Why volunteering is subversive

Scrabble tiles spelling wonderful

‘That’s very ….. worthy’ was the polite response by someone I met recently, who had asked me what Reach does. I swallowed my indignation long enough to hear how he was sure it was all a good thing, but that the problem with volunteers was that they never really did anything of substance.

This image of the ‘worthy’ volunteer, and all the associations which come with it –  fusty, dutiful, conventional and ineffectual – is widely held. Yet, in my experience, volunteers are usually quite the opposite – independent minded, sometimes unpredictable and usually very productive. Volunteers’ Week seems a good opportunity to overturn the  stereotype and celebrate how volunteers bring something quite different to party.

As a group volunteers are a mixed bunch – just like employees – with motivations, backgrounds and aspirations are as numerous as  the volunteers themselves. But there is one (very obvious) thing that they have in common: they all choose to donate their time and talents for free. This creates a unique dynamic. In a world where almost everything is mediated by the market, volunteering runs against the status quo. As Michael Sandel said recently, “In a market-driven society like ours, work that is not rewarded with money tends to be undervalued and unappreciated”.  Volunteers subvert this by choosing to give their expertise freely, irrespective of market price, seeking a return based on their own individual and independent values.

Sadly not all charities who engage volunteers manage the same revolutionary thinking. A recent example that struck me was where volunteers frequently turned up to find insufficient desks, and to spend hours on inefficient administrative tasks. This charity would undoubtedly have automated these jobs if it was their paid staff doing the work, but because there is no direct financial cost associated with this wastage the charity didn’t feel the same sense of  urgency in solving the problems.

Its easy to see how it happens, but if you step back for a moment and consider that this is effectively a charity not valuing its volunteers because their time has no financial value, then it looks very wrong.

Liberated from the financial contract that comes with a salary people  choose to engage for far more personal, individual reasons.  This is very evident at Reach itself.  Working in an office where volunteers outnumber staff by more than 4 to 1 creates an unconventional working environment. There is a more human feel to the office – no-one feels impelled to present a bland work persona. The atmosphere is purposeful and there is certainly no clock-watching given that a bored volunteer can just leave.

What there is is an unusual frankness.

Volunteers feel free to say what they really think, or let loose a little eccentricity. Not constrained by considerations of career or paying the mortage, they have been at the forefront of challenging decisions, giving senior management a grilling, or giving more time or expertise to get us out of a difficult place. This is not just the long standing volunteers – the consultants who have delivered the most for Reach have all done it pro-bono.

Maybe it’s because there are no other issues to complicate the agenda such as the need to demonstrate their value for money. It’s just about their interest in the project, and the difference they can make. This Volunteers’ Week the emphasis is on celebrating volunteers’ contribution and thanking them. The best way of thanking volunteers is by valuing their work properly.

To illustrate my point, I recently bumped into a couple of volunteers who I had worked with some 14  years ago, to set up a credit union. My involvement was both fleeting and paid. More than a decade later, these volunteers had made over £4m of loans in one of the poorest parts of London. They are the last people to blow their own trumpets, but these are the people who really make a difference. Setting up and running a mutually owned, community-managed financial institution in one of the largest social housing estates in Europe.

Worthy? Or subversive?

Janet Thorne leads Reach as Chief Executive
June 5th, 2013 by