On the 31st May 2019,  22 organisations from Northern Ireland received the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service.  This is the highest award given to volunteering groups across the UK and is equivalent to an MBE.  These organisations  represent a variety of groups ranging from cancer charities, athletic clubs, conservation campaigners and even  the 800 volunteers needed to help at the North West 200.

With such a wide range of causes to get involved with there is, quite literally, something for everyone. So, why volunteer and how can you benefit from it?

Why volunteer?

Volunteering offers vital help to people and animals in need, worthwhile causes, and the community, but the benefits can be even greater for you, the volunteer. Volunteering and helping others can help reduce stress, combat depression, keep you mentally stimulated, and provide a sense of purpose. While it’s true that the more you volunteer, the more benefits you’ll experience, volunteering doesn’t have to involve a long-term commitment or take a huge amount of time out of your busy day to be beneficial. In fact, research shows that just two to three hours per week, or about 100 hours a year, can produce the most benefits—to both you and your chosen cause. Think of the volunteers involved in “one off” events in Northern Ireland like the World Police and Fire games or the Giro d’Italia.  The important thing is to volunteer only the amount of time that feels comfortable to you. Volunteering should feel like a fun and rewarding hobby not a chore.

Benefits of volunteering: 4 ways to feel healthier and happier

    1. Volunteering connects you to others
    2. Volunteering is good for your mind and body
    3. Volunteering can advance your career
    4. Volunteering brings fun and fulfilment to your life

Benefit 1: Volunteering connects you to others

One of the better-known benefits of volunteering is the impact on the community. Volunteering allows you to connect to your community and make it a better place. Even helping out with the smallest tasks can make a real difference to the lives of people, animals, and organisations in need.  Dedicating your time as a volunteer helps you make new friends, expand your network, and boost your social skills.  Volunteering is a great way to meet new people, especially if you are new to an area. It strengthens your ties to the community and broadens your support network, exposing you to people with common interests, neighbourhood resources, and fun and fulfilling activities.

Benefit 2: Volunteering is good for your mind and body

Volunteering provides many benefits both mentally and physically. It helps counteract effects of stress, anger and anxiety. The social contact aspect of helping and working with others can have a profound effect on your overall psychological well-being.  Working with pets and other animals has also been shown to improve mood and reduce stress and anxiety.   By measuring hormones and brain activity, researchers have discovered that being helpful to others delivers pleasure. Human beings are hard-wired to give to others. The more we give, the happier we feel.

Volunteering increases self-confidence.  Doing good for others and your community provides a natural sense of accomplishment. Your role as a volunteer can also give you a sense of pride and identity. The better you feel about yourself, the more likely you are to have a positive view of your life and future goals.

Volunteering provides a sense of purpose. Older adults, especially those who have retired or lost a spouse, can find new meaning and direction in their lives by helping others. Whatever your age or life situation, volunteering can help take your mind off your own worries, keep you mentally stimulated, and add more zest to your life.

Volunteering helps you stay physically healthy. Studies have found that those who volunteer have a lower mortality rate than those who do not. Older volunteers tend to walk more, find it easier to cope with everyday tasks, are less likely to develop high blood pressure, and have better thinking skills. Volunteering can also lessen symptoms of chronic pain and reduce the risk of heart disease.

I have a disability —can I still volunteer?

People with disabilities or chronic health conditions can still benefit greatly from volunteering. In fact, research has shown that adults with disabilities or health conditions ranging from hearing and vision loss to heart disease, diabetes or digestive disorders all show improvement after volunteering.

Whether due to a disability, a lack of transportation, or time constraints, many people choose to volunteer their time via phone or computer. In today’s digital age many organisations need help with administrative tasks.

Benefit 3: Volunteering can advance your career

If you’re considering a new career, volunteering can help you get experience in your area of interest and meet people in the field. Even if you’re not planning on changing careers, volunteering gives you the opportunity to practice important skills used in the workplace, such as teamwork, communication, problem solving, project planning and, task management. Just because volunteer work is unpaid does not mean the skills you learn are basic. Many volunteering opportunities provide extensive training.

Benefit 4: Volunteering brings fun and fulfilment to your life

Volunteering is a fun and easy way to explore your interests and passions. Doing volunteer work you find meaningful and interesting can be a relaxing, energising and an escape from your day-to-day routine of work, school, or family commitments.

How to find the right volunteer opportunity

There are numerous volunteer opportunities available. The Red Cross for example offers many diverse opportunities from translator to first aider at community events or simply working in their charity shops. The key is to find a volunteer position that you would enjoy and are capable of doing. It’s also important to make sure that your commitment matches the organisation’s needs. Ask yourself the following:

  • Would you like to work with adults, children, animals, or remotely from home?
  • Do you prefer to work alone or as part of a team?
  • Are you better behind the scenes or do you prefer to take a more visible role?
  • How much time are you willing to commit?
  • What skills can you bring to a volunteer job?
  • What causes are important to you?

Where to find volunteer opportunities

  • Community theatres, museums, and monuments
  • Hospitals or health trusts i.e. one to one befriending
  • Local animal shelters or  rescue organisations
  • Youth organisations ( scouts, sea cadets), sports teams, and after-school programs
  • Historical restorations(National Trust) , national parks, and conservation organisations
  • Places of worship such as churches or synagogues

If you are considering volunteering but don’t want to over commit yourself, have a look www.volunteernow.co.uk website. They offer a “turn up and try” facility. These are one off opportunities currently available with organisations across Northern Ireland where you can get involved in volunteering straight away. There is no long term commitment or obligation and there are a great variety of opportunities to suit everyone. Opportunities range from volunteering at animal shelters or conservation projects. There are new opportunities added all the time so check back with them if nothing appears suitable at this given time.

Most importantly – Enjoy yourself.

The best volunteer experiences benefit both the volunteer and the organisation. If you’re not enjoying yourself, ask yourself why. Is it the tasks you’re performing? The people you’re working with? Or is it simply because the situation is new and unfamiliar? Pinpointing what’s bothering you can help you decide how you wish to proceed and remember, it is not volunteering if you:

  • do something just for a family member
  • are given money apart from your out of pocket expenses
  • are under a contract to do the work, for example, an employment contract (this does not include any ‘volunteer agreement’ you may have)

Useful links

Contact details for your local Volunteer Office, drop in, call or visit to find details of local volunteering opportunities:

County Antrim: Volunteer Now

County Armagh: Craigavon and Banbridge Volunteer Centre

County Down: Volunteer Now Newry

County Fermanagh: Volunteer Now Fermanagh

County Londonderry: Causeway Volunteer Centre , Limavady Volunteer Bureau , Mid Ulster Volunteer Centre – Magherafelt Office , North West Volunteer Centre

County Tyrone: Mid Ulster Volunteer Centre – Cookstown Office , North West Volunteer Centre Omagh Volunteer Centre

Have you ever volunteered and if so did you feel it benefited you in any way? Are you considering volunteering? If so, what is stopping you? Join or start the conversation below.