From Volunteering at the Track to the Palace: An Interview with a Newly Crowned MBE

The linguistic origins of the word ‘volunteering’ come from the French and Latin terms for free will.

Zoom forward to 2018 and through your own ‘free will’ – giving up time and effort to contribute to sport and physical activity is a long standing pillar of English society. According to Sport England (2017, p.5) “5.6 million people volunteer every month in sport and physical activity in England.” That is a big number, but actually equates to just over 10% of the total population of England. Considering the media coverage and glorifying of high level athletes, coaches and leaders in sport, is it high time volunteers get as much profile or recognition?

I sat down for a quick chat with someone who I would regard as an ‘elite’ volunteer and someone who recently received a significant accolade and recognition for her efforts. Rebecca Foster, as detailed in these press releases (Hertfordshire Mercury and University of Worcester), received an MBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List.

Becs Blog
Becs in action! 

Rather than describing the reasons why Becs received the award (as you can read them in the linked press releases above); I sat down and spoke with Becs more generally, probing her about how she felt as an MBE recipient and how she was going to ‘use’ it.

Verity – you have participated in sport from a young age, so how does this award compare to say winning an athletics race?

RF – I still probably haven’t realised quite what this means… yes, I was a good athlete but not a great competitor. My personality was vocationally a teacher and probably a bit of carer, so I had always recognised that people had volunteered their time and enabled me to compete in athletics and I am always very grateful to those people… I love sport and I love what it has done for me, therefore, I would like to put something back, it is only right and that is basically what I did.

Verity – so volunteering in sport gives you a different sense of success than participating in sport?

RF- I think it is a very different feeling, I get great joy from helping athletes be better. For example, when a kid that came as a deaf athlete but with no signing skills and was immersed within the deaf community – won a gold and silver medal that year – but came back four years later a proficient signer and embraced her deaf identity through sport. I feel in some way that I was a helper along the way for her to get that self-actualisation that ‘I am deaf and it is okay to be deaf, I am talented and it is okay to be talented.’ So I liked the support I was able to give athletes, that is how I measure success.

Verity – is receiving an MBE the pinnacle for you?

RF- I see it as a platform for me now, one of my friends asked me what I was going to do with it. I think it means I have a stronger voice and perhaps I can instigate more change. I need to decide where the best place for me to do that is because, ironically, now I have taken a side step away from deaf sport as I have done it for twelve years and with my current job I have limited time. It [MBE] has motivated me more, as it has been a huge pat on the back. You know those long evenings over the years, those 2am nights where you are moaning, but this is a nice reflection of what I have done over the years at work, within deaf sport and away in my different volunteer activities.

Now I need to reflect and have time to think what I am going to ‘do’ with it…

A few brief thoughts from Becs is great and honest insight about what volunteering in sport, physical activity or recreation can feel like. For me, importantly, it is a snapshot of volunteering being cyclical in terms of giving back, recognition, motivation or success. The cyclical nature of volunteering is also, perhaps, a reason why it is tricky to recognise volunteers, as often their ‘success’ is measured by the achievements of athletes or clubs or communities – rather than seeing themselves as the success. Something to ponder more…

In a wider policy context a lot is being done within the sport, physical activity and recreation sector to recognise, plus sustain the hard work of individuals that volunteer. As the Sport England figure suggested there is a healthy level of volunteering, but this needs to be fostered further.

Key examples of what is being done currently:

Sport England Strategy

Sport England – Volunteering in Active Nation Strategy 2017- 2021 – snapshot of the strategy here.

Join In – the national brand for local sports volunteering and their GIVERS Research

Academic Research – for example – Post-Event Volunteering Legacy: Did the London 2012 Games Induce a Sustainable Volunteer Engagement? 2016, University of Kent

English Federation of Disability Sport – Encouraging more disabled people to volunteer in sport

House of Commons – Inquiry into the social impact of participation in culture and sport 

I look forward to what Becs will ‘do’ with her MBE and I am certainly inspired by what she has done over the years. Plus, the variety of activity that is being done in the sector, highlights, that policy wise people recognise that ‘free will’ cannot be taken for granted.


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