Jeremy Hughes and Dr Allison Smith: Rethinking volunteering in rural areas

22 Jun 2022 Voices

Jeremy Hughes and Dr Allison Smith discuss how larger charities and those in rural areas could collaborate better on volunteering

It is estimated that 12.4 million people volunteered at the height of the pandemic, 3.8 million for the first time. Shaping the Future with Volunteering (STFWV) is a group of 26 larger volunteer-involving organisations, many of which are involved in rural communities. In April, led by countryside charity the CPRE, STFWV hosted a webinar with experts in rural volunteering and civil society. The webinar sought to gather some fresh thinking on how we support volunteering in rural areas given the essential role civil society plays in the social fabric of rural life; specifically, what might be the role of larger national charities, and how could they work with smaller charities and rural communities for mutual benefit? 

A key area for greater collaboration is around volunteering infrastructure. Larger charities have been able to invest in volunteer processes around marketing and recruitment, and then the vetting and training of volunteers because of the scale of volunteers coming into these organisations. This is not always viable for smaller organisations given the cost. However, smaller organisations might have greater access to community resources and assets, and be more integrated and embedded in local governance structures e.g. parish councils. Each charity brings elements of volunteering infrastructure which could be mutually beneficial.

There is also a sense that charities, both large and small, can have a rather myopic and territorial view of volunteers – specifically, they are ‘our volunteers’.  A valid point was raised in the webinar - we tend to think about economies of scale for volunteering, rather than economies of scope. From the case studies collected as part of this work, those volunteering in rural areas appear to undertake multiple activities and appear less fixed to a single cause or charity. This suggests we should and would benefit from working better together to nurture and facilitate greater ‘scope’ in volunteering. 

And finally, how might greater collaboration between charity partners address some of the key societal or national challenges faced in rural communities and beyond? For example, could an initiative between rural VCS organisations and national organisations help with volunteer progression?

This would support volunteers to progress to more responsible, local leadership roles (e.g. in parish councils) and/or paid employment. Such a collaboration could be highly valuable for rural communities – in that it could help to further strengthen and grow civil society and help towards alleviating rural poverty. 

Increased transport costs

Similarly, how might larger and smaller charities join forces to address national challenges which impact them both, such as the increased costs associated with vital volunteer activities such as community transport services? Given rising fuel costs there is a need for HMRC to review mileage allowance for volunteers given the vital role they play in supporting some of the most vulnerable members of our community. The current mileage allowance could deter recruitment and undermine retention of volunteers at a time when need is greatest. 

The pandemic highlighted the critical importance of active citizenship or volunteering, working alongside the state to buffer the impact of Covid-19. Central to our thinking should be: how do we play this forward and strengthen what we do?  We still face significant challenges – both in terms of recovering from the pandemic and continued geopolitical uncertainty.

Surely part of the answer is greater collective collaboration amongst civil society organisations; each pooling their knowledge and resources together for the greater good.

People with experience of rural volunteering can help shape STFWV’s proposals for future best practice by emailing: [email protected]

Jeremy Hughes is convenor of Shaping the Future with Volunteering and Dr Allison Smith is head of research at Royal Voluntary Service 

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