Not much for the riot wombles at Lambeth volunteer speed dating

Last night I went to a “speed dating” event
organised by Lambeth Council.

Before you start to think this was some
strange kind of matchmaking service for public sector singletons, I should
explain. The “dates” were between locals like myself who wanted to volunteer
for projects in their community, and organisations in need of volunteers.

Lambeth Council's volunteering eveningIt was arranged as an attempt to harness
the community spirit shown by the so-called “riot wombles” who voluntarily
cleaned the streets after last week’s rioting. 

And the wombles were out in force. Hundreds
of would-be volunteers wandered around, fuelled by a generous buffet and some
hefty cupcakes, courtesy of Lambeth. They looked at projects ranging from oral
history to park maintenance and from hospital helpers to youth mentors.

But I’m not convinced the volunteering
organisations had understood the “wombles” phenomenon. Those who cleaned the
streets were, by and large, professionals with full-time jobs who were happy to
do a sporadic hour of evening work to give something back to their community.

But as I and my housemate wandered around,
we kept hitting the same hurdle: organisations wanted us in the daytime, during
the week, for several hours. We had to keep explaining that we worked
full-time, and asking apologetically whether one evening a week would be of any
use. The general consensus was a polite “no”.

Another thing that struck me was the number
of public sector bodies looking for volunteers at an event I had expected would
be made up entirely of charities and community groups.

Post-it notes of ideas written down at Lambeth Council volunteering eveningGroups with stalls included Young &
Safe, a Lambeth Council programme tackling youth violence; King’s College
Hospital and the local police force, which was looking for volunteer special
constables. Lambeth Voluntary Action Council, a charity that brokers local
volunteering placements and a more obvious host of the event than the council,
didn’t even have a stand.

We left the event with armfuls of leaflets
and plenty of ideas, but no stand-out projects to volunteer for. We concluded
that, as with real dating, it can take time to find the right match.

3 Responses to “Not much for the riot wombles at Lambeth volunteer speed dating”

  1. Susan Langford

    Kaye, what you write really chimes with our experience at Magic Me. We run intergenerational arts projects linking young and older people in our community in East London. Much of the work does take place in the day because its with schools or after-school programmes and thats when many of our older participants prefer to take part. We had lots of requests from interested people, working during the day but keen to support us and were having to say ‘no’ to their offers of help.

    In response we have invented a new project, highly successful so far, which offers these people a chance to volunteer from 6pm onwards and reaches one group of older people, residents in care homes, who are very keen to have company and activity in the evenings. One lady had told me that before she moved into a care home she had been going to bed about 11.30pm. Now she was put to bed at 6.30pm, her sleep pattern was ruined and she felt like a child.

    Through ‘Cocktails in care homes’ we run a monthly cocktail party 6-7pm in each of 4 care homes across Tower Hamlets. Volunteers aged 18+, mostly younger working people, organise the parties and socialise with residents over a drink. We serve alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks to suit all tastes and provide music, flowers, decorations and good glassware to create the ‘cocktail hour’ atmosphere. Training is provided for volunteers, to support them with situations they may encounter such as communicating with people with dementia.

    It took a shift in our thinking to start providing regular evening activities, and a key member of staff had to agree to be flexible in her working hours. But at least 40 older people a month are enjoying a party, new people to talk to, and a sense of being part of the wider community. And more than 60 volunteers are learning more about their local area, meeting new people and getting a real buzz from going for a drink after work. On top of that Magic Me now has many new active supporters who are also busy having ideas for party themes, fundraising and spreading the word about us.

    See more and a short film about the parties on

    The response from care homes and volunteers has been so great since we started the scheme last September we now plan to grow the idea beyond Tower Hamlets. And womble power is what will help us do that.

  2. Jamie Ward-Smith

    Really good points Kaye, it’s the constant challenge of balancing supply and demand, where all too often the two are not in sync. But, charities do need to be prepared to be more flexible as there are a whole plethora of people like you that would be happy to get involved if there were opportunities that fitted in with their lifetsyles more. Sadly many organisations struggle to accommodate this, often for very legitimate reasons, but the result is they miss out on loads of good quality people that are only to willing to give their time.

  3. anna perry

    I work for MacIntyre Care, supporting people with learning disabilities, and we are trying to move away from traditional models of volunteering to flexible buddy systems, which work better for the volunteers and people we support alike. We are trying to recruit people for as little as an hour a month, and buddy them up with someone with a learning disability based on common interests, like walking or music – and then we step back and leave them to it.
    This is so simple, but, although we haven’t officially launched a recruitment campaign yet, the initial reaction from potential volunteers is dubiousness – I think people don’t quite believe that there isn’t a catch!
    The match making event sounds like a great idea though – perhaps we will do it between individuals needing support and potential volunteers directly, with appropriate safeguards of course.


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