“I’m just a volunteer.”

Ask any volunteer manager and they’ll tell you it’s a common phrase. Our volunteers are not here for the glory. But what do you get when you multiply one ‘just a volunteer’ by 33,000? Well then that’s a whole different story…

Think of it as a collective savings account, with everyone’s time put into the same pot. Seconds, minutes and hours given to the collective cause of beating cancer. It’s not about how long you give – it could be 20 minutes, 2 hours, or 20 years – the important thing is that the pot grows and grows.

The more time invested in our fundraising, in our influencing work, and in supporting our charity to operate, is more time for people diagnosed with cancer to spend with their families. Every hour a volunteer donates to beating cancer now will help give years to people living with cancer in the future.

So, Sophie’s 2 hours on the shop floor added to Alfred’s 15 minutes speaking on the radio, Amira’s 5 hours on the health roadshow added to Joan’s 7 hours of event support all add up – cumulatively the effect is extraordinary.

And time volunteered is not ordinary time. It’s time infused with passion, drive and determination. It’s time honouring lost family members and friends. Or even extra time you’ve gained yourself, thanks to advances in research. It’s the best kind of time – invested with purpose.

This is the story of time. Of minutes and days which turn into months and years. The story of our 33,000 time-givers.

Opening doors on the high street

We should start at the beginning – 2002, when Cancer Research UK was first formed. The year that the Euro became a shiny new currency, and Justin and Britney split.

There was a muddy field in Harlow, metal fencing going up, some high vis jackets and pink t shirts. Race for Life in action. There was also a shop in Temple Fortune selling Moroccan pottery and hat boxes, perhaps a till with a clunky drawer, and a pile of VHS sorted neatly into alphabetical order. And volunteers. Lots of them!

Fast forward and more than 1000 extraordinary people across the UK have been volunteering with us for over 20 years. Just 2 hours of their time each week since 2002 would make 2 million hours of time invested in our mission to beat cancer.

Then and Now! Leeds actress Gaynor Faye outside CRUK Horsforth shop with volunteers Molly and Sheila (2002) and Helen and Rachel (2022).

Our first shop actually arrived 20 years before Cancer Research UK existed – Sutton in Ashfield was the first to open in 1982 for the Imperial Cancer Research Fund. The early shops were run entirely by volunteers – steaming clothes, serving customers and sorting stock donations – much the same as today, though now on a bigger scale, and co-run with our staff. The average weekly income of our shops in 2022 is twice that of 2002.

Fundraising for change

We held 95 Race for Life events in 2002. That number has climbed to 356 events this year, supported by a small army of volunteers.

In the early days of Race for Life, volunteers took to the stage, running commentary and warm-ups for participants. Even now, volunteers often take the mic to warm up the crowds. Colin Beckett volunteered as a commentator at Harlow, Basildon, Epping, Chelmsford, Southend and Enfield events, until local radio took over.

From left to right, Garry, Marie, Cherie Beckett and Colin Beckett.

His daughter Cherie soon got involved too, and over the years Colin’s whole family joined him at 5am for race day set-up. Cherie, a microbiologist at the local hospital, said:

“We each have our special reasons for taking part,”

“There is often not a dry eye in the house at the finish line, particularly seeing those who have struggled to make it round the course but have such a desire to contribute to much needed cancer research. It really does make the 5am start on race day worth it.

“One of the things that stands out in the years we have all been volunteering is that, through Cancer Research UK funding, the cause of virtually all cervical cancers – human papilloma virus – HPV – has been identified. A vaccine has then been developed against the virus, and we are already seeing an astounding impact on the vaccination programme. That is real and tangible and allows us to appreciate the impact Cancer Research UK’s work has on healthcare.”

Influencing the political agenda

From initially fundraising, volunteers began to get involved in other ways. For example, our volunteer leaders began offering their expertise and providing strategic counsel. They began hosting events, introducing us to their high-net-worth networks and encouraging their peers to consider supporting our work. And they began advocating for our cause in their industries. Volunteers also started to work with us on policy change.

Smoking is the largest preventable cause of cancer in the UK. In support of our campaign for smokefree workplaces, or ‘the smoking ban’, tens of thousands of supporters emailed their MP and signed petitions. This became law in 2006, with lasting impact on the number of lives affected by preventable tobacco-related cancers.

Alan Peace and his MP, Gavin Williamson.

The campaign marked the beginning of the Cancer Campaigns Ambassadors programme – a group of supporters recruited to build personal conversations at MP events to add authenticity and legitimacy to our policy campaigns.

Alan Peace joined the Ambassadors programme in 2008:

“Having spent over four years fundraising, I realised that the way to really make a difference was to help get cancer research placed high on the government agenda.

“I contacted my MP to set out the case for the introduction of standard packaging. As I was armed with all the information provided by Cancer Research UK, I was able to counter the tobacco industry arguments with facts.

Dave, volunteer with North West Cancer Awareness Roadshow and Jess, Cancer Awareness Nurse

After the bill was successfully passed, my MP told me that I’d personally changed the way he viewed and voted on the issue. This shows that we can, and we do, make a difference,” says Alan.

Research suggests that around 4 in 10 cancers in the UK could be prevented, with smoking and overweight and obesity being the two largest causes of cancer in the UK. So talking about lifestyle change has never been more important.

Volunteers have been an integral part of our Cancer Awareness Roadshow since 2012, supporting our North East, North West and London units to help us to reach even more people in the community. They hand out leaflets, share our health messages and encourage visitors to come on-board and chat to a cancer awareness nurse with concerns or questions. Changing lives, one conversation at a time.

Telling human stories

Volunteers are raising awareness of health and cancer; and supporting fundraising and campaigns. But it doesn’t stop there – volunteers are also the human face of our work. Their honest, authentic stories and experiences are such a powerful way to show the impact of cancer and the urgent need for more research.

Twenty years ago, people’s stories appeared on posters and leaflets as part of awareness and fundraising campaigns. Now we share stories in many more ways. Volunteers have appeared on YouTube in the Annoying For Longer campaign for Stand Up to Cancer, and even in the ‘Live From The Inside’ advert in 2017, where viewers were shown the removal of bowel polyps in the world’s first TV ad shot live from inside the human body.

The way we share these experiences may have changed, and the media has certainly evolved, but the people at the heart of this work remain the same – dedicated, determined, courageous. By allowing us to tell their personal stories, they are helping us to change perceptions of cancer, to raise awareness of symptoms, to raise money and to raise the profile of what we do and why it’s so important.

A photograph of Alim Erginoglu holding his Flame of Hope award

“I have been a Media Volunteer since 2009. I am proud to be raising awareness, and it makes me I feel I am part of the progress that is being made.”

– Alim Erginoglu, a testicular cancer survivor

The future of volunteering

As a 20-year-old organisation, we’re different now to how we were in 2002. We’ve had to adapt to new ways of doing things, no more so than during the past 2 years. And our volunteers have adapted with us.

During the pandemic we saw volunteers support shop closures and re-openings. We saw our fundraising groups and committees take their activities online, organising virtual ‘open garden’ events, gamethons and ever-more creative online versions of their existing fundraising activity. And our campaigners ensured safe spaces for cancer patients was an urgent government priority.

Team Pranasha, part of Relay for Life Harrow, host a popular Hindu religious event every year, where talented musicians perform variations of the popular hymn, Hanuman Chalisa, 51 times. During the pandemic, they adapted this well-loved event, hosting it online one year and as a hybrid event the next, raising a total over £24,000.

The flexibility of supporters like Team Pranasha has been so important, bringing communities together in the fight to beat cancer despite what the pandemic has thrown at us. It has been such a privilege to support this group and take learnings to others from their brilliant creativity.

Ella Corrin, Team Pranasha relationship manager

Team Pranasha, from Relay For Life Harrow

And the pandemic has changed the wider volunteering landscape. Many people were active in their communities during the past 2 years – helping neighbours informally. As the world adapts to a new normal, people tell us they would like to continue helping in their communities but from home, or as-and-when they can. Meaning that we need to offer new types of flexible activity alongside our formal volunteering roles.

In our workplaces, many of us are working in a different, more flexible way than we were. Our lives have become more digital, but we’re increasingly recognising the social and wellbeing benefits from time spent together in person. We need our time investors just as much as we need our financial supporters. But none of us have as much time as we once did. So our shops are crying out for helpers, our events are feeling the strain. We know people want to help us, but the exchange of time is different now.

So we’re reviewing the way we work with our volunteers to make sure the brilliant relationship we have continues to be strong and mutually beneficial. We’ve recently achieved our Investing in Volunteers accreditation (which volunteers helped us with, of course!) to make sure that everyone volunteering with us has a great experience.

We’re also reviewing how we operate to make sure we’re inclusive and reflective of the communities we work in. And we’re looking to new partnerships and to the next generation of time-givers to make sure our volunteering community is future-proof.

We know that as a charity it’s up to us to adapt – more digital roles, opportunities to help out that don’t take too much time, new ways to lend a hand by sharing skills – we’re exploring all of these ways to move with the changing volunteering environment.

But what this means for that collective time bank, only time will tell. If 20 years ago, our time was equivalent to £20 notes, maybe the future of volunteering is bitcoin.

Would you like to help us? Find out how you could get involved.

Laura Berry is the Volunteering Communications Manager at Cancer Research UK

An infographic showing a timeline of Cancer Research UK volunteering.

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