“Volunteers are suckers” – why Homer Simpson may have a point

13 Jan

From time to time everybody starts going on about volunteering. How important and fabulous it is to give something back to the community blah blah blah.

Some government ad campaign will embarrassingly try to make it look trendy – wasn’t there once a scheme under which you could “earn” concert tickets by mowing lawns or something? (although surely the act of earning does not entirely fit in with the spirit of volunteering).

Cool or not, It’s a sentiment I heartily agree with – but unfortunately it seems I literally can’t give away what little free time I have.

Perhaps I overestimate my Volunteer Value (which I imagine is calculated in something like Nectar Points, only harder to come by). Maybe I’m not actually as useful or entertaining as I like to think I am.

But if that’s the case I should be OK because volunteers aren’t exactly popular. A friend who volunteers in a charity shop says there is undisguised resentment on the part of the organisation’s staff, who are paid, because they don’t get a discount, while the volunteers, who are unpaid, get a small concession. So they keep “the help” in the dark about various things because they are not considered important enough to need to know. Upstairs, downstairs. Same old story.

Anyway for the last few months I’ve been a regular visitor at the local Children’s Centre (a cup of tea and a free biscuit are not to be sniffed at, especially now the reality of maternity pay has started to bite). In a remarkably poignant bit of town planning,the centre sits right behind the day centre for the elderly. I suppose you start and end life in a pretty similar place, both metaphorically and, if you’re in Swanage, geographically.

I have noticed, whenever I pass the day centre, that the elderly people inside don’t ever seem to be doing much. At first I thought, optimistically, that perhaps my timing coincided with the exact moment when they were so exhausted from all the fun and frolics that went on, they were having a little sit-down, only to resume their raucous game of charades once I had passed. A bit like when your boss walks past and catches you just as you go on Facebook, even if it is for the one and only time that day.

However a quick confer with other Children’s Centre biscuit munchers confirmed my suspicions. These people really don’t seem to do very much, at any time.

Aha! I thought. I know – I’ll volunteer. Pre-baby I did some reading for the county’s Talking Newspaper, recorded in a very strange little studio inside the hospital where the baby was born (and no, I didn’t tune in between contractions). Perhaps I can go along with the Sunday paper and read Mrs Mills’ problem page to them or something, I thought.

So, I phoned up and said I wanted to help.

It was not an easy conversation.

First I spent several minutes explaining to the lady who answered that I had no catering experience and therefore didn’t really want to work in the kitchen.

After telling her more about my background there was some confusion over whether I wanted to “broadcast at them”. I was beginning to feel like Lord Haw-Haw.

Eventually I managed to explain that all I wanted to do was a bit of reading. “Well, we’re always open to new ideas” she said, as if the concept of reading aloud was as novel as turning up and offering free vajazzles.

She suggested I come along for a meeting the next day. Already, I thought, this is feeling like a lot of hard work but hey, I am going to be a VOLUNTEER. It’s worth it.

So I went. But I never even made it as far as the reception desk.

The lady I had spoken to on the phone met me at the door and told me I had to be quick as she was busy.

Talk about an elevator pitch. I had precisely the same amount of time it took for her to sign for a delivery to reiterate what I wanted to do.

“Oh no dear, we have an audio book library for that sort of thing,” was the rather succinct answer. And besides, she said, did I know I would have to go through a criminal record check and that could take months and by then I might not even be living in the area anyway?

After I left I peered through the (unwashed) windows round the side. She may well have been busy but nobody else was.

So sadly I suppose I’ll have to stick to doing what I’m paid to do. Which right now involves eating a lot of  biscuits.


10 Responses to ““Volunteers are suckers” – why Homer Simpson may have a point”

  1. Chris Conder January 13, 2012 at 9:10 pm #

    these people are allowed visitors right? Just go and visit them. Have a natter. It will make their day. JfDI, don’t be put off by the staff.
    Or do like my friend Brenda does, go into the wards of hospitals and brew tea and biscuits and take them round. She’s done it every wednesday morning for the past 15 years. To the stroke unit. as a volunteer. with no volunteer label. but I guess she had to have a police check, the hse brigade wouldn’t let you otherwise. But visitors don’t need police checks.
    Loads of people need your time. and they will share biscuits. Don’t give up. Once the sprog gets to school the PTA will collar you and you won’t have any spare time then, so make the most of it now. 😉

    • zskdorset January 13, 2012 at 9:19 pm #

      That’s a good idea – except I don’t actually know any of the residents! I need a name on the inside (this sounds like I am about to break into a prison)

      • Chris Conder January 13, 2012 at 9:29 pm #

        The world is mad.
        I know you can’t even take home made cake in to them unless you have a health and safety certificate.
        Why don’t you use your gift. And write a book? Go undercover and expose the sham. You could even get the lovely man to make a film. You can contribute in so many ways. I got a medal for volunteering once and it sits in a drawer. The things I have done that have done the most good have never been noticed. You have to sneak in under the radar and find your niche. Real volunteers can’t be organised. You only have a small window before you won’t have any choice of what to do, the PTA are merciless.

  2. Ann/Sparky January 13, 2012 at 10:45 pm #

    Good for you for spotting a problem and doing something about it!
    A random suggestion: how about moving the children’s centre coffee session to the nursing home one Wednesday (or whenever)? Just turn up as visitors and head to the day room. Ask for John. There’s always someone called John. Or Gladys. Bring your own biscuits and squash. The residents will love the babies, and the babies won’t mind. I used to run an activities session at a local nursing home and volunteered at a playgroup at the same time. Both groups loved doing the same kinds of activities (singing’s good) – and being thrown out of a nursing home en masse would be a lot more fun (and possibly a great story…) 😉

    • Chris Conder January 14, 2012 at 6:13 am #

      JFDI! mega idea Ann. I was thinking of dogs. A home I used to visit had a lady come every morning with her old dog and the residents loved it and talked and stroked it. But a passel of kids would really brighten their day?

  3. ollybenson January 15, 2012 at 12:45 pm #

    Hi Zoe,

    Sadly your situation is all too common. The big myth about volunteering is that there is a lack of volunteers. In general it’s the other way around – there are a lack of good opportunities for people to volunteer with.

    And, as you say, the process for getting involved in volunteering is often unnecessarily complicated and full of mistruths and hurdles that don’t need to be there. (The CRB one is probably one of the most common – and sadly often from bad policies at an organisational level as well as individuals making their own rules).

    Part of the reason however is that volunteering is not free for the organisation. It is just like having a paid employee, the only difference is you don’t give them a salary. You still have to manage, train (where needed), rota, deal with HR issues etc etc. Volunteer managers, if someone specifically has that role, are often massively overworked and receive very little credit for what they do. All too often looking after volunteers falls at the end of a long list of responsibilities for someone who is employed to do something else and has had no training or guidance in how specifically work with volunteers.

    Volunteers also have a tendency to want to only do the bits they enjoy, to want to be sporadic in their volunteering so that it’s difficult to do any sort of planning, and to expect to be involved immediately as if the organisation can simply reconfigure what it was doing to accommodate them.

    There are individuals and organisations trying to do something about it. Do-it (www.do-it.org.uk) is obviously about helping people quickly find an opportunity, and if you are still interested in volunteering then try putting your postcode in there and see what comes up. There’s also stuff like Spots of Time (http://spotsoftime.org.uk/) which is a new little social enterprise by Anna Pearson, and although is only London-based at the moment has the potential to helping you do exactly what you wanted to.

    And, as you’ve done, helping to highlight that volunteering isn’t all rosy, and the barriers to people engaging in their community aren’t always of their own making. Sadly the sector often isn’t very good at dealing with bad practice, or recognising that it needs to change.

    But, once you start volunteering, I’m sure you’ll have a great time! 🙂


    PS. The campaign for volunteering in exchange for concert tickets was Orange Rockcorps – it wasn’t a government campaign but a social enterprise tied in a few big brands: http://www.orangerockcorps.co.uk/

    • zskdorset January 18, 2012 at 9:33 pm #

      It is so interesting to get an industry perspective.

      I completely agree with you about what people want vs what they get offered – probably what the centre really did need was somebody to stir pots in the kitchen, not some poncy middle aged journalist who wanted to read aloud! But surely that’s where the whole volunteering/work models differ – you do what you have to do at work because you are paid to be there. If you are in your time you feel much more territorial over exactly how you spend it.

      That said, I think there is a massive problem in the way in which paid colleagues treat volunteers and that does need addressing. I know so many people who have been made to feel like servants and that is the biggest turn off of all.

  4. The Coffee Table Years January 16, 2012 at 9:17 pm #

    Funnily enough, I was thinking of volunteering too but then I thought it might be a bit too much like hard work – and you have proved my point. I was also hoping I might meet some interesting people, who I might use for the blog in the future. Um, still lacking motivation. I’m going to keep thinking about it. It’s what I do best.

    • zskdorset January 18, 2012 at 9:28 pm #

      yeah – that’s kind of where i am now too…

      • the reivers January 18, 2012 at 9:39 pm #

        What about working in a charity shop? you meet some great characters there. The samaritans would welcome you with open arms?

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