Speech: Voluntary Action South West Surrey (VASWS) Annual Conference, 10 April 2018

Opening address

We are delighted to welcome you to the University of Surrey today, for your annual conference. It is an honour to host you; you inspire us with your selflessness and dedication, and you remind us of the ideals we all strive towards to benefit our communities.

I believe it was John Bunyan who said: “You have never really lived until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.”

To act humbly, in response to a clear need, and without any expectation of recompense, must truly be the highest aspiration for humanity. In it, we recognise our profound connection to each other, and how one person in difficulty diminishes us all, just as any person who is lifted up shines their light on all of us.

The service that volunteers perform is invaluable in a society that is increasingly losing its connections. Voluntary organisations, and the people they connect to each other, weave a web across the gaps that are, more and more, a feature of modern life — challenges that are physical, emotional and financial, which isolate us from ourselves as well as from each other.

Through your commitment and tenacity, VASWS creates ripples that extend outward, enriching lives, making links, leading to unexpected benefits and opportunities.

Your conference today addresses precisely this issue, when it asks how the voluntary sector can bridge these gaps that are ever-widening in the face of funding shortfalls and a population whose needs grow more insistent and complex. Like any sector, you must grow, change, evolve, redefine and reinvent yourself – to play your leading part in a changing world. That is your task and mission today.

According to a recent article in the Guardian Online,[1] support for volunteers is too important to ‘be left to the voluntary and community sector. It requires partnerships with local councils and the NHS, with everyone working together on a strategy for local volunteering.’ Volunteering is clearly no longer a ‘stand-alone’ initiative, but is now inextricably anchored to local and national communities in a variety of ways. Young people volunteer as a way to learn and develop skills that enhance their employability. People of all ages, circumstances and walks of life look to volunteering as a way to gain as well as give, in very personal ways, to address individual needs. The volunteer sector could well be the common denominator that connects us all; it may have its finger on the emotional pulse of the nation. That’s why VASWS’s ongoing work is so important.

Many of the topics under discussion today are very close to our hearts here at Surrey, as we further develop our own commitment to the wellbeing of all our staff and students. The pastoral care that used to be provided by church or extended family has become the province of teachers, employers, medical professionals, friends and volunteers. This is presenting new opportunities and challenges to all of us.

Volunteering adds richness to the life of the University. I am continually impressed by how many of our students make time in their busy schedules to reach out in this way. Our staff organise departmental ‘community days’ dedicated to volunteer work with local charities. Further, we rely on our alumni volunteers to help Surrey reach out to past and future students; in 2016-17, over 2,000 hours were donated by our alumni in mentoring and delivering talks and lectures.

We feel very strongly about the University of Surrey’s leading role as part of a global community – yet we recognise that community begins at home, in caring for each other to the greater benefit of us all.

That’s why I am particularly pleased about the newly-launched volunteering platform for Surrey — a dedicated University site run by the Students’ Union, for both students and staff. This online interactive database enables the University community and local charities to connect better, and helps students and staff to find volunteering opportunities that will aid their own personal development while benefiting others. It has the ability to track hours, skills, and experience to deliver insight into volunteering at Surrey, so that we are in a better position to support our volunteers, make more connections and send more ripples out into the world.

You have many weighty issues to consider today, but your discussions here will without doubt improve lives, and renew your purpose going forward. In this effort, it is also good to keep a sense of humour, so I will share a quote by Dave Gynn:

“Don’t ever question the value of volunteers. Noah’s Ark was built by volunteers; the Titanic was built by professionals.”[2]

Thank you, and I wish you a very productive day here at Surrey!

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/voluntary-sector-network/2018/jan/03/volunteer-transform-life-charities-councils

[2] Internet, ascribed to Dave Gynn, Coleman Professional Services, Ohio, USA