We are a nation of volunteers

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Volunteering, and doing the right thing by our fellow man, is at the heart of British national identity. We have seen it at its tangible best recently in the rallying behind the NHS, as well as one another, as we seek to find a path through the current health crisis.

Volunteering, and doing the right thing by our fellow man, is at the heart of British national identity.

We have seen it at its tangible best recently in the rallying behind the NHS, as well as one another, as we seek to find a path through the current health crisis. It’s in the proactive support of both collective and individual actions taken to ‘do our bit’. From the indomitable Captain Tom Moore and his walk for the NHS to Ian Williams to the ASDA delivery driver who dresses up as Superman to put a smile on the faces of his customers in Eastbourne.

I cannot be the only one who, on seeing the New York Times headline - 'To Fight Coronavirus, U.K. Asked for Some Volunteers. It Got an Army’ - felt immense pride. The reason being the total lack of hyperbole behind the words; the truth in the numbers and the sentiment behind them. The government appealed for 250,000 people to help the National Health Service, and what it got was more than 750,000 willing volunteers, ready to fight for their country, not with arms but with kindness.

My experience, from a lifelong involvement with charities, is that selflessness, and doing things to support those around us quietly, is inextricably part of what it is to be British. From the RNLI to the National Trust, as well as on a more local level, most charities may have full-time employees but they are overwhelmingly supported by volunteers. It is a characteristic that has been around for a long time, that’s showing itself forcefully in our hour of need, and that will continue to be needed as much as ever in the months to come. Are we surprised by the outpouring of community support? Not really. It’s who we are. But it is what gives us hope, and what carries us through the hard times together.

Kindness is never far away in the UK

Invariably, charity and community support in the UK is done quietly; without fuss. So much so, that we can sometimes forget how ever-present it really is. This tidal wave of strength, care and support that we are seeing now, is not merely a response to the crisis; it is part of the fabric of our society. It might not always be as visible as it is now, and by our very natures, we are inclined to always highlight where we can do better. It is sad that better is needed, but it is a great thing that so many of us advocate so ardently for it. 

What we are seeing at the moment did cause me to reflect, however, on the City of London, and how essential charity is to the way it operates. The City is associated principally with moneymaking; people scrambling around as fast as they can to keep big business turning. However, charity is also deeply ingrained into its infrastructure, not as part of some CSR project, but because we view it as our collective responsibility and because we want to look after one another. The Livery alone gives £60 million a year to charity and community projects, and at least as much again in terms of time and talent. 

The Lord Mayor’s Appeal is an excellent example of the community coming together. It works with four major charities each year, currently including Place2Be, which equips school leaders with the skills to support their pupils’ emotional and mental health; OnSide Youth Zones, which builds dedicated Youth Zones in areas of high deprivation; the Samaritans, whom the Appeal has helped to develop a revolutionary online wellbeing programme for employees in London and beyond; and the Duke of Edinburgh Award, which gives 14 to 24-year-olds, across the UK and from every possible background, the chance to develop skills for life and work. The Appeal is a proactive and engaged initiative that organises events such as the City Giving Day, on which around 200 businesses come together to do activities and give money to the Lord Mayor’s charities.

If you look at the oldest of companies and institutions, many a school and hospital, extending far beyond the Square Mile, were and are funded by City companies and organisations. From mentoring young adults from low income households to give them a foothold in professional services, to identifying and addressing the causes of homelessness and drug abuse, initiating crime prevention strategies to helping ex-prisoners to get back on their feet. Meaningful giving, community and charity are an uncompromisable part of who we are as a country, and how even our biggest financial district operates. In the words of Rishi Sunak this month: “We need the gentleness of charity in our lives.”

The gentleness of charity is our great strength

I do not say any of this to pat the backs of the privileged, but to celebrate the foundations on which our society is built.

Right now, there is a clear need for giving and charity. Our strength lies in our willingness to contribute, from doing food shops for elderly neighbours to the open sharing of medical information for vaccine production. As we go forward we will need to call on these deep reserves of generosity of spirit and of purpose through potentially significant unemployment as well as grief and loss. These times cause us to realise as a society that we rely on some of the poorest paid for our daily running, and the economic stress will cause us, for a number of years, to rely even more on one another. However, the innate characteristic to support is there.

There is more that needs to be done. There are things that we have not yet done enough about, and there will be even more to be done in the coming months, but caring for one another is our greatest strength. It is why we have an NHS, it is why we have three quarters of a million people willing to get out and look after people they have never met.

Perhaps it is best summed up by Her Majesty The Queen, who said: "I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge. And those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any. That the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet good-humoured resolve and of fellow-feeling still characterise this country. The pride in who we are is not a part of our past, it defines our present and our future.”


The article was originally published on LinkedIn.