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City of Culture and the Benefits of Volunteering

A blog by Dr Oyinlola Oyebode, Warwick Medical School

Volunteering is giving your time to help others. However, our project is examining how volunteering also impacts upon volunteers themselves.

The City Hosts are a legion of volunteers who have been supporting the Coventry City of Culture year. They help out at events and roam the city to encourage others to find out more about Coventry and the City of Culture programme.

Our focus study has used data collected by the Monitoring and Evaluation team, alongside interview data that we have collected over the past few months to understand how volunteering effects the volunteer’s wellbeing and their pride in the city of Coventry.

Our analysis of the monitoring and evaluation data shows that volunteers have measurably better mental wellbeing than the Coventry average, which was measured in the Coventry Household Survey. There could be many reasons for this. It might not be because volunteering has improved the mental wellbeing of City Hosts, instead they may have higher wellbeing to begin with, which might facilitate them getting involved in volunteering in the first place. We have a particular challenge that the Coventry Household Survey was completed in January-March 2021, when the pandemic was posing challenges for many of us, so our comparison is likely to be affected by this.

However, we have also interviewed 21 City Hosts so far, and have analysed written testimony from more than 200. In these data, volunteers themselves report that volunteering has played a role in improving their mental wellbeing, and they give their perspectives on the mechanisms for this. City Hosts have enjoyed increased social interactions: with the general public that they support in their role, but particularly with each other where friendships have been formed between like-minded people and across generational/cultural divides.

City Hosts have enjoyed learning: about Coventry’s history and geography; about the arts and culture they are exposed to through the City of Culture events; about each other. They have developed skills and grown in confidence. City Hosts have had opportunities for physical activity (particularly on the roaming shifts) which they credit with having a positive impact on their physical health. City Hosts also talk about their pride in the city and the joy of being able to ‘give back’ to the city and to promote it to visitors.

There are also some negatives, for example, although many City Hosts talk about feeling appreciated, others talk about the disappointment of feeling under used on some shifts.

Many of the City Hosts are already signed up for future volunteering. There is an appetite for the City Host programme to continue in some form, again a demonstration that this has had a positive impact on many of those involved.

Our data will be useful for considering how to design future volunteering programmes to maximise the benefits to those volunteering.