April 28, 2013
The Legacies of Volunteering
Volunteers in action, London Olympics; RWC 2011 in New Zealand
No – this is not the last will and testament of volunteering, nor an obituary of the dynamic and thriving social activities in our communities. But I do have something to say about the expectations of long-term outcomes for volunteering at major events.
This week there are media reports from the UK headlining Legacy of London 2012 volunteers is ‘fizzling out’, and declaring there is “no clear plan for capitalising on the contribution Games Makers can make to other volunteering initiatives”.
Like the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand in 2011, the London Games engaged volunteers (70,000 of them) who made a huge contribution to the success of the Games. There are lessons here for all of us, about event management – especially the volunteer programme, about long-term volunteer outcomes – especially around volunteer engagement and retention, and about ‘the legacy’.
Talk of the London Legacy began early, some five years before the Games began. There were promises declared, including the intention to “inspire a generation of young people to take part in local volunteering, cultural and physical activity”. The knowledge, skills and experience of managers of volunteers did not rate a mention. Defining a legacy was, I suppose, a way to justify the huge expenditure on hosting the Olympics, and to indicate there would be some return on the investment.
There have been reams of commentary, before and since the Games. One volunteer sector writer notes the shortcomings in the planning and management of the volunteer programme, and prefers to describe what was learned from the Games rather than extolling the Legacy. Another identifies the hurdles for sustaining a legacy on the volunteer front, namely ignoring basic principles of volunteer recruitment and retention.
Like the London Games, oversight of the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand was also a government responsibility, though much of the leg-work was done by the NZRU and Sport NZ. Leaders in the community sector were disappointed they were not consulted or directly involved in the planning for the volunteer programme. But it turned out well-planned and well-managed, and a huge success for the tournament, for the visitors and rugby supporters, and for the volunteers.
And, we’ve got the evidence, because research on the event was commissioned right at the start to monitor volunteer experiences. Six months after the event the survey indicates there may be positive impacts on future volunteering, though less impact on sports participation. There have also been positive outcomes for youth, and potential social benefits as volunteers keep in touch with friends they have made. A further follow-up report is due in the near future.
In the UK results of a recent survey are less promising. Only 2 per cent of adults have started volunteering since the Olympic Games; 70 per cent do not want to start, or do more volunteering.
Legacy? What Legacy? We are not talking about something that is gifted in a will, nor about a ‘baton’ being handed on to others even though there is no doubt volunteers will carry good memories of their experience for a long time.
“To be involved and a part of the ABs Victory Parade the day after the final – the public accolade the volunteers received was overwhelming!! A magical, historical day I will never forget!!!”
“My participation as a volunteer in the RCW is the best contribution to my family, community, and New Zealand as a whole.”
The Victory Parade is an emotional triumph for Volunteers
But is a major national event really an occasion to showcase volunteering and attract new recruits? Surely it was more about New Zealand winning that Cup!
I have been on the sharp end of event management a few times. I know about chaos and stress and long hours, and about the glow of success. More important is what I have learned about the support, enthusiasm and dedication shown by volunteers in their commitment to the project. They’ll go for it, 100%, and they will revel in the occasion and appreciate the ‘after-match’ party. Most will agree to be kept on the database for another time but will drift away if there is no ongoing communication and contact. Very few will come forward to ask about other volunteer opportunities.
This is not an issue of retention. We do not hold these events as a recruitment drive for long-term engagement. That’s unrealistic when current trends are showing short-term task-focussed assignments are preferred. After all the hype and excitement of a major national or local event the options for ordinary volunteering will seem somewhat pedestrian. I would sooner we acknowledged there are sprinters and there are marathon runners; there are horses for different courses, and (dragging out that old cliché again) one size does not fit all volunteers.
Volunteers I know do not think of their achievements at events or in their work for community-based services in terms of legacies. I do not regard my volunteering experience as a bequest from my parents’ example. It is simply something I choose because I belong in a community. That is the real nature of volunteering.