Madrid’s best team

With their yellow and violet vests and reflective orange jackets, the Voluntarios por Madrid (Volunteers for Madrid) cut a distinctive figure in the streets. “We want to work on a feeling of belonging,” explained Concha Fernández, head of Madrid’s volunteering department, “we want to create a feeling similar to football fans, where volunteers are part of a team and they identify with their city.”

The group has more than 15,000 volunteers, some of whom get involved in one-off or temporary projects, while others make longer-term commitments. Despite this staggering figure, the city engages with each volunteer as an individual, meeting with them and offering them opportunities that match their skills and interest. By keeping a file on each volunteer, Madrid can identify those who might be interested in new projects.

“We at the municipality want the volunteers to feel comfortable, and to volunteer again. We meet with them beforehand, accompany them on their first time, and follow up with them afterwards,” said Concha, adding that regular feedback from the volunteers is used to adapt and improve the programme.

Fortify the city

Migrants and locals volunteer together, fuelling integration while fortifying the city with a host of projects from working in animal shelters, to helping people with cognitive impairments, to giving guided tours on local history. During these activities, where many volunteers are migrants, integration happens naturally as friendships between migrants and locals bloom.

Beat isolation

However, the city also oversees a lot of volunteering activities explicitly targeted at migrant integration. Valiente Bangla, for example, is a project which helps migrants from Bangladesh to follow Spanish language classes while learning about Spanish culture and society.

Unlike regular language classes, these classes have a lot of flexibility inbuilt for students who are often in volatile situations, for example having to go to late night jobs or look after sick children. They also facilitate Bangladeshi culture by allowing classes that are divided along gender lines, as students prefer to have teachers of their own gender.

Some of the women that Valiente has reached out to were living for years in Madrid in complete isolation, with no friends and no ability to speak the local language. Volunteers are not only teachers but also people offering more general support, such as helping them with forms and applications.

The charity is also fighting for a ‘neighbourhood card,’ like the municipal card offered to residents in New York, that would help people who cannot secure a national ID to access local services.

Remove roadblocks

The city also supports NGOs that run their own volunteer activities. Movimiento por la Paz (Movement for Peace), for example, receives grants from the city’s Forum for Solidarity, for activities complementary to those run by the municipality.

Movement for Peace runs a municipally funded mentoring project for migrants and refugees, as well as for women who are victims of gender violence or at risk of social exclusion.

I needed someone to speak to, to become more confident in myself

One volunteer and migrant pair, María and Souleymane, spoke of their experience with the programme: “I help him with his Spanish and with day to day problems, and in return I get to practice my French and to learn all about a life and culture that are so different to mine, and to hear stories that I could never have imagined about his journey from the Ivory Coast,” María said. Souleymane explained how, “I needed someone to speak to, to become more confident in myself, and to find trust after some troubles.”

A recent improvement in the cooperation between this NGO and the city has been an effort by the city to confirm and even deliver funding well in advance. This is a major step, as one of the biggest roadblocks for organisations that depend on such funding is the associated unpredictability.

Good governance

Concha expresses the belief that this governance model around volunteering in Madrid could take off in other cities. Indeed, she revealed that she is regularly contacted by other cities looking to replicate the model. Through European-funded projects like VALUES, other cities are even visiting to get a first-hand understanding of the process.

In this process, the city acts as a hub, coordinating the activities of individual volunteers, volunteer organisations, private companies, foundations, associations and schools and “takes a politically neutral approach to preventing oversupply or undersupply in different service areas.”

Madrid’s volunteering department also takes the principle that volunteering should not replace paid work very seriously, and refuses requests for volunteer assistance where it deems that employment is more appropriate.

Links to employment

While cities around Europe have a lot to learn from Madrid, the Spanish capital is also gaining insights from abroad. Through the VALUES project, for example, the city determined that there was a need to link the work of the volunteering department and the municipal employment agency.

Migrants can and do develop skills during volunteering that could improve their chances of employment. This can be fostered by providing more volunteer opportunities that ready migrants for sectors seeking new employees, and providing official recognition of skills gained through volunteering. More information exchange on market demand and volunteer profiles would be instrumental to both municipal bodies.

A cut above the rest

This is already happening to an extent. One such synergy was a collaboration between the city and the private company ‘Wella Professionals’ on the project ‘Peinando vidas’ (Combing lives), where hairdressers volunteered to give lessons to members of a local transsexual collective. 85% percent of these transsexuals are unemployed, and many are refugees and asylum seekers.

The organisers were amazed at the quantity of hairdressers who wanted to help and give classes. In the end, participants were sufficiently trained to become hairdressers’ assistants, a great boon as hairdressers in Madrid have great difficulty finding capable staff.

What the deep connection to volunteering represents is a fresh approach to citizenship in Madrid. Residents are not treated as passive subjects, but as active resources who can provide answers to social problems within the city. Migrants are no longer seen as beneficiaries of support, but as a vital part of the city’s development. Together with locals, they make a group that might just feel even more team spirit than footballers.

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer