For Volunteers’ Week 2018 our guest blog is from Paul Wilson, Chief Officer of Volunteer Edinburgh, discussing his experience of volunteering and the incredible difference it can make to peoples lives.
It’s one of those things that makes my heart sink, a social situation and someone asks me what I do for a living. My usual response is “I work for a local charity”, said quite flatly in an attempt to close down that part of the conversation down and move on. It doesn’t often work. You may well wonder why I’m so reticent about what I do as living. Well it’s kind of all got to do with what happens next. Quite often, the questioner will respond to my disclosure with something like “oh how lovely, it must be great to do something so worthwhile”. And yes, for the record it is, I really like my job, but I can still see them making assumptions about me or sometimes – just coming right out and saying it.
It’s that weird notion that the whole of the voluntary sector is some sort of homogenous blob. That everyone is ‘nice’, subscribes to a certain politics, rides a bike to work and knits their own yoghurt. Now if you do, all strength to you, but I am more of a petrol head type of guy and even my friends don’t think I’m nice. On the other hand, my nephew who is an investment banker in London is clearly an evil capitalist. But actually, he is far more of a leftie than me, a genuinely kind, caring man and passionate about social justice. Stereotypes you see, are for the foolish!
The next response to the job disclosure is “which one?”
“Volunteer Edinburgh” I say.
“Oh” they say, “what does that do?”
So I trot out my standard elevator pitch while in the back of my head thinking “damn you voluntary sector and your poverty spec marketing budgets”.
More than once I’ve had an almost incredulous “you get paid for that?” I just nod, observe the likelihood of fog before tea-time and move on.
But the most unexpected response I ever had was “well of course if there was enough money there wouldn’t be any need for all that volunteering business”. Now I admit I was a little taken aback at this statement, from an otherwise sensible person. So I took a deep breath and “got ‘em telt”.
To be fair I didn’t actually go into a full on rant. I asked them why they thought that. They came from a position that statutory provision was always better than third sector provision and its reliance on volunteers. Of course I am partisan, but I could rip that argument apart in seconds, it would have been almost too easy, so I smiled and probed a little deeper.
They saw volunteering as a poor substitute, second best, all well-meaning but not really impactful. They were comfortable with the notion that volunteering was a little but fluffy and soft. Sometimes it is fluffy and all the better for it and then sometimes it hard up against the coal face swinging the pick, getting its hands totally dirty.
They also saw volunteering as a selfless act, done by a certain type who could afford such luxury.
Now I have been in the volunteering business for a long time and a volunteer for even longer than that and have always maintained that there are 101 reasons people volunteer and then there is altruism. The true beauty of volunteering is that it is by its very nature symbiotic. You give your time, energy, knowledge and get back in spades; skills, personal development, proven health benefits, new friendships and that oh so elusive and addictive sense of “I just did something that might do some good”.
In this, Volunteers’ Week, all over the country there will be celebrations and thanks from organisations and volunteer managers to the millions of people that give their time and their skill to make the world a better place. They may be getting a hell of a lot out of their volunteering for themselves, but what they are giving really cannot be paid for. It’s a simple fact – all the riches in the world can’t recreate the power of the person who decides just to help out.
About 18 years ago I was involved in a mentoring project for young people. We matched volunteer mentors to young people who were struggling to get jobs. I will never forget talking to one young guy who just couldn’t grasp that his mentor wasn’t paid, that they were a volunteer. It genuinely blew his mind that this person was choosing to help him, choosing to spend time with him, choosing to support him and they weren’t being paid! He just couldn’t understand why anyone, yet alone someone that he perceived to be successful and better than him, would want to help him. He wasn’t worth it you see. Helpfully, the volunteer mentor and I knew he was worth it. So go on, I challenge you, try and buy that!
I hope you have a happy volunteers week and a big thank you. A big thank you for giving the time doing whatever it is, for something you care about and making the world work that wee bit better, because we can’t fix it without you.
#Shamelessplug… for all your volunteer management needs please look at our new, online resource Volunteerwiki.org.uk full of quality information on how to involve your volunteer better.
5th June 2018