2017 has been an incredible year for Kingston upon Hull. The City of Culture Volunteers have played a major role in this success.
The volunteers have been the driving force behind all of the City of Culture events throughout the year. Without the dedication of 2,500 volunteers, who have donated over 350,000 hours, Hull may not have been able to enjoy some of the outstanding moments of 2017.
Sean Crummey, Head of Volunteering 2017, describes the volunteers as Hull’s “collective heartbeat.” At a celebration event for the volunteers, held in the Guildhall on the 13 December, he said: “In 2017 a family, in scandalous blue, was born; brothers and sisters from all backgrounds, an iconic image of a city on the rise.”
There is no doubt that the volunteer programme has been tremendously effective but has the experience been overwhelmingly positive for those participating?
When asked if they had any negative views or opinions about volunteering throughout 2017 volunteers were reluctant to respond. Many said that they had only positive comments to give, others said they did not wish to put a dampener on such a unique experience. However, with any organisation of such scale, there are bound to be some things that do not run as smoothly as planned.
Creating and managing shifts has been a complex process. From partner organisations requesting volunteers help, to shifts being created, posted on the website then undertaken by volunteers. Through the “Better Impact” hub on the web, volunteers are offered a choice of shifts. Personal profiles hold each individual’s specific qualifications, interests and goals. The programme then generates a selection of shifts available which match these criteria. Volunteers can sign up for shifts depending on their own availability. There is no minimum or maximum requirement, although they are expected to complete about 10 shifts.
The problems begin when people sign up for shifts and then subsequently withdraw. This can leave events short of numbers and prevent other volunteers getting involved. The programme only works when volunteers make firm commitments to events, rather than casually signing up for everything then withdrawing at a later date.
On the majority of shifts there are also those who fail to attend. This impacts others who miss out on opportunities and leads to events being undersubscribed.
Malcolm Scrivener, a volunteer since 7 April 2017, said: “My biggest moan is people just not turning up when other people wanted the shift. I understand people get taken ill, but the regularity of it seems to suggest people aren’t taking to commitment seriously. I’ve been on a ten man shift where four haven’t turned up.”
Maggie Bruce, one of the first “legacy” volunteers who started in September 2016 added: “On my last Ferens shift I was told that there is one volunteer who signs up for shifts there very regularly and has never once turned up.”
Another area which has caused concern is the need for internet access to be part of the volunteer programme. An internet-based information system is the quickest, cheapest and most effective way of reaching such a large volunteer force. But not everybody has 24-hour access or even Internet access in their homes or on their phones. With 57% of volunteers aged 50 and above this has proved challenging.
Zem Rodaway, from Hull, explained: “Whilst I have had a good experience as a volunteer, a friend of mine does not use the internet at all, nor have any access to it. She signed up to be a volunteer because they assured her there would be assistance for those without internet access. She experienced so many problems in receiving information that she decided to withdraw.”
Volunteers who have other commitments have also found it difficult to get the shifts they would like because they have already been subscribed. Janet Windass, a volunteer who works full time, said: “Some people take all the shifts and don’t think of the other volunteers that would have at least liked one shift. By the time I get chance to look at the hub, all of the more attractive shifts have been taken.”
Janet also pointed out that some of the shifts are too long and when it’s cold and miserable they can get “long and boring.”
Pauline Searby Robinson, an NHS medical secretary in Hull , said her worst experience was, “having to stand out in the cold, wet, windy weather with only about four people visiting! (For hours). With grumpy old men shuffling past saying ‘This city’s sh**e and always will be!’ ”
Unfortunately, nothing can be done about the weather and the occasional unhappy member of the public. In general people are extremely pleased to be greeted and helped by the volunteers. The uniform jackets, provided by Arco of Hull, help to combat the cold.
It is interesting to consider the demographics of the volunteers. Seventy percent of volunteers are female, and the average age is 56. There are 25 109 days (approximately 69 years) between the birth date of the youngest and oldest volunteers.
For one working-class Hull family the volunteering spans three generations. Sheila Annis and her daughter Caron Mincke were amongst the first wave of volunteers to be recruited and later they were joined by Leanne Ayre, Caron’s daughter. Their experience has been extremely positive. “We rarely get to volunteer for the same event,” says Mincke. “But that’s great because afterwards, we pool the information, telling each other what’s worth seeing.”
However, for a young male Hull University student, who prefers to remain anonymous, being a Hull 2017 volunteer did not live up to his expectations: “As a younger volunteer I was often told that I didn’t know enough about Hull and was left out when volunteering in groups. Also, due to being a student at Hull University, the volunteers assumed that I didn’t have the knowledge to volunteer as well as they did, despite telling them I am from Hull. Many of the volunteers I was on shift with looked down on me and due to this, I decided not to continue volunteering. Never again would I wish to volunteer with such, and sorry to say this, arrogant and self-righteous people. I also know that my experience as a young volunteer was not unique.”
To add some balance, he later added: “I fully appreciate that this is a minority amongst the mass of other amazing volunteers.”
On a lighter note volunteer Jo Whittaker sums up the only down side for her: “one of my personal negatives is just being able to fit it all in. I’ve joked a few times that I could do to foster my kids out this year and have them back in January. I’ve spoken to a few people who’ve agreed that other areas of our lives have perhaps taken more of a back seat this year as we seek to find that ever elusive balance of making the most of this amazing opportunity, while fitting in family, full time work, friends, housework and caring for others.”
So, “where do we go from here?”
The volunteers have been described as “the engine that has helped to drive this incredible year” (Sean Crummey, 2017 volunteer Christmas celebration) but the volunteer programme will not finish at the end of the year. There are plans to harness the knowledge, energy and enthusiasm of the Hull 2017 volunteers to support events and become community activists as part of the City of Culture legacy. An initial 5-year plan is already in its final stages of development. A short break in proceedings at the beginning of the New Year will enable the organisers to reflect on lessons learned from the 2017 programme.