T he team at Volunteer Centre Dacorum are back in business this week after the Christmas break, busily matching people with skills to offer and time to spare with good causes across the borough who depend on volunteers to help as many people as possible.
But there’s one big change at the Roundhouse, the distinctive building in Hemel Hempstead’s Marlowes which is the organisation’s hub.
As 2013 drew to a close, it was time for long-serving manager Heather Allen, who had played a pivotal role in establishing the Volunteer Centre at the heart of Dacorum’s much-admired voluntary sector over nearly two decades, to begin a well-earned retirement.
That was the cue for change, and Heather’s manager role has now been revised and the new post of chief executive has been filled by a beaming, energetic new arrival who is eagerly looking forward to making his own contribution to the team’s success story.
Richard Pitts hasn’t had too far to come – his most recent role has seen him in charge of the volunteer centre in neighbouring St Albans.
But he has a wealth of experience in the sector going back 15 years since his days as a student and including work in London and Yorkshire.
Richard knows that he has big shoes to fill but says he is looking forward to the challenge, and the first job on his list is to make himself known to the key players in the volunteering army that helps keep the borough ticking, and reaching out to organisations which can support their work.
As she prepared to say her farewells Heather, who was awarded the MBE in 2011 for her contribution over many years, took stock of the centre’s success in harnessing the energy and enthusiasm of community-minded citizens of all ages and backgrounds.
She said: “The get up and go of so many local people has given the district a great reputation for community spirit.
“It has been great to work in a district of Hertfordshire where there has been local authority support and recognition for volunteering and the voluntary sector.
“Several factors have contributed to Dacorum’s reputation, including the strength of the Volunteer Centre, and I’ve been really proud to be part of that.”
It’s a source of frustration that the model of the Volunteer Centre hasn’t been repeated up and down the country.
There are success stories, but there are also failures, and a feeling that other districts just don’t seem to appreciate the benefits that a thriving and well-organised voluntary sector offers to individuals, to organisations and to the community as a whole.
“Recognition of the importance of volunteering has to be understood and promoted at every level – from national, county and local government to local volunteer-involving organisations themselves,” said Heather.
“I have real concerns at the moment about the way volunteering is being used nationally as a political football. You can’t mandate people to volunteer.”
She’s always taken pains to praise Dacorum Borough Council for its longstanding support of the centre’s work – evidenced by its landmark building in middle of the town, which was originally created to be the council’s information centre.
In an ideal world, would organisations be fully funded by public money and a legal requirement, like collecting the bins or keeping the roads repaired, so that everyone could get the benefits?
That’s a long way off, she accepts.
“I’m realistic enough to realise that ‘fully funded’is in our dreams and in the present economic climate unlikely to change,” she said.
“But continuing support is vital.
“We need to educate decision makers so they don’t see flashing neon lights saying ‘FREE!” over the terms ‘volunteer’ and ‘volunteering’!
“In the last year the Volunteer Centre in neighbouring Three Rivers has closed because of lack of funding.
“This is so sad for local communities and so short- sighted by local decision makers.
“There should be an appropriate level of support for accredited volunteering services in every district and the relationship between Dacorum Borough Council and the Volunteer Centre here sets a good example.
“We expect our services to be scrutinised by our funders and are proud to work to nationally agreed standards.
“It’s only right that the expenditure of public money should be monitored.
“Support for volunteering is an investment, which managed appropriately, has huge rewards.
“On a purely monetary basis it is reckoned that there is £7 value from a £1 investment.
“But there are other vital outcomes for communities and individuals that are impossible to quantify in financial terms.
“For communities that means key services which support the most vulnerable. For volunteers it’s about a sense of belonging, increasing their self-confidence and self-esteem, not to mention the skills picked up through volunteering. It’s win, win, win!”
It’s not just a national message, but an international one.
Heather plans to travel widely, and one of the first trips on her agenda was to San Francisco to visit her daughter, who works for an international public relations agency on the West Coast.
“Like most companies in the United States, it has a very strong ethos of corporate social responsibility,” said Heather.
“Days out to volunteer, both as individuals and in teams, are very common and regular donations to non-profits are part of most individual’s financial planning.
“We could do with more of that approach over here.”
As she handed over the baton to her successor, she offered him her blessing and encouragement.
She said: “Richard already has a wealth of experience in the volunteering sector and I know he will make a great impact on volunteering locally.
“I wish him every success – I couldn’t be handing over to anyone more suitable for the job.
“The trustees made a great decision when they offered him the position.”
Looking back over her many years at the centre, she said: “I’ve been involved in the initial stages of many great local projects and also as a trustee in several charities.
“Mediation Dacorum and Dacorum Communities for Learning spring to mind as projects which I supported in their early stages. In both cases it was a mix of local individuals, infrastructure organisations and movers and shakers from the local authority who got together to set things up, having recognised a need.
“There have been many initiatives which demonstrate the power of volunteering. We see many people who need a little help to get started as volunteers.
“They may lack confidence or have some health issue which holds them back. With the appropriate support they can achieve so much and it’s just wonderful to see.
“Incidentally I would really recommend trusteeship to anyone wanting to give some of their time and skills to a non-profit organisation.
“You get the chance to really make a difference and learn so much about the way the community works. It would be great to see some younger people involved as trustees.”