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Value of volunteers simply priceless during covid crisis

by Derek Mitchell, CAS Chief Executive

NB This column first appeared in the Herald newspaper on 3 June 2020

While the Covid-19 pandemic dominates the airwaves and changes our lives in ways we scarcely thought possible a few months ago, one thing that has been noticeable is a rise in visible community spirit.

Whether it’s clapping for our carers on a Thursday night or the efforts of  Captain Sir Tom Moore in raising funds for NHS charities, there’s a sense that people want to come together to try and give something back.

In communities across Scotland people are mobilising to help those less fortunate.

In the Citizens Advice network we know better than most the incredible capacity people have to help each other.

Lots of the public don’t realise we are a volunteer led service, often confusing it for a public agency of some sort, 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.

This week is Volunteers' Week 2020. Normally Citizens Advice Scotland holds an awards event to recognise the exceptional work of the volunteers across the Citizens Advice network. Like many other things, the lockdown has unfortunately meant holding that event has not been possible.

So allow me to take a moment to consider the incredible value of our volunteers to the Citizens Advice network.

In 2018/19 over 2,370 volunteers contributed more than 760,000 hours of their time to the Citizens Advice network in Scotland.

The value of this contribution of time works out to over £10m, but for many people that work will be simply priceless.

Many people may not realise that the expert advice they get in a bureaux is from someone who is giving their time up voluntarily. Our generalist adviser volunteers go through rigorous training and hours of supervision before helping clients.

That’s one reason why volunteering for a Citizens Advice Bureau is a tremendous way for people to gain skills. Almost half of all our volunteers leaving the service go on to paid employment or further education. Many people go from a voluntary position to a paid position in the bureaux itself as roles become available.

The process of training might put some people off, such as those who just want to help out where and when they can. Our bureaux will try to find roles for people who want to help out in other ways - like administrative support or helping with social media.

These people are almost always from the local community, and sum up that sense of local people helping each other overcome their challenges.

Why do people do it? Every one’s journey to volunteering is different, but a common theme is people sharing our values as an organisation. Some people are retired and want to use the skills they built up during their careers to give something back to their community. In bureaux across the country you’ll find former solicitors, trade union officials and GPs looking to help people.

Many of our volunteers also 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 even thirty years.

Before Covid, and likely after it as well, our society could feel increasingly transient; people living in one place and commuting to work elsewhere. Our volunteers are a great example of how CABs are anchors in their local communities.

The Covid-19 pandemic has had an impact on our volunteers like everything else. While physical bureaux offices aren’t currently open to comply with social distancing regulations, all of our CABs are providing services remotely.

Some of our volunteer advisers have been able to be part of that whereas other staff have not, many of whom are greatly missed by their bureaux colleagues, who hope they'll be back helping soon

Because that help is likely to be needed more than ever, as the country faces a turbulent economic challenge once the severity of public health crisis fades.

The Citizens Advice network will be at forefront of helping people through that economic turbulence, as we have for 80 years now.

Looking back to the fall out of the financial crisis of 2008, it was the extraordinary hard work of our volunteers that helped unlock gains of £1.3 billion for people in the decade that followed.

All across the country local bureaux will work with other local groups to help people, all powered by those who give up their time to help others.

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

If the coronavirus pandemic has fostered new sense of community spirit and empathy across the country, then we hope that spirit continues when lockdown is a distant memory and policy makers recognise the value of volunteers. To us, and to the people they help, they are simply priceless.

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You can get more information about volunteering at a CAB here.

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