about making the feelgood factor even more powerful by incorporating acts of kindness into every week? 

’Tis the season when many people, intent on self-betterment and a more meaningful new year, turn their attentions to the potential of volunteering. But it doesn’t just mean working on a charity helpline or running a shop. Volunteering now runs the gamut from animal fostering to sports events.

Ireland has 22,500 not-for-profit organisations, and many of them have had to weather hard financial times because of the ill actions of a few. At what has been a difficult time for charities, volunteers have proved vital. And at last count about a million Irish people – more than a quarter of over-14s – were volunteering,  clocking up 233 million hours of manpower a year.

Volunteers have reported better mental health, better physical health and a greater ability to make friends

According to Volunteer Ireland, the group of people offering to help out is getting younger with every year: 17 per cent of them are aged between 15 and 24, 21 per cent are aged between 25 and 34, and 35 per cent are aged between 35 and 44. Four in five rated their happiness as “high” or “very high”.

A growing body of research has established strong links between volunteering and health and wellbeing. “Volunteers have reported an increase in their own positive mental health, their physical health and their ability to make friends,” says Amy Woods of Volunteer Ireland.

Emanuela Cepoiu volunteers as a design advisor: “I rarely get the chance to get my hands dirty in my day job, so I really enjoyed putting on my dungarees and cracking open the paint buckets.” Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Emanuela Cepoiu volunteers as a design advisor: “I rarely get the chance to get my hands dirty in my day job, so I really enjoyed putting on my dungarees and cracking open the paint buckets.” Photograph: Aidan Crawley

“A lot of people experience an increased sense of confidence, as well as belonging in their community, something that has become very important at a time when people rent and have to move around a lot. One girl I came across lived in Wicklow but commuted to Dublin, and it was only when she started volunteering that it had opened her eyes to the great stuff happening in the area where she lived.

“People who may be suffering from depression won’t say that volunteering cures their depression, but a lot of people with mental-health challenges have gone on to volunteer,” she adds.

“A lot of people who have retired or been made redundant say it gives them a sense of purpose. One person who had been made redundant found a whole new career and retrained from undertaking volunteering work.”

A fail-safe way to gain a sense of community and wellbeing it may be, but volunteering has shape-shifted in recent years, too, to move with the times. For some it’s a way to combine a sport, hobby or creative impulse with the chance to do good. For others it’s a more muted means of social activism.

Dublin artist Tim Mudie who left a near 30-year advertising career behind to focus on painting full-time through volunteering
Dublin artist Tim Mudie, who left advertising to focus on painting through volunteering

For Tim Mudie, giving back by volunteering is helping his own work. The Dubliner had walked away from a 27-year career in advertising to finally devote his life to painting. Thanks to Fighting Words, he has incorporated creativity into work in the community.  The brainchild of Roddy Doyle, the nonprofit organisation has been bringing creative writing to youngsters across Ireland since 2009.

It was inspired by a visit Dave Eggers’s nonprofit 826 Valencia creative writing project in San Francisco. Doyle concluded that Dublin, teeming with young storytellers, would make for a natural home for a similar centre. Thanks to 500 or so volunteers, the organisation provides free tutoring and mentoring in creative writing and related arts, including songwriting, screenwriting and graphic-novel art. In recent times it has developed operations in Belfast and Mayo, and expanded to bring volunteers into hospitals, detention centres and prisons.

“When I look back now, all the paintings I drew when I was working [in advertising] were quite dark, as though they were coming from a restrictive place,” Mudie says.

“More recently, the colours in my work have exploded. Perhaps this is what happened when young kids are telling me to draw their characters with things like rainbow hair. The fact that spending time with little people spilled out into my own work was definitely something I was a little bit surprised by.

“The younger kids are crazy in a brilliant way,” he says. “Some days you cry tears of laughter. And when a child comes over to say that it’s been their best outing ever, it’s an amazing feeling.”

Finding motivation

Other volunteers simply want to put their existing skills to good use. Emanuela Cepoiu, a 28-year-old from Harold’s Cross in Dublin, is an interior designer for a large architectural practice.

She also volunteers as a design adviser: she and other professionals volunteer for a few days at a time to paint or refurbish facilities for charities and community groups. She signed up on the Volunteer Ireland website, with a view to looking out for design opportunities.

“They ask for my assistance in creating a new vision and achieving more meaningful spaces for their end users,” she says. “That might mean helping them create an engaging sensory room, revamp the autism section of a school or design a funky recreation space for a local youth club. On average I would spend around 20 or 30 hours in the two to three weeks leading up to the works, but this would only happen four or five times a year.

Volunteering helps me gain more meaning and value from the work that I do

“I do this because I believe design exists to improve lives and make things better, but unfortunately it’s a commodity that not many can afford. And in fact it’s those that can’t afford it that design is most valuable for and need it the most. This is what motivated me to try and make design more accessible, and I sought out ways in which I could make a bigger contribution to improve the lives of those that are most disadvantaged in our society.”

Among her favourite projects was the renovation of the autism section of Greenhills Community College in Tallaght, in southwest Dublin. “I got the opportunity to design three large geometric murals for which I was able to take the day off work and go to the school to help set these up for the other volunteers and paint them together,” she says.

“I rarely get the chance to get my hands dirty in my day job, so I really enjoyed putting on my dungarees and cracking open the paint buckets. Volunteering helps me gain more meaning and value from the work that I do,” she adds. “It also gives me the opportunity to do something different from my day job and use my skills for a good cause. It’s always so rewarding to see that a little time and consideration, and a very small budget, can completely transform plain, tired areas into inspiring, engaging, warm and better functioning spaces.”

Virtual and microvolunteering

Organisations are resorting to technology to make things easier for both their volunteers and service users. “Virtual volunteering comes up a lot,” says Amy Woods. “We’ve involved graphic-design volunteers to design our Christmas card, while others have helped out in other ways. At the time of the centenary of the 1916 Rising, people could spend 20 minutes on the couch, transcribing handwritten pages from the National Folklore Collection of Ireland and essentially recording a piece of history” with duchas.ie.

Given that most people are strapped for time, microvolunteering is also on the rise. “It’s something that can take two or five minutes,” Woods says. “It can be a really short, one-off piece of work, like counting bee flowers online”, with Count Flowers for Bees, which helps to create a flower map of Ireland and so conserve insects.

Eoin Kernan, who volunteers via the Be My Eyes phone app Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
Eoin Kernan, who volunteers via the Be My Eyes app. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Eoin Kernan, who is 35 and from Sutton in Dublin, works full-time in video production. He has also signed up as a volunteer on the Be My Eyes app. Aiming to “bring sight to blind and low-vision people”, the free app connects visually impaired people with sighted volunteers for visual assistance through a live video call.

“It’s a very specific and unique way of volunteering, and anyone can do it as you don’t need particular skills. All you need is a phone,” Kernan says. “I’ve taken a couple of calls. The person who requires the service rings through to your phone, and it takes about 30 seconds. One woman needed me to help her with her Tesco shop that had just been delivered to her house. There were four things on the list that she couldn’t tell what they were.

“Another scenario might be helping someone get dressed. They’ll decide on whether they want to wear a red or black jumper that day, and you can tell them which is which. I’ve helped other fill out a form or read something off a computer screen.

“Often there are no pleasantries about it. You get a call, you’re asked the question, and you don’t feel you have to engage any further than that if you don’t want to. If you want to look at it selfishly, it’s gratifying to do something in 30 seconds that’s a very simple but helpful gesture. It’s so well thought-out in its simplicity, but it works.”

So with everything from renovation projects to 20-second phone calls, there’s a good chance that everyone can find a volunteering opportunity to suit them.

Volunteering: 20 ways to get involved

1 The Alzheimer’s Society’s daycare centres (including in Dublin, Louth and Westmeath) often have openings in arts, crafts or music tutoring.
1800-341341, alzheimer.ie

2 Charity radio is ideal for anyone with broadcasting skills. Charity Radio provides an opportunity to play classic music or try your hand at chat radio, all while supporting good causes. charityradio.ie

3 The Blue Teapot theatre company in Galway relies on volunteers to enable people with intellectual disabilities to get involved in the performing arts.
091-520977; blueteapot.ie

4 Got a creative/dramatic bent and live in Wicklow? The Lakers, a recreational club for people with special needs, regularly put on theatre productions at the Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray, and often need help behind the scenes. Currently, they’re on the hunt for drumming workshop support volunteers, and craft workshop facilitators. 01-2022694; lakers.ie

5 If ringing the bells at Christ Church in Dublin is something you’ve ever wondered about doing, now’s your chance. Volunteers are hugely valued at the cathedral, and although the bells are mainly overseen by the Christ Church Cathedral Society of Change Ringers, there is scope aplenty for volunteers to get their hands on those famous bell ropes. christchurchcathedral.ie

6 At St Hilda’s services in Athlone, which caters for people with intellectual disabilities, there is scope to facilitate workshops in jewellery making as part of their Leisure Buddies Friendship programmes. sthildas.ie

7 Graffiti artists are invited to work with youngsters via the Offaly Local Development company. Current projects include a graffiti art installation at Gallen View Estate in Ferbaneofflydc.ie

8 At St Joseph’s Hospital in Ardee, Co Louth, there’s the chance to become a Reminiscence Volunteer. This involves visiting the care facility for a couple of hours a week to chat with older residents about the old days, and listen as they recount stories from their own youth. irishnursinghomes.ie 

9 Tearmann Community Garden in Baltinglass, Co Wicklow, welcomes volunteers, and is currently looking for one with visual flair to create an exhibition of their collection of photos and display items. facebook.com/tearmannbaltinglass

10 The Irish Heart Foundation runs a Sligo stroke support group, and is looking for tutors to facilitate a monthly class so people who have survived a stroke can express themselves through art. irishheart.ie 

11 The Circle of Friends Cancer Support Centre in Tipperary town is looking for a volunteer choirmaster to direct a choir of about 20 members. circleoffriendscancersupport.com

12 Post Pals aim to lift the spirits of ill children by sending them cards, small gifts, letters and emails; it is yet another microvolunteering initiative that has made a big difference. postpals.co.uk

13 If mucking out, grooming and feeding horses appeals, the Irish Horse Welfare Trust in Arklow, Co Wicklow, is often on the lookout for yard volunteers to help during the daytime. 0402-30773, ihwt.ie 

14 In Co Mayo, Ballina Grow It Yourself often needs vegetable volunteers at Karen Community Garden to plant and harvest . It offers training to would-be greenthumbs. facebook.com/GIYBallina

15 The Rotunda Hospital is calling on crafty types who can crochet to help make octopus toys for babies in its neonatal unit, as part of its new Tentacles for Tinies programme. It’s thought the toys’ tentacles might remind little ones of being in the womb. facebook.com/KnittersforRotunda or rotundafoundation.ie

16 If the environment, particularly Irish beaches, is of concern to you, Greystones Coastcare Group needs volunteers to join a team picking up litter with specialised equipment. wicklow.ie

17 Wicklow SPCA has just the number for dog lovers currently unable to own a dog. Volunteers can sign up as dog walkers, and take dogs in care out for exercise, walks and socialising on its on-site dog park. wicklowspca.org 

18 In Templeogue in Dublin, Cheeverstown House welcomes Befriender volunteers, to help its clients take part in activities such as like dancing, knitting and yoga, or even going to local GAA and football matches. cheeverstown.ie

19 Making Connections, based in south Dublin, works with the HSE and other agencies to enhance the mental and physical health of older people at risk of loneliness and isolation by matching them with volunteers interesting in bridging the generational gap. Volunteers can visit people in the community for up to an hour a week. makingconnections.ie 

20 Sporty types can see what volunteering opportunities are on offer at the Cope Foundation. The nonprofit, which works with adults with intellectual disabilities, often needs support people for activities like bowling, golf, walking and the gym.

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