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Volunteering: is it a dying breed?

Published: Nov 21, 2016 4 min read

STEM learning

Volunteering in the UK: Growth or Decline

The Effectively Recruiting, Managing and Retaining Volunteer conference, taking place on 24 January 2017, aims to discuss volunteering strategies in the face of an increasingly changing and challenging landscape.  It is suggested that stagnating volunteer numbers and in some areas, reducing numbers of volunteers, along with cuts made by local authorities falling disproportionately upon the volunteering sector funding, suggests a potential fall in people volunteering per se. Furthermore the 2015/16 Community Life survey, highlighted 14.2 million people formally volunteered at least once a month in 2014/15 and although rates are mostly unchanged, it appears irregular volunteering appear to show a 5% drop!

So is there a problem? Have we fallen out of love for formal (unpaid help through a group/club/organisation) and informal (unpaid help to individual people who are not relatives) volunteers?  Worryingly employer supported volunteering, according to the Community Life survey, which describes ‘schemes for employees to help with community projects, voluntary or charity organisations’ encouraged by employers, show rates have also remained stable in 2014/15.  Could this apparent stagnation and plateauing for volunteering be a possible concern for the STEM Ambassador volunteering programme?

It is a curious twist that the STEM Ambassador programme has shown the reverse trend since 2010/11, where approved STEM Ambassadors have increased from almost 19,000 approved STEM Ambassadors to over 30,000 approved STEM Ambassadors by 2015/16.  This is certainly not stagnation in our employer supported volunteering!  So why the discrepancy?

Barack Obama once said:

“The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope.”  

So why has the STEM Ambassador programme stood the test of time and is flourishing, while other volunteering schemes are not growing in a similar manner?  Is it because we value our STEM Ambassadors more?  I suspect not.  Is it because the STEM Ambassadors programme offers more and varied opportunities for STEM Ambassador volunteers to get involved?  I suspect not.  Could it be that STEM Ambassador volunteers feel they are genuinely making a difference to the lives of young people?  In comparison to other volunteering schemes, I also suspect not.  How can you compare helping the homeless or feeding the hungry at food banks or volunteering at a youth centre for the disabled? Is it because the STEM Ambassador mission is clear and that employers and research organisations see the purpose in this volunteering approach in the community and schools to address the skills gap?  Well this must be true and with over 3,000 employers now engaged, maybe the STEM Ambassador programme has made it easier for employers and people to get involved.


STEM Ambassadors: ‘Making a difference’

Recruitment of new STEM Ambassadors supporting schools, teachers, non-school groups and young learners is certainly not reducing, in most cases without pro-active recruitment.  Employers can easily see the invaluable contribution employees can make to young people and can share in their success. The programme encourages volunteers from across the age, sex and BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) backgrounds. The programme has clear screening, induction and training support, while the personal details are maintained in a confidential manner.  So while other volunteering schemes ‘stagnate’, the STEM Ambassador programme grows.  Yet it is not all positive, with churn of STEM Ambassadors still an issue, balancing the current recruitment.  However, the programme is healthy in volunteer numbers, therefore it will be intriguing at the conference, to understand how we could better retain STEM Ambassadors, whether through better recognition or reward, or improving communication to volunteers or simply refreshing engagement with young people.