From small acorns…

At a time when councils, charities and other service providers have to make major cuts in the current austerity climate, increased community action could be a key part of maintaining services to the public. But how can communities first be engaged, and then mobilised, to get involved? The answer, it seems, could lie in focusing on the small acts that people are already carrying out and making it clear how every contribution adds up to a big difference.The research we commissioned with YouGov found that last year, 55 per cent of people in Britain said they volunteered in some way in their community, for example carrying out neighbourly deeds, fundraising for local people or causes, and helping to keep their local area clean and tidy. The research also highlighted four types of volunteer, driven by different motivations including helping friends and family, supporting causes close to their heart or community or for the personal benefits volunteering can bring such as personal enjoyment and learning new skills.

This suggests that many people have the desire to contribute to their communities in some way, and that many are turning sentiment into action. By helping people recognise that a contribution is already being made – no matter how small – it could be possible to inspire even greater commitment.

Of course the situation is not as simple as relying on existing volunteers to build on their levels of commitment and then inspire others to do so. As our research also showed, there are some big barriers to volunteering, with lack of time and too many work commitments being two of the biggest. So there is a job to be done to break down some of these barriers and employers have a key role here.

Equally, while it is vital people are able to take part in voluntary activities safely, it would be a shame for red tape to hold people back. If the process to take part in community activities is overly complicated or time intensive, people may be put off before they’ve had chance to try out their activity of choice.

There is clearly a way to go until 100 per cent of Brits are engaged in volunteering but in the meantime, comfort should be taken from the community spirit that we have already seen very clear evidence of, both in last summer’s post riot clean up and in smaller, everyday activities across the county. People may not think that watering a neighbour’s plants counts, but that small act could well be a step towards nurturing a much bigger effort.

Paul Emery is head of community and social organisations at Zurich