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Community volunteering: changing the world one cake at a time

Updated: Jun 1

By Maggie Hall

Maggie is a former Chair of Brighton Humanists, a member of the Humanists UK Dialogue Network, and a Humanists UK School Speaker. She is also a retired Teacher of Speech and Drama. In this article, she writes: “It’s good to know that by volunteering I’m reducing my arthritis pain, warding off dementia, learning a lot about others and increasing my general well-being. It’s also very good to know that so many of my friends are enjoying the same benefits. However, for me these are all side benefits attached to the main one of knowing that by joining with others I might be able to contribute to making the world a better place for us all.”

Once it was decided that my article this month would be on community volunteering, I scratched my head for an angle. There could be many reasons why people might volunteer; being passionate about a certain issue or cause, gaining a sense of fulfilment, wanting to make friends, or even because it looks good on their CV. Then it dawned on me that not only have I volunteered for one community group or another for most of my life, but I know many other people who are or have been similarly active in their local communities, so why not ask them about the motives and benefits associated with volunteering?

Currently, my main voluntary activity, apart from writing for Humanistically Speaking, is as part of a local climate action group called Seaford Environmental Alliance (SEA). It’s a group that tries to pull together the activities of many other local environmental groups and it runs a Climate Hub in a building that used to be a bank. The hub operates as a centre hosting a community larder (supplied with excess food from local supermarkets that would otherwise go to waste), a recycling hub for items that are not recycled by the local council, a baby bank providing donated baby clothes and equipment for anyone who needs them, a “Seeds to Supper” project helping local people to grow their own food, and many other projects and events too numerous to mention. It seems that just about any event we run there involves cake – vegan, of course! I’ve made so many cakes lately I’m thinking of going into production! In fact, when I think about it, just about all the volunteering I’ve ever done has involved making cakes. Seaford Environmental Alliance is well supplied with able and enthusiastic volunteers, so when I put out a WhatsApp message asking if anyone would like to give me their angle on volunteering and why they do it, responses were swift and very interesting:

“I volunteer because I care about the environment and have always been interested in wildlife, especially birds and butterflies. I have grown up watching David Attenborough on TV and still do. I also love meeting people that come in (to the hub) and especially working with all the other lovely volunteers.”

“Volunteering at the hub makes me feel like I'm doing something in the face of climate and nature crises (so big it can feel overwhelming) and the hub gives a sense of community, activity, shared concern and comfort as a place for other environmentally-worried people.”

“Volunteering gives me a sense of purpose and a community that I enjoy being part of. I enjoy using my time and skills to give back to the community and achieve things that are only made possible by like-minded people volunteering towards a common goal.”

“I began volunteering at the Hub to feel as though I was doing something useful, but I've come to realise that it's as much about the sense of community and the opportunities to learn new skills as it is about me doing my bit. I'm sure I gain more from it than I give, and that's down to this amazing group of volunteers.”

The Pilates class I attend also has a WhatsApp group and I had a feeling that some of the members also did local volunteering, so I contacted them too. Here are their responses:

“I volunteered at the cancer shop in town when Bill (her late husband) found out about having cancer. It felt like giving something back and it’s nice to meet different people (good & bad).”

“I volunteer at Cancer Research in town. I really enjoy it and hope I’m giving something back and making some sort of difference, if only in a small way. On a personal level you also get to meet all sorts of people from different backgrounds, which is really nice.”

“I joined the (Meeching & District) Bonfire Society last year with my family as I always enjoyed bonfires around East Sussex. Neighbourhood events like street bonfires and festivals can help people get to know their neighbours and build a sense of community spirit. I truly believe taking part in events can help to reduce feelings of isolation and encourage social mixing.”

“In May 2019, I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer and visited the Eastbourne District General Hospital many times for appointments, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.  When my treatment ended the following year, I decided to pass my business on and do something different with my time. Volunteering was high on my list, but due to COVID I had to wait a couple of years before I could apply to be a volunteer at the hospital.  Initially, I wanted to help patients with dementia, but at the time the hospital was not allowing volunteers to have close contact with patients due to risk of infection. In April 2022 I started volunteering once a week with the ‘Friends of Eastbourne Hospital’.  My role involves taking the shop trolley around the hospital selling newspapers, sandwiches, drinks, snacks etc to both staff and patients.  I love it for so many reasons – it’s fun, sociable, the staff, patients and hospital benefit from all the funds raised by the ‘Friends of Eastbourne Hospital’ but most important of all, it’s my thank you to the staff and hospital for all they did for me.”

Before I moved to Seaford I lived in the village of Upper Beeding in West Sussex and served as a Trustee of the Village Hall, which is entirely run by volunteers. This is what one of my former fellow Trustees said about her experiences of volunteering:

“My parents were volunteers, although they didn't call it that. My father helped to run a boys' club and my mother served on committees including World Refugee Year and Save The Children. I have experience of managing volunteers and volunteering myself. I managed volunteers in a mental health project and saw the positive effect it had on service users who encountered people who valued them, who were not paid professionals, and on the volunteers who developed skills and confidence. In retirement I volunteer as a trustee of a village hall and as a befriender and pastoral support worker. I am also chair of the local History Society. I believe volunteers have many motivations but all get more from the experience than they give and provide the glue that holds communities together.” 

Naturally, I couldn’t ignore my volunteering humanist friends, many of whom, like me, volunteer for other causes as well as humanism. Anyone who knows anything about humanists knows that they always have a lot to say on most subjects and this one was no exception. Here are some nuggets of knowledge and advice from a very longstanding humanist friend who herself has always been a very enthusiastic and energetic activist and volunteer in many and various organisations.

“Recruitment: It's important that the would-be volunteer and the Management Committee of the organisation think carefully about their respective needs, and get good advice about writing their organisation's constitution and that they then stick to it, or change it if they make a mistake with the first attempt. The person interviewing the would-be volunteer needs to ensure that the needs of the organisation match what the volunteer can offer. For example, if an accountant turns up, and the organisation needs a treasurer – bingo! Even if the applicant has never been in paid work, they may have other useful skills that the organisation can use. An application form can be written in such a way as to encourage volunteers, albeit realistically. The application form also needs to explain the organisation's procedure for claiming expenses, as many people cannot afford to work without their expenses being paid.

Equality of opportunity is important in the voluntary sector, for volunteers as well as for paid staff, and everyone in the organisation needs to be carrying out good practice (not just paying lip service!). It's always useful if people in the organisation can go out and give talks, or write encouraging recruitment material, in order to attract volunteers, and to publicise the work of the organisation itself.  The local Council for Voluntary Service (if they still exist) may be listed by the local Council, and can be very helpful for new (or more established) groups that need volunteers. Taking up references, and keeping them on file, is absolutely essential as a precautionary measure. Unfortunately, there are baddies about, who will try to exploit inexperienced voluntary organisations in all sorts of ways.

Deployment: The organisation must be clear about what they expect a volunteer to do, and/or not do, just as with paid employees, and it's important that volunteers sign up to whatever their role is, or isn't.”

I have to admit that I don’t ever remember actually being interviewed for any of my voluntary roles and have certainly never been asked for references or filled in an application form. It’s usually a matter of offering to make the tea and ending up on the committee without really knowing how it happened! Here is another humanist friend's experience:

“Volunteering is my way to give back to the community. I volunteered in an organisation for people with ADHD because the first time I had met people who were going through life with struggles similar to mine I felt understood and a sense of belonging, so I wanted everyone to experience that. I am an extrovert and I find it easy to talk to people, however I know for some approaching new people can be daunting, so my duty as a volunteer was that of a public relations person. I would talk about the organisation I represented while introducing the new members to one another.”

There are some common themes in these responses. A very strong one is the sense of community, meeting new people, “giving something back”.  This is, of course, a very amateur and unscientific poll, so I thought I’d better see what the professionals had to say about it.

Academic studies on the benefits of volunteering

There have been numerous studies on the motivations for and benefits of volunteering, some of the results of which are quite surprising. For instance, a study undertaken by the University of Kentucky (see link below) looking into the effects of volunteering on pain and depression found that “volunteer activities did have a significant mediating effect on the relationship between pain and depression; approximately 9% of the relationship between pain and depression can be accounted for by volunteering. Moderation by volunteering was found between pain and life purpose.” So it appears that it’s not just the Pilates that helps me cope with my arthritis.

Another study (link below) looked at the benefits of volunteering in later life, particularly with reference to the risk of dementia: “Our results indicated that seniors, who continuously volunteered, reported a decrease in their cognitive complaints over time, whereas no such associations were found for the other groups. In addition, they were 2.44 (95%CI [1.86; 3.21]) and 2.46 (95%CI [1,89; 3.24]) times less likely to be prescribed an anti-dementia treatment in 2012 and 2014, respectively. Our results largely support the assumptions that voluntary work in later life is associated with lower self-reported cognitive complaints and a lower risk for dementia, relative to those who do not engage, or only engage episodically in voluntary work.”

Other studies have shown that volunteering builds self-esteem and an awareness of how other people live. A study in the Journal of Happiness concluded that people who volunteer feel stronger and mentally and physically healthier. They also report higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction. The study also found that the longer their subjects volunteered and the more they volunteered, the greater the level of happiness they reported.

I find myself very encouraged by this. It’s good to know that by volunteering I’m reducing my arthritis pain, warding off dementia, learning a lot about others and increasing my general well-being. It’s also very good to know that so many of my friends are enjoying the same benefits. However, for me these are all side benefits attached to the main one of knowing that by joining with others I might be able to contribute to making the world a better place for us all. To quote Kofi Annan: “If our hopes of building a better and safer world are to become more than wishful thinking, we will need the engagement of volunteers more than ever.”

Volunteers’ Week

Volunteers’ Week celebrates the amazing contributions volunteers make to communities across the UK. The celebration starts on the first Monday in June every year. It’s a chance to recognise, celebrate and thank the UK’s incredible volunteers for all they contribute to our local communities, the voluntary sector, and society as a whole. Our local celebration is taking place at Seaford Medical Centre on 5th June, which reminds me - I need to go and make some flapjacks.


References and further reading

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2 комментария

Maggie Hall
Maggie Hall
17 июн.

Thanks Valerie. It was easy to research this time. I know so many wonderful volunteers like you.


Valerie Mainstone
Valerie Mainstone
10 июн.

Thank you so much, Maggie, for your excellent article about volunteering. As always, your research is impeccable, and I'm so glad that I was able to contribute a quote, as one of your many friends who volunteer!

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