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Volunteers’ Week and beyond - mobilising the passion and expertise of volunteers

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Headshot of Rob Pomfret
Rob Pomfret, Head of Policy, Social Action Team, Office for Civil Society and Innovation

Volunteers’ Week is in full flow, a fantastic opportunity to celebrate volunteers. The UK is the most generous nation in Europe, and millions of people volunteer each year.

Here in the Social Action Team, it’s something we have the privilege of seeing on a daily basis. It’s a real source of inspiration as we work with departments across Whitehall, with local authorities and with communities to encourage even more volunteering, at even greater levels of impact.

And at the heart of our work is the challenge of how we, as civil servants, can best mobilise the incredible skill and passion of volunteers?

Complementing public services

We’re exploring one answer through the Centre for Social Action, which is helping to grow volunteering models that complement public services, from health, ageing and care, to supporting young people. Since 2013, the Cabinet Office has invested more than £36m through the Centre in 215 social action initiatives. And, in the next phase, we’ll be investing a further £15 million.

It’s vital that the initiatives the Centre backs are not just bolt-ons, but are carefully woven into the fabric of each set of public services. That’s why partnership is so important, from working with central government departments like the Department of Health, to local authorities and the innovation charity Nesta (leveraging additional investment of around £31 million, too).

It underlines one of the key conditions for a volunteering initiative to thrive alongside public services - open institutions and public servants willing to think differently about how to design services.

Like King’s College Hospital. It asked staff what they would like to do for patients but didn’t have time for, and then designed the volunteering roles around that. Or The Access Project, which involves schools part-funding volunteer tutors for students in disadvantaged areas.

Similarly, we’re looking at what’s required for commissioners to make greater use of social action. We’re drawing together guidance, facilitating the sharing of ideas and trialling what’s needed at a local level.

Allowing local solutions to flourish

So a lot of the Centre for Social Action’s work is about testing and trialling how volunteering works in and alongside public services. But social action is also about empowering residents - those who truly know their community - to take the lead in developing local solutions.

During the last Parliament, Government launched the Community Organisers movement. We have already recruited over 6,500 community organisers - local leaders bringing people together to take action on the things that matter to them. By the end of this Parliament, it will be 10,000.

Woman in hat with clipboard speaking to another woman on their doorstep
A Community Organiser listening to a resident in Wiltshire

At the crux of this approach is the independence of community organisers. As Hannah Rignell, Head of Community Action, writes in her great blog on this programme: “Local people trust community organisers, who are committed to their area and can give impartial and objective support independent of any Government or other organisations’ agenda”. This helps to build relationships and support local people to take action.

These approaches sit alongside lots of other work across our Office for Civil Society and Innovation to support volunteering. We’re encouraging employer-supported volunteering,  encouraging more young people to take part and, of course, recognising and rewarding outstanding contributions.

The many faces of volunteering

Volunteering goes by many names - befriender, mentor, governor, trustee, coach, to name just a few.

Within each lies a different skill-set, ask and impact, tailored to specific needs. But across their contributions, volunteers can provide new sources of expertise and resource, can enable broader and better targeted support and can create completely new models for how society can respond.

So while it’s brilliant to celebrate the inspirational work of volunteers this week, I’d also encourage us all to consider whether there are further ways in our own areas of work where we can mobilise the expertise and commitment of citizens.

Got an idea or keen to share your thoughts? We’d love to hear from you at

For more information you could read our discussion paper Social Action - Harnessing the Potential.

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