We must harness the generosity of our communities to tackle future challenges
The last few years have made us realise the importance of giving something back to our communities.
I was deeply humbled to volunteer in my local area during the pandemic and see for myself the excellent work that NHS staff and other volunteers do.
We cannot let this spirit escape post-pandemic. We must harness the generosity of our communities and use it to tackle the biggest challenges that our country faces - everything from the environment to the NHS backlog.
There is already evidence that this generosity is being channeled towards the greater good. In recent months there has been an explosion in the use of apps and websites to help people find volunteering opportunities near them and give back to their local communities.
MPs that I talk to are particularly interested in making it easier for people to volunteer in their local communities. My colleague Alan Mak sponsored a private members’ bill to create an NHS Reservist Scheme, and I have proposed a similar expanded NHS Cadets Scheme for younger people. As a result of our work to promote the benefits of volunteering in the NHS and social care, the Health Secretary Sajid Javid recently credited and Mak and I when he announced plans for a new NHS Reserves scheme.
It is important that we empower local communities and do not attempt to control everything centrally
But, while this is all good news, more work needs to be done to get young people engaged in their communities. New research from Onward shows that 21 per cent of 16 to 34-year-olds had never considered volunteering and far too many hadn’t heard of any local opportunities. We must address this problem.
Onward also proposes some interesting new ideas for getting more young people into volunteering. Notably the creation of a new nationwide online volunteering portal that can act as a one-stop-shop for people to find nearby opportunities to give back. This plan would be of enormous help to charities, particularly smaller ones that do not always have the administrative capacity to recruit more volunteers.
This is a good idea, but it is important that we empower local communities and do not attempt to control everything centrally. We know from past experience that top-down interventions in civil society rarely work in practice. A better approach would be to set up an independent board comprised of major recipients of funding – government, charitable and civic – and commission this group to support and run a new portal working with groups on the ground. Given the links between such organisations and charities working directly with those in need, the portal would be designed in a way that works best for local charities and groups.
Expanding on the Onward report, I believe as a society we should make volunteering a family activity and accessible to all as an experience. A search online and you will quickly find nearby entertainment and leisure activities, but it is unlikely you will find volunteering opportunities as easily.
There is an opportunity to create a platform which helps individuals, businesses and families find volunteering experiences which match their interests or experience. A day out volunteering as a family could be lifechanging and build bonds deeper than almost any other activity which will want all ages wanting to return for more.
Local government has an opportunity to play a more active role in the signposting too. For example, “welcome to the neighbourhood” packs for new residents that include details of local volunteering opportunities through to signposting in high profile sites across towns and cities.
At a time when people are feeling increasingly isolated, volunteering is a fantastic way to establish connections and give something back. The benefits to individuals, families and communities are vast so let’s harness it for the good of wider society.
Dean Russell is the Conservative MP for Watford.
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