Each new Mayor of Islington chooses a charity to support and raise funds for during their time in office. Cllr Gary Heather, who was sworn in in May, has chosen Voluntary Action Islington (VAI). We spoke to CEO Navinder Kaur about what that means to them, the strength of our community sector and the power of volunteering
Tell us about Voluntary Action Islington.
We are the umbrella organisation for voluntary, community and faith sector organisations. We also work with social enterprises, but that would make for a very long acronym! We started in 1971, so we’ve been running for more than 50 years now.
There are more than 1,500 charities in Islington including small, user-led groups and grassroots organisations, as well as local branches of national organisations such as Age UK. VAI supports that sector in a number of ways: capacity building, development, setting up community interest companies. Yvette, whose been our development officer for 17 years, has helped new organisations grow from local start-up to national operation, so we’ve seen some fantastic progress. Bet No More, for example, started with one person – now they’ve got around 30 members of staff and they’re just rocking. We also run a volunteer centre, where we connect residents with organisations that have opportunities in the borough.
Islington does seem to have a particularly joined-up voluntary and community sector. Has that been your experience?
It has. We’ve historically been blessed with a rich and very diverse sector, with lots going on. It’s under pressure – as are other sectors – but there is a strong community. In the council’s Challenging Inequality report, which I was involved in as part of the Inequality Taskforce, there was a lot of insight into residents’ experiences and on the whole, residents felt a good sense of community. They felt welcomed and that Islington is a nice place to live, despite all the difficulties people are facing. Which is a lovely thing to hear.
You mentioned that the sector’s under pressure. How so?
We threw everything at it during the pandemic. A lot of organisations couldn’t deliver their services or it took them time to put their services online and meet the demand that was coming through. They also had residents who couldn’t engage, because they didn’t have access to the internet which, as we know, in turn had a negative impact on mental health, social isolation and chronic illness. The way the sector responded, together with our public sector colleagues, was fantastic. But the legacy has been that we are seeing much more complex issues and the need has gone up.
The cost of living, on top of the pandemic, has meant that we need more funding for the work that we’re doing too. Everything has gone up – the demand and how much we’re all paying for the essential things. We also have fewer volunteers. There’s fatigue, as there is in other sectors. It’s good that spring has arrived.
You’ve been nominated as the Mayor of Islington’s charity of the year. How will it give VAI a boost?
We’re absolutely honoured to be the mayor’s charity of the year. We really want to profile volunteering – the community organisations and how they function with the support of volunteers, but also the fantastic benefits that you get. You get so much back from volunteering: employment opportunities, a sense of connectedness and purpose. Together, we want to celebrate how much volunteering is going on in the borough and build the momentum. For example, we’re looking at how we can have more volunteers from our refugee and asylum seekers in the borough, who are often very isolated, as well as people with disabilities – people in more marginalised communities.
We want to bring the public and the voluntary sectors closer together and work more in partnership with others. We have 1,000 organisations that rely on volunteers, they need them. We need them and our communities need them. And our communities need to volunteer, so our main aim is to continue building that connection. It’s exciting.
Check out the Voluntary Action Islington website to find a volunteering opportunity near you.