Responsible Volunteering …

Virtually my entire adult life I have been a volunteer; there are lots of reasons which I will summarise in a minute but what I really want to blog about is how differently a volunteer and an employee behave and are treated and why.

My current voluntary role is as a Community Councillor; for around 5 years I have spent several hours on the last Wednesday of most months at our regular meetings.  Why? well this comes down to what Community means and how the concept of community can be sustained in the modern world.

Yes, we have put people on the Moon … but did that really do much for most of us?  Not everything technology based is necessarily a huge advance for humankind, however we can be certain of one thing in the UK and particularly in rural areas – population changes are threatening our status quo.  More people will live longer so the population of older and more vulnerable people is growing; in fact it is growing faster than every other section of the population.  There are fewer people in the population group that pays taxes yet we have an increasing demand on the public sector funded by those taxes.  Of course there are many factors to this but that is the essence of the threat to our Communities in financial terms.  In cultural terms, traditionally women would not only have been the homemaker and cared for the children but they would have cared for the older generations of the extended family too.  More recently more of those women have worked outside the home and with more older people needing care and support we have had to look to other sources of support for them.  And a particular issue in rural communities – what do young people do when they become adults and there are not enough jobs in the community and they are priced out of the housing market? they migrate and contribute to another community’s economy.

I passionately believe that strong local communities have a vital role to play in our well being, our health and to some extent our wealth.  For example where a community includes people who watch out for an older person not doing their messages as usual, any absences are likely to be noticed and someone will pop round and check if they need anything (I blogged before about how Community Alarm takes this role on where communities are not so strong).  Where there is a strong community it is less likely that youngsters will cause mischief or get bullied ad where the community use local shops and services and support local jobs and revenue they are often rewarded with more personalised and relevant services.

The Community Council in our area is a formal part of local government, albeit we are each volunteers.  We have good attendance at our meetings from our local elected representative Councillors.  But what is our role? In a nutshell it is to represent the views of the community (especially relating to Local Government matters) and other activity in the interest of the Community.  Let me show you something we did last year – adding planted barrels to welcome visitors and residents at our town ‘gateways’.  Several of our Community Councillors worked together to get a grant, buy the supplies and set each barrel up; we asked residents to volunteer to help with maintenance and despite agreeing few have continued to do so.

And something I have mentioned – coordinating the Christmas Light Switch on each year; involving all three schools in the Town:

Christmas Lights

In addition we should be out meeting the residents, asking them their views and creating an audit trail of that work … why? because we have a duty to represent the views of the people … not represent what 10 individuals think the views of the people might be!  The formal term for this is “Governance”; meaning the guidelines, rules and regulations which tell us how we should be doing the work of the Community Council.  This might sound terribly formal but if there is ever a disagreement it is essential in resolving matters appropriately.

Currently I am wrestling with this … not with the Governance; with my professional background I understand Governance and I have attended training sessions specifically relating to this Governance.  What I am wrestling with is that the majority of my volunteer colleagues have not attended training, do not think Governance is important and this causes misunderstandings and disagreement.

When I looked at the agenda for this evening’s meeting the list includes issues like a rusty street sign, overgrown hedges, the ownership of a road (we know the answer and there is no more to discuss) … then people will probably add a complaint about dog fouling or noisy youngsters – all of these issues have  a place to report them and get them addressed; that is not the role of the Community Council and how much value do we bring to the Community if this is all we consider?

Then there are personalities – tell me would you go into your job and be rude and aggressive in speaking to colleagues? Would you then, if you didn’t get your own way have a temper tantrum and threaten to leave?  Well I am sure occasionally these things happen in employers time and premises but the reality is most people behave with professional courtesy towards colleagues because they want to stay employed and earning money?  Maybe I am odd but I behave the same way as a volunteer as a I do when an employee; yet time and again I witness this childish behaviour with the excuse given for it that “I don;t have to do this you know I have so much else going on I don;t have time”.  In which case resign politely and get on with your life?

And I believe the root cause is that in the UK there is a cultural view that Volunteers should not take responsibility BUT if one volunteered with the  Armed Cadet Force say could one say “I am only a volunteer I don’t have to be responsible for the cadets health and safety”? Okay literally one could say that but one would not be a volunteer with the ACF for very long!  Why are volunteers treated so differently to an employee?

In my opinion this should not be the case, yes an employee receives remuneration for their contribution but volunteering is about other benefits.

Why do I volunteer? To contribute skills I have that others may not have; to meet people and share ideas; to keep skills, I am not currently using professionally, fresh and up to date; to be a responsible member of society and my communities.  Okay I know this sounds cliché but it is the truth – I enjoy giving.  I get more excited about seeing a recipient open a gift than I do about opening what I have received; all the time they are unwrapping I am anticipating their response to see if I got it right for them.

You will recall I told you some of Evelyn’s story – well I only knew that much because one day on the bus I overheard her say she could not retune her TVs with the digital signal.  As I passed her getting off the bus I passed her a business card and said if she would like me to take a look please give me a call … she did and I resolved her TV tuning.  What did I get out of it? a cup of tea, a friend, and a warm fuzzy feeling.  What did Evelyn get out if it? Two retuned TVs (so she did not have to watch BBC2 Childrens’ programmes with Gaelic subtitles – I kid you not that was all she could receive until they were retuned) and the knowledge that someone cared about her.

Since then I have escorted her to and from hospital several times, done battle with her crop of dandelions, invited her along on days out and helped her with some decluttering she wanted to do.  I haven’t seen her recently ad I should probably pop round and say hello!  Maybe I will take Pup for a visit soon as well she will love that.

This reflection is leading me to think that I should not continue to volunteer for the Community Council because I am not fulfilling the objectives of the organisation and because however hard I try the majority of the other volunteers do not wish to accept responsibility!  but it will also be shaping my business planning so when I have volunteers working with me their responsibility is clearly established and there is not a divisive chasm between them and paid staff.

I did a wee bit of Moon practice on my way to and from Community Council – take a look:

I don’t know how I got this blue but I love it!


I was able to get a slightly crisper picture by using a fence to steady my camera hold


And in this one I was hoping to get a bright star/planet in the shot as well … didn’t manage that but the moon has a nice quality and tone to it.


You are probably safe from moon pictures for a week or so – this is a full moon so now I will try and get it as it wanes …


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About nonehpets

I have an interest in how interior design and adapting a home to support living independently for longer can be complementary. The blog Life Long Design is part of an holistic plan for establishing a social enterprise which will offer the people of Tayside opportunities to explore Telecare and the wider scope of assistive technologies. Enabling individuals to make more informed and responsible choices in the care and support they need in their independent living. I am also keen to see public transport more widely adopted and sustainable rural bus services in particular supported. The Blog Travels with a Megarider shares my journey to find serenity in my life as I make that transition form employment to social entrepreneur. One of my methods in increasing serenity is to travel as many miles as I can on a fixed price bus ticket and explore my own local places of interest. Places that I used to go past and had never stopped to look at; places of peace and tranquility; places where I have had some wonderful conversations with complete strangers. I would like to share with you a response to when I described that one paragraph in an e-mail made it sound simple: "Believe me, Cathy, it does not sound simple. You are taking on an incredible challenge for all the right reasons. It is ambitious and admirable - the sort of project that can change lives, including yours." He is right it is ambitious but when did we every achieve anything by settling for the status quo and ignoring what doesn't work for people? So I would welcome your company from time to time on this journey either simply as a reader or if you are brave enough adding your own thoughts to the comments as you feel moved.

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