Christmas tends to stir something in our better natures. From Good King Wenceslas, via Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim and a massive turkey, to this year's Christmas shelters offering hot meals and human company to thousands, charity and volunteering has long been wrapped up in the cultural norms of the festive season.
But if you rise this Christmas Eve with the urge to launch, Scrooge-like, into a festive spiritual awakening, hurry to the nearest homeless shelter and start ladling out soup to the less fortunate, what are your prospects? Regrettably, not good. Such is the national desire to help our fellow man at this time of year that the major seasonal shelters filled their full contingent of volunteers weeks ago. Applications open in October for most of the places, and training is invariably required – so it's worth starting to plan for next year.
At Crisis, 8,000 volunteers are already in place to man the homelessness charity's shelters in London, Newcastle and Edinburgh for its annual project, Crisis at Christmas. The only applicants with a chance of securing a voluntary shift at this late stage are those who are able to provide some of the specialist services that such shelters now routinely offer. Podiatrists, hairdressers and reflexologists: your services are in great demand.
The situation is similar around the country, where workforces the size of small companies have sprung up to run the shelters in most major cities and towns. According to Matt Dowse, the charity manager at Caring at Christmas, in Bristol, "The number of volunteers that we are dealing with is phenomenal – the phone doesn't stop ringing."
His shelter has already recruited 520 people to welcome the homeless and the lonely, 24 hours a day, for 10 days over the Christmas period. Most of the volunteers are old hands. While every year does brings new recruits, again, they need to have put some forethought into their charity ambitions by signing up nice and early to allow time for training.
Charity leaders are understandably wary of complaining about festive Johnny-come-latelys – any offers of help are to be welcomed. But the hard truth is, those who have never really spoken to a homeless person, or a drug addict, or an alcoholic before, are unlikely to be much use just rocking up on Christmas morning with a prize ham and a heart full of good cheer.
Equally, for anyone planning on donating items to a shelter or crisis centre, it might be a good idea to check their website or call in advance to find out what they actually need.
Having spent the past year volunteering every third Saturday at a food bank in south London, I can attest that, while tubs of foie gras and bottles of Just For Men are a nice thought, they're not much use for someone running out of soup and baked beans.
The shelter managers, though, are admirably willing to accommodate all donations, and long ago learned to stockpile some of the festive good cheer in preparation for leaner times. "There is a long-term benefit to the glut of generosity at this time of year," says Dowse.
"Of course," he adds, with a weary tone creeping in, "some donations are more useful than others.
"But everything will get used eventually and it is all gratefully received. Even though some of the donations don't get used straight away, the charity can reap the benefits while the sun is shining and people are feeling generous – we can then make sure in March and April, when people are less inclined to give, that some of the other homeless charities in Bristol are getting food."
Charities have become used to the moth-to-a-flame effect of Christmas on volunteers and are now as adept at redeploying the surplus of helpers later in the year as they are storing the overflow of foodstuffs and items. Crisis runs a volunteer directory that puts its extra seasonal volunteers in touch with homelessness projects throughout London.
At its launch in 2011, the "No Second Night Out" programme, which has had great success in reducing the numbers of those sleeping rough in the capital, garnered 70 per cent of its workforce from people who had initially volunteered to help Crisis at Christmas.
"Christmas is a time that inspires people to take that first step – if we can help support them and advise them on how to help in the new year, then we are supporting the homeless and lonely throughout the year," says Rachael Smith, Crisis at Christmas's deputy director.
And while it might scupper the plans of last-minute charitable types, the sheer enthusiasm that fills the Christmas volunteer lists every year is testament to the fact that, when all the grumbling and repressed frustrations are set aside, British people are really quite decent.
In fact, the statistics suggest that we are second only to the fine people of Burma in terms of generosity: 76 per cent of us donate to charity at least once a month, according to the World Giving Index, published last week. We are also doing more volunteering. More than a quarter of us take part in some kind of formal volunteering at least once a month, and nearly half of us do so at least once a year. Most of the analysts think that these figures are an underestimation because many people do not consider the things they do – such as helping out at their child's school or sports club – to be formal volunteering.
As Nick Ockenden, the head of the Institute of Volunteering Research, notes, "We've got a very stable system of volunteering in this country – we should be quite proud. There's a huge amount of volunteering that takes place at the informal end of the spectrum – grassroots stuff."
The World Giving Index also reported an increase in the number of young people volunteering, which may be down to the fact that, with jobs scarce in the downturn, it has become the only way for many people in their late teens and early twenties to build up their CVs. Globally, one in five 15- to 24-year-olds volunteer – the second most likely age group to do so. In the UK, the most likely age group for volunteering remains 35- to 49-year-olds – an age, according to Ockenden, when people tend to become more settled in their communities and their lifestyles.
The way we volunteer is also changing. The past few years have seen the rise of micro- volunteering – basically volunteering in short, sharp bursts, often facilitated by the internet. Many major charities now have apps or Twitter alerts that act as rallying calls to supporters to come and help out at short notice; putting out tables for a collection, manning a stall or shaking collection buckets.
The entire volunteering community is also linked by online databases that act like dating sites, matching would-be helpers with the organisations that need their services. The largest of these is a website called Do It. Still relatively little-known outside the third sector, the website nevertheless had 250,000 sign up in October alone.
Founded in 2001, it now has between 30,000 and 50,000 organisations registered at any one time. Volunteers simply sign up with their name and postcode, register their interests and skills, and are then connected to charities in their area that might have opportunities for them. According to Jamie Ward-Smith, Do It's chief executive, "IT skills and marketing" are the areas of experience in most demand at the moment. The website does see a spike in interest at Christmas, but the real surge comes at New Year. Last year, sign-ups almost doubled in January.
"There are specific Christmas projects, but they get booked up really quickly and they're not the sort of projects you can just drop in to," says Ward-Smith. "A lot of people get quite frustrated with that. They just want to go and help someone on Christmas Day and cook dinner for them. But actually, a lot of charities have to plan these things weeks in advance and the recruitment starts early – the message is to start looking in around October for the following Christmas.
"There are things that need to be done at Christmas and we're grateful for everyone that gets involved," he says, "but there's stuff that needs doing throughout the year. January is a great opportunity for thinking of doing something new."
While the young volunteers – with their smartphones and websites – are making the headlines now, there remains a backbone of hardy perennials in the volunteering workforce, many of them retirees. On Christmas Day this year, Ivy Abraham, a volunteer at Southampton General Hospital, will turn 95. Mrs Abraham is one of the 78,000 volunteers who support the NHS by passing the time of day with patients, which is often something that over-stretched nurses struggle to do, carrying out patient surveys that, since the Mid Staffordshire scandal, have been promoted as a vital resource in improving patient care, and doing all manner of other tasks from admin to staffing hospital shops.
Mrs Abraham does paperwork for the surgical department. Last week, she was given a long-service award by the hospital. "I've been here 30 years," she tells me the afternoon before the awards ceremony. "Bit embarrassed, but there you are. I was retired and I'd lost my husband and I needed something to do. I've enjoyed every minute. I think it's why I've lasted so long. I hope I can go on for a few more years now."
As experienced as she is, Mrs Abraham is far from being the hospital's longest-serving volunteer. Reg Lowman has served at the hospital for 66 years – since before the NHS was even founded. Latterly, he has been working at the hospital shop, though he is too ill to do his usual shift at the moment. In the old days, he used to run bingo evenings and sell cigarettes to raise money for "modesty curtains" on wards – which puts into perspective how far we've come on both patient dignity and awareness about the harms of smoking.
Kim Sutton, the hospital trust's manager of voluntary services, says, "We've still got the generation that started 50 or 60 years ago and we also have younger people who are coming through. The older volunteers are probably the most experienced people at the hospital – they've seen so many changes, with different chief executives."
The King's Fund, the healthcare think-tank, reported last month that the NHS receives a return of £11 for every £1 invested in volunteer schemes, a calculation based on money saved in not having to pay people to do that work. As the health service's budget is squeezed by Government in the coming years, most hospital managers are, therefore, viewing volunteering as a growth area.
A similar phenomenon is occurring in other areas of the public sector afflicted by the Coalition's austerity spending cuts. Nick Ockenden says there has been a rise in the number of volunteers filling positions at libraries and museums that would previously have been paid positions.
The cuts have also been blamed for creating the other main growth area in volunteering, which is the one I'm involved with – food banks. To recall A Christmas Carol again, these places do bring to mind a somewhat Dickensian level of need. There are about 30,000 people volunteering at food banks run by the Trussell Trust – the UK's main provider – and many others working for smaller or independent providers, together feeding approximately 500,000 people this year, according to Oxfam estimates. How and why so many people have slipped through the welfare safety net has become a live political issue – but, in the meantime, the need is very real and support is required.
It isn't just the homeless who come to food banks, but parents and families that have been left high and dry by some combination of expensive rent and gas bills, cuts to welfare, slow wage increases and rising food costs. Sixty thousand of them are expected to need support over Christmas – many of them children.
Anyone who takes down to their local food bank essentials such as milk, soup, beans, rice, instant noodles, cooking sauces, toothpaste and soap will be welcomed with open arms. It might not be quite the same as Scrooge arriving with the Christmas turkey, but the odd festive extra won't go to waste. Besides, if the bug for helping out has truly bitten, there will still be plenty of work to do once the trees and tinsel have been put away for another year.