Celebrating 17 years – The evolution of volunteering at parkrun
It’s parkrun’s 17th anniversary this coming weekend and, to mark the occasion, we’re celebrating everything volunteering.
We’ve learnt a lot over the years, and here, for the first time, we’re telling the story of what we once thought about volunteering, how that’s changed, and what it might look like in the future.
Volunteering has always been one of the cornerstones and great success stories of parkrun. But the way that we view the involvement of those who volunteer has evolved significantly.
At that very first event in Bushy Park in October 2004 there were five volunteers, including Founder Paul Sinton-Hewitt CBE. Fast-forward 17 years and more than half a million people have volunteered at 2,200 locations in 23 countries around the world, clocking up a staggering six million instances of volunteering between them.
These participants have proudly worn the parkrun high-vis, and in doing so have taken huge steps to improve their own health and wellbeing. But in the beginning, we didn’t realise how positive and life-changing volunteering could be.
In the beginning.
In the early days we were focused on delivering events as efficiently as possible, and so our attitude was ‘what’s the fewest number of volunteers we can get away with to deliver an event each week’. And if everyone, regardless of their circumstances, were to ‘do their bit’ events would be safe in the knowledge that they would have more than enough people to fill their roster every week. Unfortunately, this sometimes meant people felt pressured to volunteer a certain number of times each year.
Without realising it, we had fallen into the trap of viewing volunteering as a sacrifice. To volunteer meant ‘giving something up’ or ‘doing your duty’. Sadly an inevitable consequence of this was that too often it led to resentment of those who walked, jogged and ran, but rarely or never volunteered at parkrun.
Phrases such as ‘giving up your time’ and ‘doing your bit’ positioned volunteering as something that should be done for reasons other than the simple joy of it. In this context it was a sacrifice, a reluctant but necessary job that was required to allow others to enjoy parkrun. We just hadn’t realised that far from being an unrewarding chore, volunteering was providing some of the richest and most beneficial parkrun experiences.
It’s true that as an organisation we always had a really good understanding of the function of volunteering and how it can effectively add operational capacity at scale. But it’s only in the past few years that we have really begun to understand how beneficial it is to the volunteer in terms of their own health and wellbeing, with clear improvements in sense of purpose through community engagement, belonging and self worth.
An ever growing volume of evidence was emerging for us, that supported the opinion that:
- volunteering can be emotionally, mentally and physically life enhancing
- volunteering leads to better health and wellbeing, not only for individuals but also for communities
On our 15th anniversary (October 2019) we published the findings of our first-ever health and wellbeing survey. Over 60,000 UK parkrunners completed the survey, making it one of the biggest ever independent studies into physical activity.
The results confirmed our belief that participating at parkrun is fundamentally good for our physical and mental health. But it also revealed that the biggest benefits were experienced by those who volunteered in addition to walking and running. An incredible 84% of volunteers said parkrun improved their happiness.
Since then we’ve been committed to regularly surveying our volunteers, giving us valuable insights into the ongoing experience, motivations, concerns and challenges.
This feedback guides us in our decision making and influences improvements in processes and operational policy. Hopefully, it ensures an even better overall experience.
We know that volunteering gets people outside, making new friends, having fun, learning skills and being a valuable part of the community.
Volunteers have told us how being able to meaningfully participate, every week, with their friends, family, neighbours, colleagues, and even strangers, has enhanced their life beyond recognition; it has helped them through the most difficult times, giving them strength when they needed it more than ever.
Our insight is further supported by the fact that 34% of healthcare professionals who have prescribed parkrun (in a UK partnership initiative with the Royal College of General Practitioners) recommended volunteering to their patients, as well as walking, jogging or running, an indication that volunteering is valued by healthcare professionals.
So we now understand that volunteering isn’t a sacrifice, or about ‘giving up your time’. It’s actually a hugely positive form of participation that can have a transformative impact on so many people’s lives.
As a consequence, we have shifted from a position of wanting only minimal volunteering requirements to maximising volunteering opportunities.
The future of volunteering
Through the insight we’ve gathered and the feedback we’ve received, we now know that some people need to volunteer as much as others need to walk, jog or run.
We’re passionate about building a culture of volunteering at parkrun which highlights the sheer joy we know people feel, and the sense of value and appreciation in a safe environment where people are welcomed, included and supported, and that it is seen as an equal form of participation.
Far from being an obligation or an expectation, we now promote volunteering as an act of choice.
We think that there’s a volunteer role for everyone, and that you’ll love volunteering at parkrun. But it’s important we all understand that if you don’t want to volunteer, that’s absolutely fine. At the same time, if you do want to, there’s always an opportunity to do so, no one is ever turned away.
So as we look to the future, with such a positive story to tell, it’s critical that we move away from shaming people who haven’t volunteered and from suggesting that everyone should volunteer.
It is also critical that we can accommodate all those who want to volunteer, and support their journey when they do.
We are dedicated to ensuring that volunteering is easy. That you can do as much or as little as you want, and that no task is too small and that no experience is required.
One of the ways we ensure volunteering is easy is to make sure that volunteer roles are the same at every event. In this way opportunities are accessible and familiar on a global scale. For those who are thinking about volunteering for the first time, we’re creating a set of volunteer videos so you get to see it before you try it, and you can read lots of stories on our blog too.
We’re continually developing the volunteer hub as a global information resource for parkrun volunteers. In addition to this, regular updates are provided for all volunteers, and we share these across our social media channels too, so everyone can see how easy it is to volunteer, and what the latest updates are.
We can’t wait to keep learning about volunteering, and welcoming more and more people to the parkrun family.