Friday 27 April 2018

Volunteer network has to be nurtured

John Greene

John Greene

A radio programme last week posed the question, can sport lift the spirits of a nation? Unfortunately, the programme then went down the road of light entertainment, trotting out all the old rip-roaring yarns of how we danced in the street during Italia '90, and all that.

It is a pity, too, because there is a serious question there, especially now, at a time when there is so much despair. Although sport undeniably has an uplifting capacity, perhaps it has less to do with the collective consciousness, and more to do with the individual; less to do with Heineken Cup wins and big days in Croke Park and more to do with a local sportsground. Perhaps it is here where real lasting sustenance can be found.

"The army of volunteers who dedicate their time and commitment to each sport in Ireland assist in building strong and healthy communities, while giving everybody the opportunity to be the athletes they are." These were the words of sports minister Michael Ring last week at an awards ceremony to acknowledge 11 volunteers nominated for their contribution to Irish sport over a sustained period of time.

The minister continued: "This Government understands that sport and physical activity have huge potential to contribute to the development of a healthier society. We want to ensure that all people are encouraged and given opportunities to participate in sport and to enjoy all the benefits that sport can bring through developing a healthy lifestyle. Investment in sport is based on our belief that sport is an important part of our individual, community and national life. And further, that it can make a major contribution to some of our most pressing social and health issues."

A new report examining the relationship between volunteers and sport was released by the Irish Sports Council to coincide with these awards. It is hardly surprising that one of the findings of the report -- the results of which are based on surveys completed by 1,186 volunteers and a further 210 volunteer administrators -- was that a key motivation for people getting involved is the desire to do for young people what people had done for them.

As one of those surveyed said: "I was very fortunate as a child to benefit from experts giving of their time voluntarily; many years on I can appreciate the immense positive impact, not just on my life but on a number of lives."

And, on the day that was in it, this was typified by Olympic medallist Kenny Egan attending to acknowledge the role one of the award winners, Gerry Fleming, had on his career. "He has pushed so hard in getting Neilstown its own boxing club," said Egan. "It has been over 20 years coming and is finally here thanks to the hard work of Gerry and his coaching staff."

Of course, it is self-evident that sport is reliant on people giving freely of their time in some capacity. Now, through this research, we have a clearer picture of the current situation in Irish sport.

For starters, 97 per cent of people involved in sport for those aged between four and 18 are volunteers. Typically, these people are aged between 35 and 54, are committed to one day a week of club involvement and will remain so for between three and 10 years.

It also appears that there is an extraordinary willingness among people to become involved in some way with local sports clubs. There are a number of reasons for this, although one of the things which is clear is that Irish people still place enormous value on a sense of community.

Most people who volunteer with a local sports club do so because they were once involved themselves, because they have a passion for the particular sport, or sport in general, because they enjoy working with young people, or -- perhaps the most obvious factor, although not the most common -- because their own children have become involved.

However, despite the fact that there is enormous goodwill on the ground towards clubs, the survey highlights the fact that there are still significant barriers preventing volunteers coming forward in even greater numbers -- something anyone deeply involved with a club will already have a sense of. For example, the more traditional methods of recruiting help into clubs remain the most prevalent, such as word of mouth, targeting former players, parents of children involved. Clubs have for the most part struggled to become more sophisticated in this area.

A further difficulty centres around keeping people involved. Often, newcomers who may be full of enthusiasm for a particular role feel they don't get the support they need and they tend then to drift away again.

One volunteer had this to say: "It's easy to get somebody to come along and give a hand out, but when they are standing there and feeling out of their depth and two weeks on the trot and nobody's helping them, good luck and good bye, you know. It is a case that you have to give people some help as well when you get them in and make it kind of almost attractive for them as well, make them feel they are part of something."

The central message coming out of this research is that, traditionally, knowledge and expertise tends to be located within people and not within the club. This is the biggest barrier of all when it comes to a club growing.

The report makes one fundamental recommendation: to invest in sport club development so that they can retain, and add to, their volunteers. On a broad scale, club personnel need to be properly educated on governance, management and strategic planning and valuable information needs to be more accessible.

By removing obstacles and putting proper structures in place, clubs can attract and then hold on to more volunteers, and in return reward them. "I have to say, there is a buzz that I enjoy when I'm out there with kids coaching," says one person. "The smile on their faces or the look of achievement when, it mightn't be the best player, but there's just something about seeing a child or someone do something they couldn't do a week earlier."

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