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When did volunteering begin and just ‘helping out’ end? A potted history of volunteering

Having volunteered, worked alongside volunteers, managed volunteers and now as a moderator for a volunteering qualification, I recently found myself reflecting as to whether volunteering was quite the phenomenon it is now when I was growing up. I have to say that I cannot remember anyone setting out to volunteer – yes people young and old were involved in youth work, environmental projects, visiting the elderly, running community events, to name but a few. However as I recall they were just playing their part or responding to a request to help.

We have certainly come a long way since the term ‘to volunteer’ was allegedly first used in 1755 in connection to offering oneself for military service. However it wasn’t until the 19th century we saw the establishment of various organisations such as the YMCA and Salvation Army, designed to help those in need and using volunteers to fulfil their mission. Here perhaps we start to recognise an altruistic aspect to volunteering.

These charitable organisations are now often known as being part of the ‘voluntary sector’. Interestingly one of the assessment criteria from ASDAN's Level 3 Community Volunteering Qualifications (CVQ) asks candidates to demonstrate an understanding as to why such organisations have both paid and unpaid roles – highlighting the fact that the term ‘voluntary’ does not reflect the employment status of personnel, but that those behind the organisation are not in it for financial gain.

At the start of the 20th century we saw volunteering develop again, with the establishment of organisations such as the Lions and Rotary Club. Here those successful in business sought to use their talents and time for the benefit of the wider community.

The outbreak of two World Wars saw volunteers meeting some of the needs of the military, along with the vast numbers of civilians caught up in the conflict.

It was only in the latter half of the last century and the start of this one, that we started to see volunteering being more formalised. Local volunteer bureaus were established along with organisations such as Volunteering England, Millennium Volunteers and more recently V. Organisations such as these often feature in the evidence of candidates completing the CVQ unit ‘Finding a volunteering opportunity’.

Right from the 18th century it could be argued that there has been a political angle to volunteering. Today the notion of the ‘Big Society’ is a part of the political landscape in which volunteering occurs. At its heart is the principle of empowering local people and communities, taking power from politicians and giving back to the people. Favoured by some as the way forward, others would argue that it is more to do with placing an expectation on volunteers and the voluntary sector to meet local needs when the state can’t afford to do so. Sounds like a potential piece of research for another CVQ unit, ‘Research skills’.

There is no doubt that developments, such as volunteer bureaus, have helped people appreciate the wide variety of volunteering opportunities that are available and help them find suitable opportunities. The CVQ units ‘Understanding what volunteering is about’ and ‘Understanding the nature of volunteering and volunteer involving organisations’ are based on candidates having an awareness of this, along with the skills required to be effective for different roles – candidates need to be aware of the benefits for the organisation, as well as themselves as a volunteer.

As a moderator, the most memorable portfolios are always the ones where the candidates have volunteered out of a desire to help others and are not purely in it for personal gain or an enhanced CV. However there is no doubt that there can be many benefits for the volunteer themselves, including the opportunity to meet new people, gain new experiences and develop a sense of self-worth or increased self-confidence. Many skills, both vocational and interpersonal, can also be gained and honed through the right volunteering placement. The ASDAN Community Volunteering Qualifications (CVQ) are a great way of helping volunteers recognise some of the skills they have developed and also in some small way reward their efforts.

So whether simply looking ‘to help out’ or volunteer, people should also be encouraged to consider completing an ASDAN CVQ.

Mike Davis,
ASDAN Assistant Regional Manager (London and South East)



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