Special Report
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A proud nation of charity volunteers

Volunteers are advised to know what they are getting into before making any commitments

More than half a million people volunteer for some form of charity work in Ireland every year. They come from all walks of life and just about every age group, but they share one thing in common – a desire to give something back by giving their time freely to a charity.

“We all know people who do charity work,” says Ivan Cooper, director of public policy with charities umbrella body The Wheel. “We are a proud nation of volunteers.”

The Gift of Giving special report looks at how the arrival of the pandemic last year created immense difficulty for charities. But for some, 2021 has been harder.

He advises potential volunteers to know what they are getting into before making any commitments.


“You should understand that you are going to do a job that you are not going to be paid for. It is important to be passionate about it. You don’t want it to feel like it’s an unpaid job. You have to be content with yourself about what you’re doing. Are you passionate about the cause that you’re investing your time in?”

A bit of advance research is also helpful. “Do a Google search for charities near you or that might interest you,” he says. “Volunteer Ireland has a volunteer centre in every county in the country. They help match volunteers with organisations that may require their help. There is a very good infrastructure there to support volunteering.”


Barnardos relies on a group of more than 80 volunteers to run its network of nine charity shops. “We couldn’t do the work with do without volunteers,” says retail manager Bernadette Harrington.

“They do everything from opening the shops, to processing stock, and greeting customers. The role could be anything. If you come to volunteer with us you are putting your skills and talents to use. You might be a people person and enjoy working with the public. Or you might have an interest in books and be able to help out with pricing and selling books. If you have a flair for fashion and merchandising, you could help out at that end.”

Just about anyone can volunteer with Barnardos, she says. “That’s what makes it so interesting and so diverse. We have overseas students who volunteer with us to improve their English.

“We get transition year students who come back and volunteer afterwards. We have people in active retirement who want to give something back.

“We get people who are out of the workplace for various reasons, and we also get people with specific skills to offer. We had a retired school principal who said ‘I’m a great organiser and can come in and help’. Ideally we want people to commit to four hours a week and to do it consistently. We need certainty in relation to when people are going to be here.”

Volunteers also gain from the experience.

“Our volunteers learn with us,” says Harrington. “It could be things like working the till, customer service skills, how a shop works. The type of people who benefit from volunteering are people who might not have been in the workplace for a while. We offer a soft place to land. People who are long-term unemployed might be looking to find their way back into the workforce and we can help. Also, people who want to work in retail can gain experience with us.

“Another aspect is combatting loneliness,” she adds. “We have seen that over the years. There is so much more to volunteering.”


Some people might want to volunteer to serve on committees or boards or become a trustee. “There is a lot of training available for trustees out there,” says Cooper. “The Wheel does it, the Carmichael Centre offers very good quality training. It is important that charities put budgets in place to fund trustee training.”

He advises would-be trustees to do some research before becoming actively involved in a charity.

“Becoming a trustee or joining the board of a charity is a big step. It’s not to be taken lightly. Before volunteering, people should do a bit of research on the organisations they are thinking about. They should go and meet the people there to see if there is a good fit.

“Also, ask for induction materials, strategy reports, annual reports and so on. You want to be sure they are serious about good governance.”

Barry McCall

Barry McCall is a contributor to The Irish Times