A word about volunteers

This village would not be the same without the volunteers who help out, in so many ways. While we often do try to thank them, we tend to forget too that it’s their effort that keeps the place running, and they’re often taken for granted. Just about every organisation that’s featured in these diary pages over the past months has had a crucial volunteer component; even when it’s a local business, volunteering time or donating sponsorship has meant the difference between an event happening or faltering. So I wanted to be sure that I started this piece off in a right way, with whole-hearted thanks for the volunteer effort that makes Allendale what it is today.

But I wanted, today, to concentrate on what the volunteers themselves receive. Why volunteer? I’ve tried to ask this question of various groups as I’ve interviewed representatives (mostly in the form of: ‘How does it feel to work in this group?’), and typically I’m met with vague, even diffident replies. Nobody can quite put their finger on why they volunteer, it seems. So I’m going to try (where angels fear to tread, and all that) today to look at what might motivate someone to volunteer in a village like ours.

I guess that every first year student of Psychology or Sociology knows about Abraham Maslow’s masterful depiction of the Hierarchy of Human Needs. But it’s worth reminding ourselves that volunteering fills a very basic need, or two or three, for us within our community. We build our friendships within the context of volunteering, where we feel secure and safe. As we contribute to the effort of our group, we develop our own feelings of accomplishment, achieving a shared sense of prestige: ‘We did that!’ And then, with luck, we might even find a sense of fulfillment in our efforts, developing our creative talents to the full. So volunteering can bring us that sense of warmth and sustenance that we just can’t get by sitting in front of the telly, for example.

In that way, I’ve always felt that it’s more of a personal privilege to volunteer, than it is a benefit to the organisation, and perhaps that’s mostly true. I know I’ve felt bereft as my own volunteering opportunities have dwindled away. But there’s also a joy as others have stepped in to take up their new roles in the delight of volunteering.

This diary entry was inspired by Nick Pepper’s request for volunteers to help out in the annual Allendale May Fair, a volunteering opportunity we remember so well as part of the Allendale Lions Club. In particular, it was the sense of belonging to the group putting on the event that so inspired us all, I think. We, most of us, got a bit too old to carry on with the heavy lifting and organising, then, and so with good grace we were relieved to see the event taken on by younger folks. But what I often think is missing from requests for volunteers (and it’s true that most of the groups I’ve spoken with have asked for just such a plug in these pages!) is the sense of what an opportunity the volunteering request can be.

For good mental health, for good physical health, for good psychological health, for comradeship, friendship, conviviality, craic, jokes and friendly rivalries, good sportsmanship, for ‘getting out of yourself’, for enjoying the feeling of being needed, the feeling of helping someone, which can resonate to your very bones — volunteering offers all of these opportunities to its participants, and yet we may think, before we begin, ‘oh no, not another call for volunteers!’

It’s not another call, really, it’s another opportunity for us to grow in our own skins, to be more cheerful, more relaxed, more healthy. All it takes, in a sort of counter-intuitive way, is to stop thinking ‘Well, what’s in it for me?’ and to think, ‘How can I really help?’ . . . before you know it, you’ve actually discovered just what’s in it for yourself!

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