Don’t believe them when they say ‘never volunteer for anything’

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As New Year resolutions start to go by the wayside, Nel Staveley says you can boost your self-esteem and make a difference to others

New Year’s resolution to hit the gym already waning? Don’t beat yourself up, just opt for another all-round better resolution instead: volunteering. It’s not all about doing good, it can also find you a better job, more friends and keep you on-trend.

New Year resolutions tend to be self-indulgent. You will lose that weight, you will get that promotion, you will finally learn to cook. Good luck to you. But that’s it, isn’t it? Good luck to you, not good luck to anyone else.

Except, perhaps, the people you might cook for, your pledges will bring pleasure to no one but yourself. That’s why you should think about the resolution that 5.1 million people in the UK say they’re considering; volunteering.

“The majority of volunteers want to make a difference, to help others, or make life fairer,” sums up psychologist Diana Parkinson (www.dianaparkinson.co.uk). “They are displaying natural human empathy and compassion.”

Two big ticks, then, on why volunteering is an admirable, good, citizen-like, society-improving thing to do.

But we all know that already, don’t we? And yet, apparently, it’s not enough. Figures from the Royal Voluntary Service (www.royalvoluntaryservice.org.uk) show that despite 13 per cent of the UK saying they were planning to volunteer in January 2013, by December, the overall figure of those volunteering had risen by only two per cent.

That’s not a brilliant reflection on (most of) our national character. So, if we want to make the statistics at the end of 2014 a little less embarrassing, what are the other reasons we should all sign up to do some good this year?

It’s very good for our stumbling economy. The financial impact of volunteering in the UK, if it was valued at the minimum wage, would be over £40bn, a figure that, without the millions of people giving hours of time for free, our already stretched taxes would somehow have to cover.

“Of course, volunteering isn’t about the economics,” points out Justin Davis Smith, executive director for volunteering at the National Council for Voluntary Sector Organisations (NCVO). It isn’t all negative factors, like austerity, that drive people to volunteer. Remember the heady days of the Olympic Games makers, all purple and smiling and flagwaving and having the time of their lives? It wasn’t all just a show, the “Olympic bubble” effect has driven up volunteering numbers ever since.

Volunteering can also enlarge your social life. “After being stuck with families over Christmas, many people fancy meeting new friends, and volunteering is a great alternative to other social activities. Many people even find future partners through it,” says Mr Smith.

While you could argue that colleagues in your day job provide a similar support network, Ms Parkinson is not so sure. “Because there is no exchange of wages [in volunteering], there’s no pressure to perform, so not the kind of stress we experience in paid employment. We can walk away at any moment. It offers the opportunity to meet like-minded people, to form friendships, free from the hierarchy that occurs in paid work.”

The National Council for Voluntary Sector Organisations (NCVO) is an umbrella organisation for over 10,000 UK wide charities and volunteering organisations; IVO runs ivo.org, a social platform for volunteers to meet and discuss opportunities, and Do-it.org, the UK’s largest volunteering service with a list of volunteering opportunities across the UK.