Last Monday (5 December) marked International Volunteering Day. Established by the United Nations in 1985, it is an opportunity to celebrate the power of volunteering within communities and across organisations around the globe, as it’s estimated that there are approximately one billion community volunteers worldwide. This year, it adopted the theme of ‘Global Applause – Give volunteers a hand’ (#GlobalApplause).
With that in mind, I began to reflect on what has been achieved by Business in the Community (BITC) and our members throughout 2016. I want to shine a light on the tireless support of business throughout Northern Ireland and how it helps to support and shape communities.
The commitment of our members in 2016 enabled us not only to achieve our strategic objective of engaging with 20,000 volunteers but to exceed it: in fact, the figure stands at something closer to 23,000 (since the strategy was launched in 2013). These figures signify the huge commitment from businesses across various sectors who – through the skills, expertise, and hard work of their staff – have enabled organisations within their local communities to continue to deliver essential services, often to those most in need.
At the heart of this success is the ‘Volunteer Action Days’ – ‘Be a Saint’, on 16 March, and ‘Give & Gain’, on 20 May – which are BITC’s flagship volunteer programmes. In 2016, more than 640 employee volunteers engaged in these events; these volunteers could be seen painting offices, repairing coastal footpaths, and renovating allotments (among other activities), and this supported nearly 60 charities, schools, and community groups. With many charities having to find increasingly dramatic approaches to cost saving, their reliance on volunteers is more acute than ever, and it makes this support increasingly vital to their sustainable futures.
‘Volunteer Action Days’ are a great way to galvanise support, celebrate volunteerism, and highlight social issues, but just as the needs of charities extend throughout the year, so too do the efforts of our Cares members. This select breed of business volunteers braces all weathers and conditions to ensure that charities continue to receive support when and where it’s needed.
While ‘Action Days’ and ‘Cares Challenges’ focus on the practical and team-building side of volunteering, businesses have been just as keen to showcase the skills and expertise of their staff; they do this by lending their skills to charities and schools in the support of young people, through programmes such as Business Class and Aiming Higher. Time to Read, in particular, is the perfect showcase of business volunteers supporting schools and helping to shape the future wellbeing of young people. During the 2015-‘16 academic year, 65 companies contributed 580 volunteers to the literacy programme, delivering assisted reading sessions to more than 600 children in 86 schools.
Silver Surfers reached a remarkable milestone in 2016: it celebrated its 13th year! Part of the wider Digital Assist programme, 14 and 28 April saw volunteers delivering one-to-one IT training sessions in libraries across Northern Ireland, helping users set up email accounts, access online banking services, and even trace their family trees. During the course of the year, more than 270 volunteers have delivered IT training to 435 beneficiaries in community centres, charities, and housing associations as part of the Digital Assist programme.
At a time when politics and the social gaze are at risk of becoming more insular, the altruism of these volunteers is truly inspiring. Indeed, as UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon declared, the “commitment and passion” of volunteers “can act as inspiration to us all.”
So, a big thank you to all volunteers who supported this year’s programmes, and stay tuned for news on what we have in store for 2017!