Life as a volunteer

Michelle Furtado
6 min readMar 22, 2022
History tour run by Friends of Broadwater Cemetery

I’m a lifer volunteer now. I know I’m only forty odd years old, but the joy I get from giving my time towards supporting others freely cannot be outdone. I’ve left the UK now, but remain as a volunteer for three organisations back home and support others as and when they need help.

I first started volunteering after I was made redundant and one of the organisations I worked with invited me to join them. That was nearly ten years ago, for the National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces (NFPGS), and now I’m a Trustee. I’m also volunteer Director of Green Tides, a non-profit forum representing the 40 plus groups across Adur and Worthing. Finally, I volunteer with the brilliant and determined group of activists known as Worthing Climate Action Network (WCAN). I am deeply committed to all of these organisations and feel honoured to work with so many great people.

Life as a volunteer brings much joy and sometimes, a whole heap of frustration. So, I want to take a bit of time to dissect some challenges. Hopefully, those organisations which rely on volunteer support might take heed and make some simple adjustments to keep on getting our best efforts for free.

Quick important note. Our public services remain severely underfunded for the critical work they provide. The local authorities and other similar statutory organisations, who I have worked for and with, are struggling internally. Parks, libraries, schools, job centres, health services all these services and hundreds more, have lost a brutal amount of funding over the last decade. The pressures within these organisations, to manage increased demands, including the catastrophe of covid, is enormous.

Community groups are acutely aware of this situation and want to build effective partnerships to tackle these challenges together. Empowering citizens by building effective partnerships, for whatever line of volunteering they offer to whichever organisations need involvement, is key to success. It means honest communications and information sharing, shared decision-making and acknowledgement of efforts. Here are a few of my experiences that are free and simple to change, which will help keep those working together achieve more.

Don’t claim credit for our projects — this is a super simple one for organisations to do. It means that when volunteers have spent a year or a few months doing the hard work then give them the credit. That will make your organisation shine as well. Giving others the recognition for their efforts shows what a great partner you are and will make others want to help too.

With WCAN, we spent a year walking around and talking to cafes, restaurants and other places to get Refill Worthing launched. We did well and organised a launch event that the council enjoyed too. Lots of great photo opportunities and good publicity, well done team. Election time came and the flyers for our local candidates used Refill Worthing to show how environmental they were, they claimed direct credit for the launch! I had to pull them up on it as it wasn’t ok. Our volunteers, some of whom can’t walk so easily, deserved the praise they received and we certainly did not want our success to be used as election fodder.

Give us the odd crumb of praise — as a volunteer you do what you do for love mostly. We don’t need much more than a cup of tea and a biscuit occaisionally. Yet if we get some praise it invigorates us, it makes us feel great and have a bit more energy. A social media post singing our praises, recognising the efforts that the community puts in would be nice. Or, an article in the local paper, a blog post even. If not, no worries, but thanking people is a kind thing to do and might encourage more volunteers to get involved.

Work as professional partners — real partnership takes time to build and a key element is respect on both sides. I know from experience that many community organisations are born from conflict; the potential loss of a park to development, the closure of a youth centre or indeed, coronavirus and the community response that flourished. Even from these contentious beginnings, excellent partnerships have subsequently been shaped and built.

Partners keep each other informed about what the other is doing, regularly provide updates and involve them in decision-making where possible. It works and can really help both organisations work better, by not duplicating efforts or replicating work. As volunteers we’re not paid and our time is precious.

Yet, often this simple partnership contract is forgotten. Then the relationship can break down. An example, a local group has been working for eight months on developing a Climate Emergency Centre. This has involved building an alliance of local groups, meeting and sharing their plans with the council to get their support, writing a business plan and funding bid, walking around suitable properties and trying to negotiate contracts. A whole load of effort.

An announcement by the council has taken everyone involved by surprise. They’ve got a lottery grant for £10k to set up a Care and Climate Hub. How marvellous! We love this news. If we knew this was on the cards, we wouldn’t have bothered with all that other work. The lead volunteers are now angry, disappointed and frustrated. Good partnership working would have prevented all of this.

We’re not isolated in this; I’ve heard this story from groups across the UK. Come on folks, treat us like partners, treat us like companies. Having the respect to treat us like professionals, which many of us are outside these roles, means you will have the best from us always. Yes, we are quirky sometimes, also passionate and willing.

Recognise our value — up and down the UK an army of volunteers do amazing things. From Friends groups to foodbanks, youth clubs to carers, sports clubs to charity shops, each and every one are full of dedicated and enthusiastic people. There is a huge amount of value created by these people, almost 1% of GDP, around £20bn per year! This value represents direct savings for local authorities, health services and whole myriad of other organisations that rely on these people. The services provided are gifts.

We create value with often really limited means. Funding is necessary and always hard to come by. Again, it takes effort to write a funding bid, one with a good story, which meets the key criteria for the funding stream. Even small organisations struggle to find their yearly costs; insurance, banking and accounting, website hosting and now, online meeting subscriptions or similar. Having easy access to a little funding, goes a long way.

Be kind — Support volunteers with their ambitions where you can. If you can’t, then treat them kindly. A wildflower verge locally, wanted by some, a weed-ridden eyesore for others, has proven contentious. Volunteers worked with the highways team, as part of a pilot to see changes to mowing regimes in roadside verges. They flyered local residents as instructed but forgot to write to local councillors and a residents group. Complaints were raised and suffice to say, things weren’t handled kindly.

Remember that volunteers don’t always know the correct procedures and might make mistakes, but that they only come at tasks with good intentions. There are ways of saying things without pointing fingers and putting down efforts. The group has walked away from the project and remain saddened by the whole experience. More careful communication could have steered their efforts to an area that was less sensitive.

This is my experience, drawn firsthand from a handful of groups. My national work finds similar stories from other volunteer groups. If organisations can follow these suggestions, build respectful and positive relationships with community groups, then everyone will benefit. We don’t always have to agree and the journey to build a strong partnership can be interesting, challenging and surprising. The time invested by everyone involved, whether on the ground or in supporting roles, bring amazing projects, cultural events, essential services, joy and happiness to communities. Long may this continue.

I’d love to hear others stories and if they chime with the above. If so, how have you overcome the challenges and frustrations? Or, if I’ve missed something out from the above list, let me know below too.

--

--

Michelle Furtado

Sustainability and regenerative, systems-thinking mentor, fine artist (sculpture, painting and digital) and community activist.