Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Give a little bit

     Happy National Volunteers Week!

     What? Ok, yes, I know, alright? Trust me [adopts Sybil Fawlty voice] oh, I know… Every day is National Something Day, or it’s National Something Week, or International Day of Something awareness. Too many bloody Days, Weeks, Months, Years, all wrangled into some kind of Good Cause Promotion, all of which can be filed under These Things Are Important, and Stuff You Should Care About, and If You’re Not Out There Actively Supporting This, Then What Kind Of Callous Monster Are You?

     I sort of care about a lot of them, in a vague and halfarsed way, by which I mean I might tweet about something, or share stuff on facebook, or nod approvingly to myself when something flashes up on my phone. I don’t usually get involved in these campaigns. But this one, volunteering, is very dear to my heart.

     I’m a volunteer. I do stuff, for free. Because it matters to me, because I feel it’s important, because I think other people should care about it too. I have the time, I have the inclination, I have the energy. It’s that simple. There is one volunteer led project that I adore above all others, but there’s other stuff too that I’m kind of on the edges of. If I’m honest, there are an awful lot more causes I could and should help out with too, but I don’t. And if I'm even more honest, it's because the attitude of some people really pisses me right off.

     Because we do it for free. Because we don’t get paid. Because we do it for nothing other than the love of it… the professionals and academics seem to think it’s fine to sneer at us and assume we don’t understand anything more than handing out stickers and badges. I’ve seen a lot of it in the last few days, as volunteering has become a topic of debate on twitter. Actually, debate’s the wrong word. Because it’s only the professionals who are doing it, in their cosy little echo chamber where everyone reinforces each other’s opinions and no one else is allowed in. Professional = valid. Volunteer = invalid.

     Invalid… huh. InVALid, or invullid? I’m sort of both. I can’t work. I would love to work, trust me. I would love to feel I’m making a contribution, I’m helping, I’m doing something of worth. My income last year was a grand total of £5k. Once you’ve bought food for a family of four, and paid for school trips, and dance classes, and your phone bill... However thrifty you are, there’s not a lot else to play with. I would love to have that sense of satisfaction that being paid gives you. That not only have you done something that’s helpful, but someone else thinks so too to the point that they are prepared to give you real hard cash money in reward. That’s never going to happen for me. Yes, it’s shit, but meh. All fed, no one dead. So what can I do? What do I have to offer?

     A fuck of a lot, actually. As do all volunteers. It doesn’t matter if we’re washing pot shards, or making cups of tea, or answering the phone. It doesn’t matter if we’re out in the rain, holding a plastic bucket, hoping passersby will chuck some loose change our way. Or manning the desk at a museum, or offering counselling, or spending hours sticking post it notes to a door. It doesn’t matter if we’re organising a quiz and chips night to raise funds, or crocheting squares to be made into blankets for bereaved families. It doesn’t matter what it is that we’re doing. We are out there, doing this stuff, for nothing, for free, for gratis.

     We are not doing this to get paid, to gain qualifications, to receive approval, to be lauded by our peers. We are not doing this for attention, or for glory, or to get thousands of twitter followers, or so we can write up our findings in an academic paper, or be a keynote speaker at a conference. We’re not doing the stuff we do for any reason other than that we care.

     So when I see professionals express an opinion that volunteers are somehow a bit of a joke, or we can’t be trusted to do stuff properly, or we’re a bit of a pain, or we need to be talked down to, or we’re putting professionals out of a job… Let’s take the last point. It’s not volunteers who are making the huge swinging cuts to the NHS, to benefits, to arts, to education. Funnily enough, we don’t have that kind of power. If your profession is so riven with internecine battles that you can’t organise a piss up in a brewery, never mind a proper campaign to protect yourselves, then you need to think about where you’re going and how you behave. What volunteers are doing is taking up the slack after the axe has fallen. So I’m sorry if that means that the great unwashed, the Great British Public, with their lack of qualifications and expertise, will be the ones offering free tours to other members of the public, or sitting behind the desk at a Citizen’s Advice Bureau, or running a food bank.

     I’m genuinely heartbroken that people, good people, are losing their jobs and are being consigned to the scrapheap where I currently reside. But to blame volunteers for that is wholly wrong, short-sighted, and just plain rude. When I see professionals and academics sneer at volunteers, I have a few questions I want to ask them:
  1.    How many of you got a foothold in your chosen career partly through volunteering?
  2.   Do you think that potential volunteers will be encouraged to fill in the gaps in future when they see the contempt in which you hold them?
  3. If all of the volunteers out there right now fucked off tomorrow, what state would the country be in?
  4. That’s it, really.
  5. Apart from me adding that if you’re going behave twattily to people who are basically on your side, then don’t be sodding surprised if they then refuse to get involved with anything to do with you in future. Huh. Funny that. Turns out you do need volunteers after all…

     And to drag this back to a happier place… my fellow volunteers, out there, doing what you do, making the difference, quietly, unshowily just getting on with it all without any expectation of any kind of reward or praise. You lot are the absolute best. One of the slogans for Volunteers Week is ‘Why do you do it?’ I started because I wanted to make a difference. Maybe I have, maybe I haven’t. 

     But a lot of other people have certainly made a difference to me. The people I’ve met through the various projects, however I've come across them, either as a fellow volunteer or someone who has relied on their help, go out there every day and they make the difference to so many people, in too many ways to describe. I’m really very proud to know you, and to get to hang out with you. You give your time, your passion, your consideration to people who don’t often appreciate it. But it doesn’t go unnoticed. Just ask yourselves where they’d be without us, eh?

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