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Forget the stereotype of a charity shop volunteer

I was disappointed to see our longest-serving volunteer award come in for criticism in an article by Rob Jackson on the Third Sector blog last week, particularly as it was National Volunteering Week. I want to correct the misconceptions about charity retail volunteering that it presented.

The purpose of the award is to celebrate the people who have donated countless hours to their chosen charity and to highlight the power, reward and life-changing opportunities that volunteering gives to people in charity shops. Most people know that charity shops are staffed by an army of volunteers, but very few know the hidden benefits of volunteering in a shop. Our award aims to tell those stories.

Far from the picture painted by the blog piece, we have much to celebrate when it comes to our volunteering model. Charity shops represent probably the biggest volunteering network in the country with over 213,000 volunteers. A recent report by the independent think tank Demos, Giving Something Back, looked at the range of benefits charity shops offer. Sixty-one per cent of charity shop volunteers said that volunteering had a positive impact on their physical and mental health, and more than 80 per cent said it improved their self-esteem and confidence.

Of course, different people will be able to commit to different amounts of time. The average time commitment is six hours per week, which puts paid to the idea that charity shops have an inflexible model that can’t be accommodated into busy, 21st century lives. Charity shops offer a hugely diverse range of volunteering opportunities, not only when it comes to the time commitment but also the roles on offer. The Demos report highlights the changing demographic of volunteers, finding that although 38 per cent are retired, the same proportion are now either actively looking for work or engaged in study.

This is no surprise to those of us who work in the sector – one thing I’ve learnt since being involved with charity retail is that there is no standard type of charity shop volunteer and people give whatever time they can, for however long they can. I for one have been astonished at how inclusive charity shops are and how diverse their workforce is. And we should of course recognise the differing contributions of all our volunteers – the mix is what makes charity shops great.

We at the Charity Retail Association believe that there should be no barrier to volunteering in a shop, and so do our members. The diverse backgrounds to those volunteering in charity shops are testament to that philosophy.

Throughout the year we undertake work to promote the breadth of volunteering in charity shops. I recently led an event with Jobcentre Plus to discuss how to facilitate partnerships with charity shops and create shorter voluntary placements for those furthest from the workplace. Every year we hand out a range of volunteering awards, including to our young volunteer of the year, which generate amazing stories from people with different backgrounds and motivations for volunteering, and who have varying skills and amounts of time to offer. Often they have overcome significant personal adversity to volunteer.

But that is not to the exclusion of those who have given tirelessly over a period of decades, and none of this means we shouldn’t also celebrate the fantastic achievements of those who have been able to give so much over such a significant period of time. Remesh, one of our nominees, has been volunteering for 19 years and has used his volunteering to help cope with his depression and give something back to the YMCA. That is one of the many inspiring stories I have read over the past few months and, by telling people these stories, we hope to open the door to volunteering – not close it.

Warren Alexander is chief executive of the Charity Retail Association

  • Rob Jackson

    Thanks for the great response Warren. It shows the diversity and breadth of charity retail volunteering that I was suggesting would be missed by simply focusing on long serving volunteers.

    Just to be clear, I didn’t criticise the long service award, I indicated the message this might convey to potential volunteers about what charity shops value most i.e. length of service is more important than anything else.

    Long service should be celebrated as I acknowledged in my blog. What should be avoided is such awards giving a misleading impression of the nature and diversity volunteering. You have helpfully explained that here so I’ve linked to it from my blog.

    Thank you.

  • Meridian Swift

    Rob has a great point, and Warren’s explanation supports the point, which was not to dismiss the long term service of any volunteer but to be careful to not set that up as the end game. Awards can be inspirational and exclusive all at the same time. Do awards encourage new volunteers or do they set standards in a prospective volunteer’s mind that cannot be met? I run into this when asking an accomplished volunteer to speak to newbies. You can see their feelings of inadequacy so I carefully explain that this seasoned volunteer started out just like they are starting out, cautious and new.
    Perhaps awards can be as diverse as the volunteers. Long serving award next to newcomer, hardships overcome next to recruitment etc. This is a conversation we need to have, as the volunteering landscape changes. Maybe awards need to be more often and less large instead of a once a year recognition of the longest serving out of thousands. And, there’s no surprise in that, is there?

  • Christopher Palmer

    I agree with you Warren.
    Volunteering can and does change lives. not only for the individual but for their extended family and community. Over the years I have seen many lives changed by voluntary work in our charity. People from all sorts of background and with all sort of abilities and problems/difficulties. They do what they can when they can to the best of their ability.