Information is still sparse in the detail about what the current government means by ‘Big Society’ and whether this is purely cosmetic, but we can so far gather that it is likely to mean an increase in volunteering.
The Government is even planning to create a publicly funded ‘bank’ for voluntary organisations who despite the sophistication of professional fundraising still rely heavily on the taxpayer.
Rumour has it that this bank will be run on an investment:results basis, and by anyone’s standards this is frankly, an idea of such monumental stupidity that it throws into sharp relief the agenda ridden, anachronistic mindset evidenced in the dogma of those behind ‘Big Society.’
[pullquote]Does the Government seriously expect volunteers to keep filling in forms and gathering stats? which will indicate whether social efforts have been successful enough to maintain investment? *See an example of this reductionist, mean spirited bureaucracy later.[/pullquote]
Another area for contempt is that this so called ‘bank’ will require a return on investment not just in ridiculous attempts to quantify the impact of social and charitable projects, but also interest, in hard cash. Why? Where will that money go? Back to the charities? Why levy it in the first place?
This really gives an insight into the mindset of those who rule the UK right now. Reduce the tax bill by getting mugs to take up the slack by volunteering, thus reducing the need for taxation, of course this benefits big corporations as do all reductions in the tax demand.
Nothing has been learned from the past about the fallout of obsession with profit that has seeped, often inappropriately, into every corner of our lives.
All that aside, let’s address the intrinsic issues around volunteering.
I know many Good Works are done Well, but a burgeoning volunteer sector won’t necessarily come with an increase in quality of volunteer. I have been involved or connected to various charitable or NGO projects and have done my fair share of volunteering, to be honest, sometimes I volunteered while I was retraining and needed to get some experience, and on one or two occasions where foolishly, I saw a good cause and had the time and ability to input so I did, usually with disastrous results since I have rarely been met by an existing framework which wasn’t incompetent and self serving.
For what it’s worth, as a student of the human condition, here’s my take on much volunteering.
Forget altruism. Everyone is self interested. My experience of those who set up benevolent, non profit making organisations is that it is a very short timelag between getting the great warm fuzzy feeling that comes from helping the apparently helpless, to the idea that, well, there should be some greater reward. Once they find out that some people don’t want to be helped, others are taking the p, and others are too proud to respond, the sheer boredom of administering charitable work, and the awesome challenge of fundraising in a country suffering from either simple selfishness or compassion fatigue, brings up resentment, the salve for which is usually figuring out how to turn this into paid work.
[pullquote]People who run these organisations then become professionals. Charities and NGOs are forced to set up salaried posts in order to attract people who actually might know what they are doing, sourced from the salaried sector.[/pullquote]
Everyone knows that in a salaried, managerial job, your No.1 task is to, well, hold on to your job, that’s natural. So, no Big Society there then, since now maintaining the organisation for your benefit is always prioritised over the needs of the hapless ‘needy’ to whom you are supposed to direct your efforts.
On a more localised, informal basis, volunteering becomes even more of a nightmare.
There are several serious, inherent problems with volunteers. If you are not being paid, you are less likely to stick around if you don’t agree with how things are being run, don’t like taking orders from people you don’t respect or support, and certainly won’t be willing to put up with rudeness, incompetence or bad treatment.
But I’ve witnessed many volunteer situations where those who find themselves in charge don’t have any better admin or people skills than bad or ineffectual paid managers elsewhere in industry or public service.
[pullquote]What happens often is that the turnover of volunteers, or ‘churn’ as it’s known in Human Resources circles, becomes so great that the project is sabotaged by lack of continuity or simple lack of the pool of experience that it takes to run something well.[/pullquote]
Another problem I have experienced at first hand on many occasions, is that by its very nature volunteering attracts people who if they had any skills, ability to commit, or were functional, they’d probably be enjoying a rich, rewarding retirement or still have a Proper Job.
Nighmarish scenarios when volunteers with mental health problems are taken or have addiction problems, or do not have a well rounded, tolerant attitude to others are legion. Because its very, very hard to fire a volunteer.
Unlike in ordinary employment, there are often no formal interviews or checks, and CVs are not really required. Formal interviews I’ve had for volunteering are usually focussed on availability, rather than ability.
I have seen volunteers wreck a project because of their ego issues and ignorance. For as many successful, loving compassionate people there are in the charity sector, there is definitely a matching dark side.
I had an experience many years ago when counselling as a volunteer working with addiction. We were expected to take up the slack for the NHS substance misuse team. Their job was to identify, assess, detox, in a purely clinical approach. We were offered a fundamental addiction counselling training, some of us were already counselling professionals.
Yet we had no real contact with the NHS team. We were met with contempt when we asked to be included in case conferences. They regarded themselves as the ‘professionals’ and we were regarded as a bunch of amateur do gooders, hired in a moment of madness by some renegade NHS manager, and as a nuisance. This was not only insulting, it was short sighted because clinical fixes for addiction rarely work without counselling and/or social care follow up.
It’s true that some of the volunteers had failed to gain much from their training. Some of them were racists, judgmental, didn’t understand addiction, thought they were there to fix bad naughty drug addicts from their lofty position of clean living, middle class superiority. Others were ex addict veterans of Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous.
Their idea of counselling was tea and biscuits for an hour with the hapless client, a nice chat with a fellow boozer or junkie in a warm room and then they told them, never mind all this, just get yourself to AA, that’s what worked for me.
They had a point, but it rendered us point-less. *It was when we were given data sheets containing questions to fill in after each client session that said: How likely it is that your client will stop drinking this week? That I finally threw in the towel.
In another voluntary organisation where I was counselling a specific group, one of the volunteers demanded that I counselled him. I told him this was an inappropriate boundary and while I was sorry for his situation I would not be allowed to see him. After an abusive phone call, over the next two weeks the clients who had been referred, and it was going well with all of them, began cancelling their counselling sessions.
I was perplexed at first until one of them told me that the volunteer, regarded as some sort of leader in the social group I was working with, had simply gone around ordering them to cease coming to me because I had not bent to his will.
Since I wasn’t being paid, it was completely their loss. This person then went on to systematically bully a new, paid, chief executive of the project to the point of a breakdown. No one had the courage to fire this out of control psychopath because there usually isn’t a set, agreed protocol for firing volunteers and because people are in denial about the human condition and just expect volunteers to be willing, competent and well behaved.
[pullquote]I’ve seen elderly volunteers in charity shops who refuse to operate modern tills, preferring boxes which are often snatched by thieves, or are Basil Fawlty rude to customers, or secretly root through donated material and sell off items of value at boot sales and keep the profits.[/pullquote]
I know of one charity shop in another town where under 10s are simply banned because the old ladies who run it don’t ‘like’ noisy children. I’ve seen volunteers in sports clubs systematically defrauding an already impoverished budget by either cooking the books or simply helping themselves by failing to have any books, thus providing perfect cover for their crimes, and no one says anything because, well, they are just grateful that someone runs the bar and washes the team’s kit for ‘free’.
I once volunteered to do PR for a major Arts project. When I arrived the hostility was palpable, it was a warren of Victorian offices so I asked someone where the toilet and kitchen were and he simply sneered and me and flounced off, extraordinary! I found the office, but no one said hello, offered me a desk or chair, no one asked me any questions, and there was a full scale screaming match going on between the two people who had created the project. I left after about 20 minutes.
One of my bêtes noire in the world of paid work is bullying and bad behaviour – it’s actually worse among volunteers because when you’re not being paid you expect gratitude instead, lots of it, and it seems for some to come with permission to behave just how you want. Bad timekeeping, rigid imposition of personal admin systems on others that patently don’t work or have Kafka-esque dysfunctionality are routine among volunteers.
[pullquote]If indeed Big Society is about volunteering, there is another philosophical layer which needs to be tackled.[/pullquote]
I watch Red Nose day, and I reflect that a bunch of showbiz people who are not just getting the warm fuzzy feeling but shedloads of exposure, may indeed care about wells in Africa, but it’s now a patronising, unwieldy, dated and not very effective way of delivering support to the Third or for that matter deprived First World, because it’s been shown in India that self generated NGOs just work better, and that First World money comes with too many First World strings.
I have also been involved for a while with new and quite nationally oriented start-ups, one in the UK and one in India, and the level of chaos, inability to agree long enough to actually do something, and in some cases the sheer philosophical barminess of the ‘Just Do It’ culture, which rules out any kind of durable, workable protocols, ensured that none of these things ever got off the ground – in one case, the ‘leader’ sucked up any money that was being raised as a kind of informal salary, rendering the entire project a joke, if not a simple scam which wasted the energies and finances of a lot of good people.
[pullquote]I’ve always, since I was a young journalist and began lifting up some stones in society, thought that charity should be unnecessary.[/pullquote]
Disadvantage isn’t a choice, and it isn’t happenstance, it comes from deliberate inequalities created by some and suffered by others. Since it is demonstrably untrue that you are only rich and powerful because you are clever and hardworking, shouldn’t we be feeding each other, looking after the elderly and disabled properly, caring for abandoned and abused children, providing both curricular and extra curricular education and a whole range of other social care services in a formalised way?
We need an inclusive society, where people working in the areas currently covered by volunteers, are competent, well rewarded and ethical people, not a raggle taggle or retired or dysfunctional busybodies and egotrippers who must carry the weight of our inability to genuinely care for one another out of public funds.
Since the early 20th Century, the extended family and static communities have been destroyed by the commercial needs which have tended to encourage an itinerant, nuclear family. Even relatively static communities fail to connect due to paranoia, suspicion and over-mobility. Affluence and technology have actually marginalised even more people than they have ennobled and enriched. While it’s true that the great philanthropic benefactors of the Industrial Revolution looked after the disadvantaged for the first time in European history, prior to that, charity wasn’t needed because people looked after one another automatically with a commitment that went beyond financial considerations.
Community self care of that quality still exists in many countries that the West sneers at as uncivilised, while in denial about the tragic fragmentation of our own society.
Big Society, if it increases the responsibilities falling on charities and their volunteers, could well be a Big Mistake.