Charles Allen: Volunteers help us reach for the stars

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IT is 50 years ago this very month that Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov made the historic first space walk. He created a new world record of immense magnitude. Alexei’s achievement has inspired thousands upon thousands to become cosmonauts, astronauts, engineers and pilots. How did he achieve that remarkable feat? By sheer optimism, effort and the synergy of a team that pushed the boundaries of ambition, technology and physical and mental fitness.

In the memorable summer of 2012, 32 new world records in eight sports were set at the London 2012 Olympics, and an astonishing 199 Paralympic and world records were set at the Paralympic Games. For each of those athletes, achieving that record was the finale of an incredible journey. For many, it started when their talent was spotted by a teacher or a parent who encouraged them to join a local sports club and, as they say, the rest was history

An incredible part of our sports ecosystem are the 150,000 clubs and community projects, all started by local people wanting to do their bit, helping, supporting and encouraging kids, regardless of their talent, to be the best that they can be.

Our little Leos or little Lindas are inspired by clubs to get involved in community sport, and some of them go on to compete at regional and then national events. Ask any of our elite athletes, as I have, and they will tell you that grass-roots sport was a vital component in developing their full potential and broadening their ambition.

That vital component is built on the foundation of thousands upon thousands of unpaid volunteers in every town and village across the country. They are volunteers like Ken, who turns up week-in, week-out, on a wet Wednesday in Wigan to coach at the local running club. They are volunteers like Sue, who on a hot summer’s day in Slough can be found indoors teaching teenage girls synchronised swimming at the local pool. These unpaid volunteers outnumber paid staff by 20 to one, and are often more highly valued. Not forgetting my background as an accountant, to me, “value” is a good word to use, because each volunteer is investing their time to help others achieve their potential.

The Join In Trust, which I have the privilege to chair, recently published some research into the social value of sports volunteering. The Bank of England’s chief economist, Andy Haldane, says: “Whether seen from an economic or social perspective, volunteering is big business, with annual turnover well into three-figure billions”.

Join In’s research, entitled Hidden Diamonds, shows how huge those figures are. Each sports volunteer creates more than £16,000 of social value every year. That is the equivalent of Croatia’s GDP. Join In’s recruits add the equivalent of the GDP of the Cayman Islands.

Research shows that sports volunteers are four times more likely to trust others in the community and eight times more likely to feel that they have some influence over their local communities. They are a really important element of community cohesion, which is vital when so many things threaten to tear our communities apart. Many say that they volunteer to give something back because they were helped by others.

Now there is a new generation of volunteers, each creating the capacity for more than eight other people to become active.

We are a nation which loves our sport and there is so much on offer here in the UK. But hosting these events is a bit like putting a cosmonaut into space; it requires a huge team.

Join In has helped to recruit volunteers for many events, including the Tour de France, the BBC’s Sport Relief and the Invictus Games. It works closely with UK Sport and hopes to continue this role to by building on the success of the amazing 2012 Games Makers.

What value can we place on hosting these events? We know that the 2012 Games brought in excess of £14bn in regeneration but the legacy goes way beyond that. Like many of my generation who were inspired by seeing Alexei Leonov take his historic step, our young people are being inspired to take up sport by the success of British athletes.

Although around £1.2bn is invested in sport each year, little of that goes into investing to inspire, recruit and retain volunteers – something that I am proud to say Join In has done so successfully.

Lord Allen of Kensington is a businessman, Labour peer and chairman of The Join In Trust. This is an edited version of a Hosue of Lords speech on sports volunteering.