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A challenging time for volunteering, or is it?

The 8 May marks the start of Red Cross Week and the birthday of the founder of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, Henry Dunant. This year this just so happens to coincide with The Big Help Out, a celebration of all things volunteering as part of His Majesty The King’s Coronation Weekend.

In 1863 Henry Dunant wrote about an idea, an idea based on volunteers, an idea of creating Red Cross organisations (societies he called them) made up of ‘zealous, devoted and thoroughly qualified volunteers’, bringing people together to help those in crisis (at that time ‘having care given to the wounded in wartime’). You only have to look at Ukraine to see how relevant that remains to this day.

What the volunteering climate was like in 1863 is difficult to tell, but in 2023 there are over 190 Red Cross/Red Crescent organisations involving over 12 million zealous, devoted and thoroughly qualified volunteers. Henry Dunant’s message of bringing people together, volunteering their time to help others clearly resonated.

As we approach what for us will be a week of celebration, kick started by a weekend of national celebration and world attention, the words of our Movement’s founder continue to ring true. Organisations across the country will be offering ways for people to find out more about volunteering, finding ways of coming together to help others. They will be looking to attract more zealous and devoted individuals. It is nevertheless a challenging time for volunteering. The recent government Community Life Survey tells us that levels of formal volunteering are at an all-time low and the peak of informal volunteering seen during the pandemic is beginning to return to post-pandemic levels.

So, do we need to do something differently? Absolutely! We need to take heart, we need to remember that in 1863 there were no zealous, devoted and thoroughly qualified Red Cross volunteers, yet in 2023 there are 12 million of them in over 190 countries across the globe. During COVID, tens of thousands of people stepped forward to support us at the British Red Cross and even more across the country. When the chips are down, people volunteer, people come together to create movements and people create organisations, it’s individuals like Henry Dunant who shape the future of volunteering.

While the Shaping the Future of Volunteering Group is a collection of organisations of which the British Red Cross is incredibly proud to be a part, at the heart of each one of these organisations are individual people, most of them volunteers. Is it the job of these organisations to shape the future of volunteering for them? No. It’s our job to listen to them and their ideas, just as much as we should listen to the people we’re trying to support.

So, as we approach big shinny set piece moments, whether that’s Red Cross Week or The Big Help Out, and as we at the British Red Cross embark on developing our new volunteering strategy, we should start by considering when was the last time we asked a volunteer about the future of volunteering? Instead of offering something for people to engage in, ask them what’s their equivalent of Henry Dunant’s big idea, and as a result what might 12 million volunteers be doing across the globe in 160 years’ time that no one has thought of yet?

It may well be a challenging time for volunteering, but history shows us it’s if volunteers are passionate enough about something, they will make it happen regardless of the challenges!

Chris Reed
Director of volunteering & youth, British Red Cross
12 April 2023