June-July 2021 | Features

Volunteer Expo lands with a bang

Volunteer Expo lands with a bang

The virtual stage was set. After almost three years of planning, the virtual doors flung open for Volunteer Expo Online last month. James Bolton and Louise Smith, two members of the event team, look back at a successful event and innovation for Rotary.

A knockout Main Stage

Volunteering is an adventure. And the event kicked off with a speaker who knows a thing or two about that. Broadcaster Ben Fogle shared how volunteering to protect sea turtles with the US Peace Corps inspired “his most profound voluntary experience” as one of 36 people creating an isolated society in the Outer Hebrides for the TV show ‘Castaway’ in 2000.

Broadcaster, Ben Fogle, shared his experiences of volunteering.

Ben also championed why volunteering is important for young people, calling for it to be integrated into the national curriculum. 

“Without a doubt it would be on there for me. I cannot reiterate enough how much my early voluntary work changed me as a person.” 

“Volunteering was so integral to building my own confidence. Where I came short when it came to academics and sports, volunteering was something which I felt ownership over. 

“It was something I could do, I felt very proud doing it.”

Engaging and supporting young people was a theme across both days of Main Stage speakers. Boxing legend Frank Bruno, highlighted how his Foundation offers a bespoke programme for teenagers who are perhaps struggling. 

By engaging in a mix of exercise and healthy discussion, Frank hopes those who enrol will enjoy a similar path to him, and a positive route away from mental health problems.

Radio Presenter, Katie Thistleton, at the Rotary Volunteer Expo.

BBC Radio 1 Presenter Katie Thistleton, herself a passionate mental health campaigner for young people, gave a powerful and brave account of her own battles with anxiety.

Actor Brooke Kinsella no doubt had viewers at home welling up as she told the emotional account of her younger brother Ben, who was murdered in a knife attack.

“Making the decision to volunteer, you’ll not only be changing lives, but you’ll be saving them too”, she said.

And you couldn’t fail to be inspired by 17-year-old Amy Meek, one half of the charity Kids Against Plastic, who gave an informative and passionate plea on the need for environmental sustainability. 

The volunteering landscape

Almost all aspects of our lives changed during the pandemic, and it’s the same for the volunteer sector. 12.4 million people volunteered during the pandemic, with 4.6 million of those doing so for the first time.

Sarah Vibert, Catherine Johnstone and Matt Hyde, Chief Executives of NCVO, Royal Voluntary Service and the Scouts respectively, all painted a positive picture of the volunteering landscape, with a real opportunity ahead of us. 

“We need to find lots of different avenues for volunteers to come through”, said Catherine during her presentation. 

frank bruno

Frank Bruno, former Heavyweight World Boxing Champion

“Traditional volunteering is still absolutely at the forefront of what we want people to be doing. Equally, there is a whole cohort out there who want less commitment. 

“It is incumbent on us to direct people to where their time can be best used and have the highest impact for them and their community.”

Bringing the event to life

The concept of Volunteer Expo was first conceived in 2018, transforming Rotary GB&I’s annual conference into a public-facing volunteering show. It was clearly something the sector was crying out for. The gap and the appetite were there.

But as with bringing any idea to fruition, the road is never an easy one, and you can’t imagine a bump being much bigger than a global pandemic.

“Traditional volunteering is still absolutely at the forefront of what we want people to be doing. Equally, there is a whole cohort out there who want less commitment.”

After a postponement in 2020 and hopes of reconvening for a live event in 2021 dashed, the team, all working remotely until just two weeks before the event, were swapping fixtures and fittings for pixels and popups as the event pivoted to become a solely virtual experience.

But for us, the buzz – and sometimes the stress! – of a live event was very much there. With a studio built at our Support Centre in Alcester, we welcomed most speakers on site to not only ensure we delivered as authentic a connection as possible between the speakers, our host Dave King, and our audience, but also, to match the standard of interactivity and engagement on offer in the Exhibit Hall and Workshop Hub.

And of course, there were the logistics of making the environment Covid secure for everyone involved to contend with!

As an organisation and a team, our vision was a show celebrating all things volunteering. We wanted to create a positive environment where people could find volunteering opportunities to suit them. We provided a platform, not just for Rotary, but for 63 amazing volunteer organisations to shout about what they do best. We feel like we achieved that vision.

Now our attentions turn to 2022, where we absolutely hope to be welcoming you in person to Volunteer Expo Live on 6th – 8th May at the NEC, Birmingham.

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