The biggest cheers at the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics said it all. They were for the thousands of volunteers who have been at the core of the games and the various celebrations up and down the UK, ranging from the carrying of the torch to the Cultural Olympiad.
There were 15,000 volunteers at the opening and closing ceremonies in London, some 70,000 volunteer “Games Makers” helping run the games, and another 8,000 Team London Ambassadors – volunteers who welcomed visitors to London.
“It is incredible to think just how many of those staging these games were volunteers. Being a part of the games and the Games Maker programme has made me very proud”, says Ed Snaith, who has just left university and has been working at the rowing events at Eton Dorney.
It is a view echoed by many volunteers, whether they were beating the drums in the opening ceremony, helping visitors navigate London’s transport system, or ferrying officials and athletes around the venues.
Jean Tomlin, human resources director at the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (Locog), described the volunteers as the “lifeblood” of London 2012. Some 240,000 people applied for 70,000 posts, and around 40 per cent of applicants had never been a volunteer before. Locog estimates that volunteers will have provided 8m volunteer hours helping deliver the Olympics.
“The volunteering at the games has been absolutely outstanding, says Terry Ryall, chief executive of vInspired, which organises volunteering for 14- to 25-year-olds. “There are lots of charities and causes who need people to help and there’s a ready-made volunteer workforce here. It would be a disaster if we just let it go.”
“If we can do this during the games, why can’t we keep doing it for our society when they are over,” said David Cameron, the prime minister, in a speech last month outlining his plans for an Olympic legacy. Clearly, he hopes that the success of the Olympic volunteers will help resuscitate enthusiasm for the Government’s “Big Society” initiatives by inspiring communities to do things to help themselves.
“The volunteering effort for the games has been fantastic,” says Marianne Fallon, head of corporate affairs at KPMG. “That said, 100,000 volunteers in itself is not such a vast number: think about the Red Cross, WRVS (Meals on Wheels) and many others who field that number every fortnight. The attraction is to capture the enthusiasm of a whole new group to volunteering. This is potentially more difficult at a time of financial constraints and severe cuts for the third sector.”
Reliable statistics on volunteering are hard to find. According to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), an estimated 19.8m people in the UK volunteer formally once a year, and 12.7m once a month.
The numbers look large, but the UK is well down the international league tables. According to the Institute for Volunteering Research, the UK ranks 29th in the world with just 29 per cent of the population volunteering, compared with 41 per cent in New Zealand and 39 per cent in the US and the Netherlands.
In addition, data from the annual Citizenship Survey suggests that volunteering in the UK has declined in recent years.
The big question is will the London Olympics provide a lasting legacy by prompting a step change in the rate of volunteering in the UK over the longer term?
“Major sporting events provide attractive opportunities for volunteering which are not typical of much of the unglamorous but vital contribution of voluntary organisations,” says Southampton University’s Professor John Mohan, deputy director of the Third Sector Research Centre.
He does not expect a huge boost to volunteering as a result of the Olympics, if evidence from responses to major charitable appeals, such as Live Aid, is a guide. Giving to international development rose, but there was no sustained rise in the proportion of households contributing to charity longer term.
“London 2012 has very successfully raised the profile of volunteering,” says Robin Simpson, chief executive of Voluntary Arts, which promotes participation in the arts and crafts. But most volunteering happens through small, local charities and community groups.
“To have a real lasting impact we now need to maintain this raised visibility of the vast numbers of small, local charities and community groups who need volunteers”, says Mr Simpson.
The costs associated with volunteering are another area little discussed. There were substantial behind-the-scenes costs involved in training and organising the volunteers, in large part shouldered by sponsors, primarily McDonald’s, the fast-food chain. It provided training staff, materials and facilities to help attract, select and train the 70,000 Games Makers. It trained the 1,800 people selecting the 70,000 volunteers at its North London training facilities.
Locog refuses to say how much it spent on recruiting and organising volunteers. But Mike Locke, of Volunteering England, says it will have been an impressive sum.
“You have to put money into communications, advertising the opportunities, selecting the volunteers, training, recruitment management,” he says. “A good volunteering programme needs to be properly resourced. Volunteering does not come for free.”
The corporate sector and Locog have done really well on this occasion, says Mr Locke, but he questions where the resources are going to come from for ongoing volunteer programmes – not just big events – at a time when public funding is being cut for many voluntary organisations.