Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The Big Society

Our beloved leader . . .  Belay that.  Our Prime Minister, David Cameron, has been trying for three years to encourage citizens to volunteer for all sorts of things, thereby creating what he calls the Big Society.  According to him, the London Olympics just 12 months ago were a superb example of the Big Society in action with all the volunteer greeters and helpers that there were.  But I think he - and politicians in general - overlook the fact that this country is awash with volunteers.  There are all the leaders of the youth organisations, from Scouts and Guides through youth clubs to football clubs.  There are volunteers working in thousands of charity shops in high streets up and down the country.  There are volunteers in the reserve units of our armed forces - the Territorial Army, the Royal Navy Reserve and the RAF Volunteer Reserve.  (OK, so those guys and gals get paid, but they are not doing it for the money.)  There are unpaid Special Constables, the St John Ambulance Brigade . . .  I could go on and on.  Just here in the relatively small city of Brighton & Hove there are, I understand, more than 300 charities, each of which is dependent on volunteers.

One of those charitable organisations is Brighton Lions Club, of which I am privileged to be a member.  But I do sometimes feel a little anxious about the future of Brighton Lions.  We have been in existence for just over 60 years and the club has, in that time, raised millions of pounds which have been spent on charitable activities.  The members have also given many hours of what I can only describe as "hands-on service", by which I mean actually doing things to help other members of the community.

Back in the days it all started, the early 1950s, the members were youngish men, mainly in their 30s or 40s.  Nowadays, the average age must be well into the 60s.  We have two members who are over 90, five more who are in their 80s, and probably another half dozen in or very nearly in their 70s.  That makes up getting on for half the membership of the club.  Our combined advancing ages mean that we are just not physically capable of many of the activities we thought nothing of 20 or even 10 years ago.  Those advancing years also make it more difficult to recruit younger members who don't want to join an old men's club.  In any case, many of the younger men and women who would make ideal members just don't have the time to commit to something like the Lions Club.  Even now, we have three members we never see and about six or seven whose attendance at meetings or fund raising activities can only be described as spasmodic.

I have said for many years that Lions Clubs in smaller communities actually find it easier to recruit members.  That is partly because a city like Brighton is so diverse, so fragmented, that we don't have the sense of community spirit to be found in a smaller town of say 10,000 inhabitants.  I think as well that not having a specific object or purpose doesn't help.  Somebody interested in, for example, athletics is more likely to act as a coach at an athletics club.  Or they may have support a charity researching a cure for a specific disease because they or a family member suffers from that disease.

We have tried a variety of ways of recruiting, ranging from newspaper adverts to inviting people to an open evening.  None have been very effective.  Indeed, I would go further and say that none have been effective in any way.  The best way of bringing in new blood is still encouraging somebody one knows to come along and take part.  The challenge is to find somebody who has some time and who is young enough to do things!


And on the subject of Brighton, this is a view across the city from the top of Race Hill and out across the English Channel towards the south-west.

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