Not Just For Christmas?

Not long after the firework displays have vanished into the ether, and the halloween masks are put away for another year, our collective attention turns to Christmas. We eagerly await the John Lewis advert campaign, the endless deals on snacks from Tesco et. al and that all too familiar, feelgood message: Christmas is a time to consider those less fortunate than yourselves.

Any sentiment that expresses concern for one’s fellow man ought to be welcomed, especially if you’re involved in the third sector. But if Christmas in particular is a time for giving, what does that say about our attitudes to voluntary activity throughout the other 11 months of the year? Increasingly, charities, homeless shelters and food banks are noticing acute spikes in the numbers of people approaching them in the run up to Christmas, so much so that not everyone is guaranteed a Christmas volunteering opportunity if they leave it too late to register their interest.

There are practical things to consider here. Firstly, some charities are arguing that the amount of time it takes to train and vet new volunteers is greater than the amount of time the volunteers actually spend volunteering. In extreme cases, this may lead to charities losing their ability to help everyone, and the payoff from training new volunteers becoming virtually non existent. Secondly, those who engage their giving side over Christmas tend to donate what they have, without knowing enough about the charity and what their service users actually need. Again, in the worst case scenarios, charities may be forced to store items that their service users will likely never be in need of, limiting the capacity to take in more useful donations. 

Perhaps the  most compelling argument against so called ‘fair weather volunteers’ is this idea that to truly make a difference to the lives of people you are helping, you need at least a basic level of understanding about their background, the emotional trauma they may have been through or deep rooted medical conditions like depression and anxiety they may be suffering from. ‘Empathy, not sympathy’.

This ties in to a larger debate about the nature of volunteering, the idea that many people do good to feel better about themselves, with little interest in the people on the receiving end of their blind altruism. This is a convincing argument, but it is also rather dangerous. Too many people will draw unwelcome conclusions from it, thus weakening the whole concept of volunteering itself. The solution? To turn a vicious circle into a virtuous one.

The influx of  new volunteers ought to be seen as an opportunity to grow the volunteering movement as a whole, and for longer periods of time. It would of course be preferable if people were more consistent with their volunteering patterns, but rather than sitting back and imagining the ideal situation, we should instead understand what it is about Christmas that spurs people into volunteering. Whether we like it or not, Christmas penetrates our lives for a month, if not longer. No one can escape the endless marketing and advertising that serves to swell our consumer instincts, but thankfully, this message of goodwill is clearly making its way through to us as well. Once people are in, surely this is the best chance we have to make them volunteers for life. By showing them exactly how they are helping people, and by asking them to stick around for half an hour after their shift is finished to speak to the service users, we can harness this temporary feeling of goodwill and make something a lot more sustainable.

And why stop there? Consumer capitalism is clearly successful all year round. Why not piggyback on to valentine’s day, Easter, New Year’s? What all these occasions have in common, is that they make us think about what we have, and consequently how little some people have, and how much we enjoy helping out our loved ones. It doesn’t take much to extend this to others, all it needs is a little gentle persuasion.

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