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Our volunteers are simply priceless

by Annabelle Ridley, former CAS Head of Training

This column was first published in the Herald on 02 June 2021.

While the pandemic has been difficult for us all, one thing that has been striking throughout is the countless ways in which citizens and communities have come together to support each other.

In communities across Scotland people have mobilised to help those in need and many people have been driven to step up and give something back. 

I have been with the Citizens Advice network for 27 years and so have seen first-hand time and again the incredible capacity people have to help each other.  

Many of the public don’t realise that we are a volunteer led service, often confusing the Citizens Advice network for a public agency like the job centre or a local council office. 

In reality our network is made up of 59 individual, local, charities, all with their own local boards, priorities for their own local communities, and powered by local people. It is in many ways the manifestation of people power, ordinary citizens coming together to empower anyone in their community who needs their support. 

In my role supporting bureaux to train volunteers, I have met more strong, kind and caring people who give their time to help make a difference to peoples’ lives than I could possibly count. 

This week is Volunteers' Week 2021, so allow me, as I retire from the Citizens Advice network after so many years, to take a moment to consider the incredible value of our volunteers who are needed now more than ever. 

In 2019/20 over 2,300 volunteers contributed more than 750,000 hours of their time to the Citizens Advice network in Scotland. 

The value of this contribution of time alone works out to over £11m, before we even get to the value of the benefit to communities, but for many people that work will be invaluable. 

Many people may not realise that the expert advice they get in our bureaux is from someone just like themselves who has chosen to offer their time voluntarily. Our generalist adviser volunteers go through thorough training and supported practice to become advisers and their dedication and commitment has never ceased to amaze me.  

Aside from the satisfaction of the role, volunteering for a Citizens Advice Bureau is a way for people to gain skills that can be used in countless other walks of life. Almost half of all our volunteers leaving the service go on to paid employment or further education. Indeed, many people go from a voluntary position to a paid position in the CAB itself as roles become available. 

That’s why, as a network, we are exploring new ways to get more people into the service as volunteers. It’s a great way for people to give something back and also improve their own experience.  

Full adviser training is very thorough and takes time, but bureaux also have roles for people who want to help out in other ways - like administrative support or helping with social media and in my time. I have seen so many people who have found a way to support our work in ways they might not have thought were possible at first glance. 

These people are almost always from the local community and feel a deep sense of pride in helping their neighbours overcome their challenges. 

Of course, every person’s journey to volunteering is different, but a common theme is people sharing our values as an organisation. Some people are young, passionate and looking for a way to change the world for the better. Others are retired and want to use the skills built up during their careers to give something back to their community. In fact, in CABs across the country you’ll find former solicitors, trade union officials and GPs looking to help people. 

Many of our volunteers give service that last longer than some careers, with some people giving their time and effort to local bureaux for ten, twenty in some cases over thirty years. 

The world we live in can often feel transient; we often move for work or to study, many of us commute great distances or regularly spend time away from home. Our volunteers are a great example of how CABs are anchors in their local communities, they are always there for us, in spite of everything. 

The pandemic has impacted on our volunteers like everything else and we have had to adapt. All our CABs have adjusted to provide remote support for citizens but I know they are all missing the camaraderie of being alongside their colleagues and hopefully we’ll be back in person as soon as better days draw closer. 

As the country faces economic challenges and the public health crisis fades, the work of our volunteers is more vital than ever. The Citizens Advice network will be at forefront of helping people through, as we have for 80 years, powered by the exceptional work of volunteers who want to help their local communities.  

I saw first-hand the extraordinary work of our volunteers after the financial crisis of 2008, which helped unlock gains of £1.3 billion for people in the following decade and I know they will be there to do the same this time. 

So, thank you to our volunteers. Local CABs and the people you help need you more than ever. 

If the pandemic has taught us anything it is that community spirit and solidarity are more just slogans, they truly matter. I hope that when better days finally arrive that all of us from the corridors of power to the streets of Scotland remember that and recognise the value of volunteers because to the people they help, they are simply priceless.