Volunteer Expo went live at the National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham on May 6th and 7th and I could not be more proud of what Rotary has given to the voluntary and community sector.
From conversations held back in 2017, encapsulating a vision to bring an event to market showcasing the power of volunteering, this has finally been realised!
For over 100 years, Rotary in Great Britain and Ireland had provided an annual conference to its members.
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Without doubt there have been some fabulous weekends for members to come together, meet friends and hear from amazing speakers. But with attendee numbers falling and a call to connect Rotary with the wider community, it was time to rethink our signature event.
It was a bold move on the part of our elected leadership back in June 2018 when the governing body voted to adapt by supporting this event.
The concept was to place Rotary at the heart of the voluntary and community sector, giving a platform for the ‘third sector’ to speak to current and new generations of volunteers.
Volunteer Expo was to launch in May 2020 and work began in earnest to attract sponsors, exhibitors and keynote speakers for this showcase set to celebrate the power of volunteering and its impact on society. But in March 2020, just five weeks ahead of the go live date, we hit lock-down!
COVID forced the world to stop, and this event was no exception. I must be honest and say that the past two years have been a scary roller-coaster ride of emotion as we worked to maintain the support of Rotary members and our event participants.
The world was in crisis and the need to come together was strongly felt, so a pivot in 2021 saw the first virtual Volunteer Expo deliver inspiration for those people giving or wanting to give their time to support others.
By the end of 2021 there was no doubt that people needed to be together.
The virtual world had served many so well, but the human 3D experience is critical to long term well-being. It was time to pick up the pace again, take a leap into the unknown. Just six months out, the team cranked up once more to bring Volunteer Expo Live to life in 2022!
Excitement has been high across the staff team and our extended ‘volunteer’ family, as we’ve watched registrations rise to over 4,000 with a quarter being teenage/young adults, and approx. 57% being non-Rotary.
But it’s not until you open the doors that the true impact is known and when we saw queues forming on Friday morning the atmosphere was electric.
To quote a friend, “you knew it was successful as you couldn’t walk in a straight-line through the aisles”, and this was true on both days of Expo.
I took time to speak with many exhibitors who expressed thanks to Rotary for hosting an event that enabled them to share their services and opportunities.
The event attracted the active participation of Rotary International’s leadership with Jennifer Jones, Gordon McInally and Holger Knaack adding to the buzz on the Expo floor. On the main stage, Jennifer and Nicki Scott ably demonstrated the wider value of being a member of Rotary in a way that was outward facing and inclusive of our partners and other non-profit volunteers in attendance.
The Rotary Village was in the heart of the exhibition showcasing 16 projects and programmes, and the iron-lung exhibit raised significant interest about our global End Polio Now campaign.
A fantastic addition to the show was our hands-on community service space brought to us by Feed The Hungry.
Hundreds of people joined the team to pack food boxes that have been transported to the Moldova-Ukraine border to help feed over 700 Ukrainian families.
This amazing effort of filling 735 boxes across the two days, attracted significant media attention that led to Volunteer Expo being the lead story on BBC West Midlands news and the BBC website.
There were over 20 deep-dive workshops across the weekend, all drawing a crowd and many exceeding capacity.
What was clear to me was the focus of health and well-being is something that resonates with many people, attracting high levels of interest and participation.
In total, these workshops gave over 14 hours of free onsite learning and volunteering, which is simply amazing.
The line-up of keynote speakers brought forward both hard-hitting and thoughtful conversation.
Alongside the many personal stories of challenge, tenacity and success, we heard about the power of volunteering and what it brings to us in terms of driving positive mental health and empathy for others. Volunteering can truly power peace as we bridge divide and develop a sense of belonging within our community.
The question to be answered is what now for Volunteer Expo? Statistical evaluation and participant feedback will very much drive the decision on when and where Rotary takes this event next.
Many ask me about the cost of this event to Rotary, citing how it should break-even and not cost our members anything.
My response to this is that we all have a part to play in supporting society. Rotary is the glue that facilitates collaboration, leveraging significant impact through its connections and global network.
We have a duty to invest in what we believe in most which is the power of people taking action in their community.
Is it good value to invest around £3 per member to showcase the power of Rotary in action?
I believe it is to ensure Rotary increases its impact, enhances member participation, and expands its reach. Volunteer Expo 2022 is just the beginning, will you join the event next year?