Now let’s volunteer, and smile

By Barry Frankfurt, August 17, 2012
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Ever since London was awarded the Olympics back in 2005, we have heard a great deal about the legacy the Games will leave behind. Under the mantra of "Inspire a Generation", the London Organising Committee set itself the goal of engaging the public not just for two weeks but for the rest of our lives.

With the future of the Olympic Stadium still to be decided and Government cuts looming over sport in schools, it remains unclear what the legacy left by Lord Coe and friends will actually amount to. But what is clear is that, in looking to leave an enduring mark on the capital - and country as a whole - those tasked with ensuring the Games live on could do far worse than harness the energy provided by London 2012's volunteers.

Nearly a quarter-of-a-million people applied for the 70,000 "Games Maker" positions. Those selected gave more than eight million hours of their time in exchange for a purple kit, a pair of grey trainers and a watch.

This army of volunteers provided services that would have cost in excess of £35 million to purchase. So, as the energy efficient BMWs (all 3,000 of them) are parked for the last time and the volunteers go their separate ways, all we can hope is that some of their spirit will be left behind.

Volunteers add £21.5 billion to the UK economy every year. Just as the Olympics could not have happened without the free labour force, nor could society function without volunteering.

Worryingly, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations reported a four per cent drop in the number of volunteer hours given to good causes in the UK between 2005 and 2010. The Jewish Volunteer Network, the organisation created to support, promote and develop Jewish volunteering in the UK, paints an even harsher picture.

In its most recent analysis, the JVN finds that the average number of hours spent volunteering by each volunteer declined by 30 per cent over the past decade.

While there is no doubt that London 2012 will provide a spike in the next set of figures, there is a longer-term downward trend that needs to be challenged. The notion that, as we give less money to charitable causes we are supplementing it with our time seems rather wide of the mark.

Having seen the tangible impact the volunteers had on our Olympics, we as a community must lead the way in tapping in to this rich stream of people-power to the benefit of all our organisations.

The legacy from the Olympics should not just be that volunteering is great, but that the way you volunteer can change the way others see the organisation for which you volunteer. What was amazing was not what the purple army did, but rather the way in which they did it.

Whether you were queueing to see the rowing at Eton Dorney at 7.45am or meandering out of the Olympic Park after the last basketball session had ended after midnight, the volunteers were always smiling, singing and generally being cheerful. After a long, wet summer, cynicism and misery were replaced by optimism and hope. For two weeks London was a happy place.

We need to get more people volunteering. Organisations like JVN and initiatives such as Mitzvah Day work hard to make this happen. But next time you're doing security at shul or serving a meal in an old age home, why not see if you can do it with some Olympic spirit. Not necessarily by being faster, higher or stronger but just with a smile on your face.

Barry Frankfurt is managing director of Creative & Commercial, a communications agency specialising in the not-for-profit sector

Last updated: 12:45pm, August 17 2012