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The charity making life better by water

Join our volunteer team

Volunteering is on the up on our canals and rivers, as we welcome more people from all ages and backgrounds to join our team. We simply couldn’t care for over 2,000 miles of canals without over 4,000 people generously sharing their time, skills and energy with our charity. Waterfront spoke to volunteering manager, Emma Harrington to learn what’s driving this growth in getting involved.

Two people smile as they hold a circular sign that says #LifesBetterByWater and has an illustration of a boat surrounded by ducks and a swan.

“Our vision for volunteering has really enabled us to grow. We want to provide an open, warm welcome and share all the activities our volunteers can get involved in,” explains Emma (shown right). “This vision came about after reaching out to volunteers and practitioners from the front line to understand how they feel about working with our charity and what they want from it. From those conversations we co-created our Volunteering Strategy. The big theme is volunteers want to become part of one big Canal & River Trust team and be involved in everything we do to benefit local communities.”

For many years now, our charity has offered interesting, but quite specific volunteering roles, such as lock keeping, helping to keep our canals clean and tidy as part of a towpath taskforce, or being an ambassador for our canals on a welcome station. But now we're working to make volunteers part of everything we do and looking for people to work collaboratively within every team in our charity, from heritage to ecology, maintenance and operations to marketing or fundraising, so we all become one team.

A group of volunteers in hi-viz posing for a photo

Emma says it begins with being people led; listening to volunteers and welcoming all they bring: “It's really important to know what skills, life experiences, expertise and talents people would like to offer us. For instance, we now have volunteer drone operators who are acting as eyes in the sky for canals. It's so innovative, and this footage is incredibly valuable to our engineers, ecologists and heritage teams because it helps us monitor mile after mile. But it's also useful to our marketing and social teams because these films really show the beauty of our network.

We're also working with a lot of people who are delivering ‘citizen science ‘by completing wildlife surveys along our towpaths. Knowing what wildlife we have, and where it's in good health, or not, is a huge task that our ecology staff couldn't possibly take on by themselves. Our direct maintenance teams are also working with young people looking to develop their skills in engineering or construction as part of a college or university course. It helps the students develop their CV and it builds a pipeline of future employees for the Trust.”

A group of people by the canal

Emma tells us that a big part of this two-way conversation are our new Welcome to volunteering sessions, held all year round across the canal network: “They are such a simple idea, but they're proving really successful. People come along for the day, find out what our charity does in the local area. And we get to know them and what skills or experiences they have to share, whether that's in IT, education, social work or simply knowing about boating or local history. This open conversation really works, and lots of people are coming back to volunteer with us afterwards.”

When a volunteer joins us, Emma and her team also make sure they feel supported and cared for by making it easy to access health and safety advice, training and development opportunities, and celebrating the huge contribution volunteers make. During Volunteers Week in early June, Emma spent time on the towpath speaking to volunteers who have already given over 677, 000 hours of time to our charity. This equates to over 90,000 days that volunteers have given to support us.

She enthuses: “My overwhelming feeling is admiration for their dedication. Everyone really seems to enjoy spending time outdoors, meeting new people and getting active by their local canal. One volunteer I spoke to told me that volunteering with the Canal & Trust has been a real-life saver for her after her husband died. It has helped her find new friends, improve her physical and mental health, and feel part of a community again. There's also a great sense of local pride in looking after your own particular patch of canal.”

For Emma, Volunteers' Week was a great opportunity to say thank you to people who give their time and skills so generously. And thanks to the support of the Marsh Charitable Trust, we look forward to bringing you some volunteering award winners. Our regional team and individual volunteers of the year will be announced this autumn and we'll be celebrating their achievements with you in future editions of Waterfront.

In the meantime, why not take inspiration from some our current volunteer stories, and find out more about our welcome sessions, and the volunteering roles and activities that we currently have available.

Last Edited: 23 June 2023

photo of a location on the canals
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