Over a couple of drinks recently a friend let slip that despite following me on Twitter he hadn’t the first idea what I actually “did with volunteers”. I didn’t take this too personally as I couldn’t give two hoots about Sharepoint software and that hasn’t impeded our relationship thus far but I obliged him. I told him a little about what I did and explained some of the activity he might have seen on Twitter. After a typical ramble from me about the nature of volunteering what transpired was a bizarre five minutes of me trying to convince him he was a volunteer! He had spent a day staffing the bar at a community event but couldn’t equate this to volunteering because he was “having fun” and “helping out a friend”. He's also taking part in a boat race for bowel cancer and this caused someone else to chip in about a cycle ride he takes part in every year that was “great fun, a good challenge and a way to bond with friends… oh and if it raises a couple of quid then all the better”. It fascinated me that this kind of giving is thought about in such a way and actively resisted volunteer status. I hope my viewpoint opened their eyes to the fact that giving time is not always (some may say rarely) for solely altruistic reasons. For their sake (and yours) I have put together a little collection of some of the things volunteers have got out of volunteering with the library service over the last year.
Many libraries have seen the benefit of young volunteers, some as young as 14, who can bring the perspectives of an under-represented group into libraries. In return these young people are taking away valuable experiences in a new environment, getting excellent extra-curricular activities for CV/UCAS application and in some cases working towards Duke of Edinburgh awards. The number one reason young people keep volunteering is that they are still learning so it is clear that we must continue to give something to them if we want them to stay.
In tough economic times it is not only the young who are looking to increase their chances of employment or boost an academic application. Last year we were joined by people who wanted to return to work after a period of long-term absence. Volunteering gave structure with flexibility and an opportunity to take on a part-time commitment. This helped get them back into old habits and prove to potential employers that they were ready. Other volunteers are looking for a change of career or a new direction after becoming a parent and helping with Rhymetime/Storytime/Summer Reading Challenge can give people a taste of what working with children can be like and confidence when they take the leap. It is sad to see them go but in situations like these we can be happy in the knowledge that they did great things for us and in turn we helped them on their path.
We have also seen volunteers come forward for whom English is not their first language and provided an opportunity to learn, develop and grow in confidence in a safe environment. As with young people it also provides the possibility of a reference when looking to move on.
To some people volunteering is an extension of a hobby or simply something people feel passionately about. Talks to the public, IT support volunteers and family history sessions would all come under this umbrella. For the likes of the Berkshire Family History Society it is good advertising and a way of recruiting members so our arrangement is mutually beneficial and demonstrates that libraries are community spaces not just rooms full of books!
As much as the thought of retirement may be quite appealing to some of us right now, the reality of it after a lifetime of work will be quite daunting. To some volunteering instils a sense of purpose; we are supportive, enabling and let them know they are valued. To others, volunteering can be a welcome distraction from caring for a relative or friend. This feeds into a more general appeal of volunteering which transcends all of the above which is to socialise. Volunteering can be a great way to meet a broad range of new people whether they are other volunteers, staff or service users.
Finally and very importantly volunteers want to have FUN!!! They are choosing to be here and give their time to help us and the people who visit our libraries so it should be enjoyable for them.
Each volunteer will be motivated by a combination of the factors above (and maybe a few more) so I hope this opens some more eyes to the fact that we have moved way beyond traditional stereotypes of who volunteers and why! I also hope it serves as a reminder to VMs that even at a time when so much is being asked of us within our organisations we need to remember that it will do us no good if we simply focus on what we want volunteers to do for us.