A Voluntary Life

Pretty in pink (and smiling inside)

Losing at chess

I lost a game of chess last night. I was playing on Lichess, a free website that is financed by donations from individual patrons. As well as staff, Lichess has volunteers who help develop and maintain the site. According to Lichess’s Community Organizer, Chris Callahan, approximately 90 out of the full team of 100 or so are volunteers; the remainder are the staff (this podcast interview contains more information on the structure of Lichess). Lichess is the second most popular place to play and learn about chess on the internet after, which is a commercial company.

Next week I am going to my local chess club for a game in person. Like most clubs, it has members who help it function, by arranging the venue, and equipment, as well as matches with local teams. I have only been to the club twice so far, but plan to continue into 2024. I will devote time to trying to get better at chess as I can no longer ride a bike after an accident earlier this year, about which I have written previously. Chess is replacing cycling in my affections.

After my cycling accident, I had many visits to the hospital for appointments. Each time, I was greeted at reception by a helpful volunteer directing me to physio, or the outpatients department, or to see my surgeon. On occasion, I needed to rest after an appointment and would buy a coffee from the volunteers who staff the hospital shop.

Volunteering is obviously the theme running through all this — whether to develop a website, run a local club, or support a hospital. As we approach the end of 2023, I am conscious of the way that volunteering — countless acts by selfless strangers — has influenced my life this year.

Volunteering standing up

In the past, I have been a trustee — an unpaid and voluntary position — of several charities, such as Pro Bono Economics which I co-founded. I will continue to do this where I am wanted and if I feel I can add some value, such as around strategy or finance. (I have just joined two boards where I hope I can be of use next year and beyond.)

After the events of this year, I am also starting to “volunteer standing up” as my partner Jen calls it — as distinct from sitting around boardroom tables. So, I have started helping out at the local parkrun, the community 5km run which takes place at 1,233 sites across the UK every Saturday morning. I am embarrassed to say that even though I occasionally do parkrun myself, I did not appreciate the number of volunteers involved. I am enjoying being one of the merry band of volunteers.

There is a wealth of evidence that volunteering is good for you in terms of physical and mental health. I aim to do more in 2024, both standing up and sitting down.

A route to more “solidarity”

According to Oxford academic Professor Ben Ansell, if we want to help heal society’s fractures and bring people together, we should all do more volunteering.

Ansell delivered this year’s BBC Reith lectures. This is a prestigious series of four talks usually given each year by a single person. Recent Reith lecturers have included physicist Stephen Hawking, author Hilary Mantel, and artist Grayson Perry.

Ansell’s theme is “Our democratic future” — how we build robust political systems fit for the 21st century. In his third lecture, “The Future of Solidarity”, Ansell mentions volunteering as one route to greater community and solidarity. “Volunteering binds us”, according to Ansell.

There are points one might contest in Ansell’s lecture — his ideas around solidarity come mostly from state rather than community or individual actions. But on the value and importance of volunteering, he is surely right. Indeed, there is clear evidence that volunteering brings people together and builds communities and community spirit, as well as provides benefits to individual volunteers.

Trending down

Despite the promise of volunteering, Ansell notes that it is in decline. Recent figures show that the jump in volunteering during the pandemic has not been sustained and the previous, long-term downward trend has returned. There are related falls in the number of people organising events and fundraising.

There are efforts big and small to reverse the downward trend in volunteering. One such, London’s Lifelines — a joint project between London Plus, the GLA, and others — highlights stories of volunteers in a bid to inspire people. The main national effort is the ten-year project Vision for Volunteering. This can feel a little stodgy from the outside, but it is still developing and one must wish it well. Other national efforts, such as the Big Help Out, are ambitious but need to connect better to local groups if they are going to deliver on their promise and succeed.

Into 2024

My life in 2023 has been touched by many voluntary acts by strangers. My near-fatal accident paved the way for this. But it extends beyond that, to the more mundane but still valuable — such as the volunteers who build Lichess or those who support parkrun. And my life is further enriched by volunteering myself.

As I recover from my accident, life takes on a more vivid hue. Appreciation of voluntary acts is a part of this. I want more of that in 2024 — both receiving and giving. Listening to Ben Ansell’s Reith lecture, we all need more of it if we want to build a better society.

A final word

Before completing this article, I re-read the draft and tweaked the odd word here and there, using an online dictionary to help. That reminded me of another sphere where volunteers have contributed so much to British life. This year saw the publication of “The Dictionary People”, a marvellous book about the origins of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The book’s author, Sarah Ogilvie reveals how the first editor of the OED in the late 19th century drew on thousands of volunteers to suggest words for inclusion and help build the enormous dictionary extending to ten volumes (now 18). Hitherto untold, the story highlights the scale of the voluntary effort needed to produce that first OED. It is a lovely story, both for the characters involved and for highlighting the essential role of volunteers in creating something so important. (See this video on YouTube where Ogilvie enthusiastically describes the book — but do buy the book as well as watch the video).

We live in a voluntary society to a greater extent than we perhaps appreciate. This is true whether or not we volunteer ourselves. From chess websites to sports clubs and far beyond, our society is underpinned by voluntary acts and a habit of volunteering.

I will not win all my chess games next year, though I hope to improve. Win or lose, my efforts will benefit from an array of volunteers.

Volunteering is something we should cherish and do more of during 2024 — it deserves our time, our effort, our energy, as well as (for those who have it) money. We all stand to benefit.

Martin Brookes
13 December 2023