Recession boosts voluntary sector

As unemployment rises, volunteering is seen as a way of gaining valuable experience.

    The financial crisis has increased the supply of and demand for volunteers [GALLO/GETTY]

    Against a backdrop of lush green mountains and crystal clear waters, a small boat takes a group out for an early morning dive.

    But this is not just another tourist outing; the group is made up of volunteers, who have come to Tioman, a small island off the coast of Malaysia, to help preserve the island's unique marine life.

    They are part of a volunteer sector that is proving to be one of the few beneficiaries of the current global economic downturn.

    This expedition is made up of Brits, Swedes and Germans, ranging in age from school leavers to professionals in their late 30s.

    Doing something worthwhile

    Among them is Richard Bloor. Just a few months ago Richard made a comfortable living in London, working in the property sector.

    But property was one of the first areas to be hit by the credit crunch, and he was made redundant.

    When Richard Bloor lost his job, he volunteered to work on conservation projects
    He is not down-hearted - in fact he says the recession could be the best thing that ever happened to him.

    "When I actually lost my job I was quite surprised by how much of a relief it was," he said.

    "I've been given a lot of thinking time and I think really I don't want to spend my life working for money, when I could be coming out to a place like this and doing something, not necessarily making a lot of cash, but doing something that I love doing."

    The experience has been so rewarding for Richard that he has decided to go back to university to do a masters degree in conservation and he plans a complete career change.

    Richard is one of a growing number of people turning to volunteering in these difficult financial times, taking advantage of the opportunity to travel, while doing something worthwhile.

    Helping others

    Daniel Quilter runs a website that helps match potential volunteers with their perfect project. He says activity on his site has doubled since January - with no extra advertising he can only put it down to the recession.

    While his regular clients used to be school or university leavers, he says a lot of interest is now being shown by those aged over 30, and even from families.

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    "I think the economic crisis has given people the opportunity to say 'I don't want my life to be just about money, I want something more'," Quilter says.

    "People are looking for something they cannot get from regular mass tourism. Many of our volunteers are starting to look to greener ways of living, to develop themselves and help other people."

    A survey published by, a travel website, found that 62 per cent of volunteer organisations who responded said they expected to send more volunteers abroad in 2009 than they did in 2008.

    This is all the more remarkable at a time when, according to the UN's World Tourism Organisation, general tourism is expected to drop by up to 5 per cent.

    Gaining experience

    Quilter also points out that many of those who have been made redundant see volunteering as a way to gain experience which could help them when they try to re-enter the job market.

    Betty Cheeks says losing her job has given her the opportunity to give something back
    But, you do not have to go to a tropical island to make a difference; more and more people are volunteering closer to home.

    Until recently Betty Cheeks worked in retail. After she lost her job she wanted something to keep her busy and to stop her from falling into a rut.

    She says helping out at her local Salvation Army has given her a new sense of purpose.

    "The Salvation Army has helped me in the past ... so I figured, I'm not doing anything, I can volunteer. Why not volunteer for them because they have helped me and they are still helping other people today, because everyone needs help nowadays," she said.

    Betty is learning new skills while she is working, and says she will put the experience gained through volunteering on her resume. She says she is enjoying the experience and that when she does find a paying job, she will still try to find time to help out.

    "It makes me feel good, it makes me feel I have something to get up for and come to in the morning, even though its not a paying job."

    As salaried jobs disappear to the crisis, there has been no drop in demand for voluntary workers.

    So whether it is working with elephants in Namibia, charting coral in Malaysia or lending a hand at the local soup kitchen, more and more people are choosing to do something a little different and to give something back to society.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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