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Volunteering to do their bit!

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Since the recession hit, there has been a marked upturn in people helping others, writes EOIN BURKE-KENNEDY .

THE RECESSION has led to a dramatic rise in the number of people registering for voluntary work, according to the Government-funded agency Volunteer Centres Ireland (VCI).

The agency says some of its centres have reported a 100 per cent increase in registrations for the first three months of the year compared with the same period in 2008.

“Having free time has always been one of the top reasons for volunteering but recently we are noticing a significant number of people citing redundancy as their primacy motivation,” VCI chief executive Dr Yvonne McKenna says.

“There is evidence to show there is a link between the increase in volunteering and the fact that people are out of work or have less hours of work,” McKenna says.

VCI has a network of 20 centres across the State which matches volunteers to organisations seeking recruits.

Last year, the centres enlisted 7,500 individuals, 3,000 of whom were placed with various organisations, and they increased their list of registered bodies to 2,400.

So far this year, the agency has registered 3,044 individuals and 418 organisations.

McKenna believes the impact of the recession has been two-fold. “People have more time to volunteer and non-profit organisations are more in need of resources,” she says.

But she admits the link between volunteering and the economy is not well understood and says volunteers’ motives are often complex and multi-faceted.

International evidence does not support the hypothesis that when people become unemployed they are more likely to volunteer. Some countries have even witnessed a decrease in volunteering during downturns.

“Equally the perception that volunteering was in decline during the Celtic Tiger years – and that people became too rich or too tired to volunteer – was not borne out by our figures which showed a steady increase in volunteering throughout the boom,” McKenna says.

“What we are noticing in the last three months is a hike in the trend.”

One of the problems with analysing volunteering trends in Ireland is the dearth of available data.

However, the latest population census, published in 2006, did contain questions relating to volunteering for the first time.

It revealed that one in six Irish people had volunteered “in a formal capacity” in the previous three months.

Despite the perception we have of ourselves as caring and charitable, the census figure suggests we do not volunteer as much as our EU or US neighbours, where average rates are consistently above 30 per cent.

Nevertheless, experts maintain much of the volunteering in Ireland takes place on an informal basis and the statistics deflate the true picture.

According to the census, the average volunteer in Ireland is in their 40s and equally likely to be male or female.

The activity with the highest recorded number of volunteers is social or charitable work, which accounts for 34.8 per cent of active volunteers or 5.7 per cent of the total population aged 15 and over.

The next most common activity involved working with sporting organisations which accounts for 32.6 per cent of active volunteering.

A further 25.9 per cent of volunteers said they worked regularly with a religious or church organisation.

Women made up 61 per cent of voluntary workers involved with a religious group or church and 59 per cent of voluntary social and charitable workers, while men accounted for 69 per cent of those involved in voluntary sporting activities and 58 per cent of political volunteers.

Most of those enrolling with VCI have a younger age profile, which the agency attributes to its online presence and the fact that older people may already know where to go to volunteer.

NUI Galway psychologist Dr Pádraig MacNeela, who has carried out research on the reasons behind volunteering, says the motivational profile of individuals varies with age and social role.

MacNeela says young people sometimes volunteer to enhance their career prospects, seeing the move as a stepping stone to build up experience.Whereas parents and middle-aged people often volunteer for organisations they have an association with, like the local school or club “often out of a sense of obligation”.

Elderly people may volunteer to stay active or to avoid the social isolation that comes with retirement, he says.

Generally volunteers express some sort of altruistic motivation or what MacNeela defines as “values expression” – the idea that it is the right thing to do.

However, surveys consistently reveal the top reason people give for not volunteering is simply because they have never been asked.

In the past two decades, there has been a growing body of research highlighting the health benefits of volunteering.

Several recent US studies suggest those who volunteer enjoy lower mortality rates, greater functional ability, lower rates of depression and even reduced levels of heart disease.

The studies indicate older people benefit more than the young as their volunteering is more likely to be discretionary rather than obligatory.

Younger people are also less likely to experience ill-health, thereby making it difficult to measure the benefits.

However, some experts have cast doubt on the health benefits, claiming studies have not accounted for the fact that it is the more happy, active and well-adjusted people who volunteer and therefore enjoy better health anyway.

Clinical psychologist Dr Michael Byrne says: “When most people think of volunteering they think of the gratitude they may receive which can be very emotionally nourishing to an individual.”

Often referred to as a “helper’s high”, it can increase self-acceptance and reduce the sense of isolation often suffered by those who find themselves unemployed, or at a stage in their life like retirement, he says.

Volunteering builds people’s civic engagement and connects people into society, he says.

Byrne believes men are more inclined to opt for volunteering jobs that tap into the “I am what I do” ethos or for roles based on their professional skills, whereas women seem to take on the care roles which are often overlooked and undervalued by society.

But he warns of the dangers of “role overload” whereby volunteers over-extend themselves by pledging too much of their time – making the return from volunteering not worth the effort.

Some companies have begun to move away from solely giving money to charity, and are now encouraging staff to take time off and volunteer as part of their corporate social responsibility ethos.

Equally, non-profit organisations have become more professional about their business, employing more paid staff and applying more rigorous standards to their work practices.

It has become clear to many agencies that volunteers can paradoxically become a drain on the organisation if adequate systems to manage and support them are not put in place.

In other people's shoes

Fiona Sexton (37) from Ringsend seized upon a gap between jobs to fulfil a long-held ambition to volunteer.

“I’ve done a lot of fundraising but I’ve always felt somewhat removed from the social problems going on around me. I felt I lived in a bubble.

“A friend suggested I consider becoming an adult literacy tutor because I loved to read and it might be fun to relay some of my passion for books.”

Fiona is now training to be a tutor with the National Adult Literacy Agency (Nala) for two hours a week at Ringsend VEC.

A previous attempt to volunteer with one organisation had foundered on “the big commitment in hours” required by the agency which Fiona felt she could not happily fit into her busy work schedule.

“This time round, I realised there are lots of types of volunteering and you can choose the hours that suit you best.

“Volunteering has increased my awareness of the problem of adult literacy.

“It has forced me to put myself in other people’s shoes and I’ve come to realise just how easy people can fall into these problems.

“The psychology part of adult education is what I have found most interesting,” she says.

“You’ve got to know where people are coming from and how many upsets they’ve had in life because of this problem and how many times they’ve had to hide it and how courageous it is for them to walk in the door and seek help.”

The VCI website address is