Volunteers – non-league football’s diminishing race

The recent survey conducted by website provider Pitchero demonstrated two things: that established volunteers are committed to sport but conversely, the young are reluctant to get involved in activities like non-league football.

Not that volunteering, per se, is a thing of the past. Britain is still a charitable nation judging by the onslaught of tin-shakers that one encounters every day. And small town Britain is dominated by charity shops – just walk down any high street in the provinces to see evidence of that. On top of that, corporate UK sends out dozens of volunteer groups to show that they, too, care about giving. This, in a climate of austerity that shows no sign of abating.

So why then is volunteer labour drying up in non-league football? There are a number of reasons and all of them have a solution.

Paid versus unpaid – the dilemma
A non-league clubs biggest single outgoing is invariably the wage bill, but underpinning the club is voluntary labour. The old “salt of the earth” character that used to epitomize the amateur and semi-pro game had few issues with the fact that a bunch of volunteers was putting in all the work but 11 players got paid. It’s not just on the field of play that this dilemma exists – some clubs pay people to raise money for them, while half of the workforce of the club tries to raise money in some shape or form on a voluntary basis. There’s nothing wrong with paying a “salesman”, but equally, when you are relying on a collective body to raise money, having largely voluntary labour among your number, while paying commission to others, can create friction. Other local sporting bodies, such as rugby, cricket and hockey rely on volunteers, but they have far fewer issues with players getting paid. In fact, they usually view the local football club as a business model that just doesn’t make sense. That said, as one former England rugby international told me, “In sport, common sense goes out of the window sometimes, whatever the code.”

Unhealthy demographics
Non-league football remains largely a bastion of male domination. The demographics of the crowd do not reflect those on the pitch or, to a great degree, the world outside the football ground.  While many teams have seven or eight black players, ethnicity is something that just doesn’t exist [to a large degree] in the stands at most non-league grounds. Likewise, women are very much in the minority, something which is turning at top level football. The image of non-league football in the outside world is of a 50-plus audience that is getting older. A younger audience will result in younger volunteers, but only if the product is made attractive. The question is, how do you do that?

The value of gratitude
Volunteers are taken for granted all over the world, but too often this can be avoided. One very inclusive club chairman used to make a point of thanking each and every one of the people who effectively run the club at every home game. He spent the 90 minutes before the game shaking everyone’s hand, asking them if there were any problems and showing his appreciation. “We can’t afford to pay them, but a bit of gratitude goes a long way,” he said. It worked well. Too often, it is assumed that everything runs to plan. If you want volunteers to remain just that, they have to feel appreciated. And this is probably even more important with younger people. The aim of the “leaders” at a club should be to harness all its resources and create a sense of togetherness – not in a “happy clappy” way, but as a united force that has “ownership” of the club.

The stakeholder concept
By making supporters feel as though they are part of the fabric of the club, that it is “their club”, a ready-made conveyor belt of volunteers that help run it can be established. Make the people feel as though they are making a difference and they will throw their hats in the ring. But if the club insists on a hierarchy, that the men in blazers are indeed, more important than the people opening the gates, cutting the grass or repairing that leaky stand roof, and you breed resentment and mistrust. Earlier this year, Game of the People outlined the stakeholder concept in its Insights paper.

Tapping into youth
So you want younger people involved? Easy. Develop a youth system that engages youngsters in your club from an early age, nurtures them and facilitates football right up until 18 years of age. And while you’re at it, get them involved behind the scenes, set up a “youth council” of young supporters and make them feel as though they have a voice at the club. It’s not easy to achieve for many clubs, but it is not impossible. Investment made in youth is an investment in the future for a non-league club – not necessarily on the field of play, although it should be –  but also in the very fabric of the club.

Pitchero’s survey should set alarm bells ringing, but will non-league clubs take note?


  1. Whilst I agree with the prmise of this post, I disagree with where the focus needs to be to solve the issues. The youth element, the U18s are of course invaluable. But they are also transient, to a greater or lesser degree. As never before, young people move away, be it to college / uni, or The Big Smoke for better opportunities. The days of generational support are behind us.

    To my mind, the focus for NL clubs should be the 20 – 40 set. If you want an easy vernacular, Beer Boys. These are the ones with the disposable income, with the time, and importantly, with the energy, to make a difference to a club. There may be an understandable reluctance to encourage a laddy, yobbish mentality at clubs, but one has to remember that overwhelmingly, NL fans are NL fans because they have turned their back on the bigger game. The opportunity to create something that isn’t that which they have rejected, alongside like-minded individuals, is not something clubs should be afraid of.

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