“Welcome to the club! We’re so glad you joined! Now show some gratitude and get to work!” Community clubs want to be loved, and they want to grow, but they rely on the efforts of volunteers and they are pretty good at making you feel guilty.

A recent report by the New Zealand Amateur Sport Association paints a depressing picture of community sports clubs in New Zealand. Local Wellington clubs like the Newlands-Paparangi Tennis Club are given as prime examples of the decline of participation in sports, and especially of the decline of volunteering. 

The report points to some familiar factors in explaining why club sport is in so much trouble. These days, people have too many other things to do. We have become more selfish. Millennials, in particular, are not “joiners”; they do not want to commit; they want to “pay to play”. 

On the Run editors Simon and Stephen have been debating sports club volunteers and specifically the state of volunteers at Scottish for a few months. Unsurprisingly, they disagree.

Stephen: At Wellington Scottish we have avoided this trend completely. 

For a club of around 250 members, it is astonishing how many people do something to help the club function and flourish. Add together the members who organise the various races and workouts, serve on the management committee, help out at the 5k series, run as pacers, send out emails, work as section captains, do some coaching, order and distribute the uniforms…it must be close to a majority of our members.

It is also worth noting that our volunteers come from all sections of the club. I’m not sure exactly what makes someone a Millennial, but the club benefits hugely from the commitment and enthusiasm of our youngest adult members.

Simon: The end of 2018 has forced us to think, however, about the future of volunteering in the club. Several of our longest-standing volunteers have come to the end of their terms. And they are the very volunteers whose work it is sometimes easy to take for granted.

For years, at every race, the Scottish tent has appeared, thanks to Ross Lake. Wherever we might hold a club run, there has always been tea and coffee and biscuits, thanks to Helen Willis. The children have always had something fun and energetic to do, thanks to Jonathon Harper. The weekly email has reliably turned up in our inboxes, thanks to Api Williams. At road relays we have had vans and food and places to sleep, thanks to Marshall Clark.

Stephen: Those people are all club stalwarts – and as you say much-undervalued.  But I firmly believe new people will step into their boots. The reason most people don’t get involved in their local communities is that no one has asked them. Our job as a club is to give our members the opportunity to own the club by running it in the way they want to see it run – that is what will keep us relevant as times change.

Simon: Our volunteer culture is undoubtedly healthy, but this is an opportunity for us to rethink our approach. Our present strategy – the one you are advocating – is to identify a job and ask for volunteers, over and over if necessary. But there are some people for whom it does not work.

First, there are members who enjoy being part of a running club and are happy to pay their membership fee, but who do not want to spend their time volunteering – and don’t want to be hassled about it.

Sharon Wray

Second, there are members who are happy to do something extra to help the club, but who do not have very much time. They might find it easier to give the club more money than to give up a few hours as volunteers.

Third, there are those who could make a time commitment to the club, but who cannot afford to give up too much of their time for free. 

Stephen: That is true – but often, if we break a job down into something specific and achievable rather than repeating and never-ending task, people can see its value and can see themselves doing it. It is easier to marshall a road crossing at a single race in which your friends are running, than to be an on-call marshall for every race throughout the winter. 

Simon: But some jobs in the club are essential and require a specific ongoing commitment: jobs like organising the 5k series, organising club races, getting in our entries for interclub races, and coaching the juniors. 

Here’s an idea: Are there members who would commit to doing these jobs if they came with some money?

The club could offer an optional “volunteer fee”, additional to the membership fee. It would be paid by members who want to contribute to the club but prefer to do it with money rather than time. The money could be used to fund a small number of paid positions, whether for official employees or as running scholarships. 

Stephen: I’m wary of donations becoming a proxy for volunteering. While the jobs might still get done, will people feel the same ownership of the club and responsibility for making sure it runs well? Or will they see problems as something to blame on other people who “have not done their job properly”?

Simon: Perhaps there are Scottish members who would like some formal experience as an event manager or a coach. Perhaps there are members who could use a bit of extra money in return for helping out around the club. If we can find a way to pay them, then we could all be sure that the essential jobs will get done and we could feel just a little less guilty.

Stephen: I believe you are right that we lead busy lives and sometimes we can feel pressure or guilt when we are not doing something to help. But I also think volunteering is a positive experience that brings us closer to other people in our community. 

Volunteering won’t be the right thing for all people at all stages in their life. I was deliberately a lot less involved in community groups when my children were young. But I do think it is an integral part of the experience of being in a sports club, rather than a chore that people have to fulfil out of guilt.

Simon: Right, but I don’t think we have to choose. Volunteering is fun and important in all sorts of ways, and the club will always have a need for volunteers. But there’s also nothing wrong with working for a community club and getting paid for it. We could see this as one more opportunity to provide to Scottish members, or to others who have something to offer the club.