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So how much is my time worth?

I thought that as a volunteer I would never need to think about the financial value of my time. But it seems that under a politically driven Big Society agenda this will become a driving consideration for future volunteering.

I know that my volunteering is not totally selfless. I have, and continue, to use volunteering as a way of connecting with my local community, of using and developing skills, of making new friends and having fun, of feeling good about myself… So what – I consider the value my volunteering brings me, I think everyone else does as well. But the value I accrue from my volunteering is not measureable financially.

I have always liked the fact that basically volunteering is not about material gain. Yes, I know that there are treats and thank yous (or incentivisation and recognition events using the volunteer manager parlance). But these (even if a ticket to a gig) are not a major consideration.

But now there are suggestions, endorsed by government ministers, that things are going to change substantially. Now I will be able to volunteer and earn points that I can redeem in local shops. Now to make the scheme viable, it will need to be more than derisory. I might accept a penny in the pound reward while I’m shopping – but as a volunteer I would feel insulted at a penny an hour. I reckon the rate will need to be more than that unless the government wants to insult us (and I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt).

We are told that some activity is more valuable than others, and will be recognised as such through the system. Great. So which is more valuable? The Trustee or the person befriending old people attending the lunch club? The youth team coach, or the person who launders the kit? The fundraiser or the person who sorts stock for the charity shop? The caretaker or the professional expert developing plans for a brand new facility? The list could go on. Apparently frequency and length of time spent volunteering could also play a role. Now that sounds like a kettle of fish.

Not complicated enough yet? There’s more. It is suggested that in the future the care we receive in old age will be linked to the volunteering we do now. It is also suggested that as well as saving the care accrued for myself I could gift this to other people, potentially in other parts of the country.

So many questions! I’ll try to restrict myself to volunteering related ones:

  • Who is going to determine which roles qualify as volunteering, and their value/hour? Presumably there needs to be consistency about this. Does this imply that everything needs to be formalised and processed (presumably through a new quango or massive contracted out national IT programme)? Or is it, as Mr Cameron suggests, all to be taken on trust?
  • While thinking about qualifying roles – who can be appealed to if a role is deemed not to be a Big Society appropriate one? Are we to see increased political control of what we do outside of work? Think about it…
  • We know that the technology exists to award and redeem points – but volunteering is not the same as doing the weekly shop or topping up the fuel tank. If points are going to be able to be spent, how are they to be processed? Unless taken on trust (and we know people even cheat at Foursquare!) Will there need to be a points issuing machine at every venue that volunteers are engaged in activity?
  • The data that is collected will have value (have you read the recent press coverage about the people behind the Tesco Club Card and the commercial results of their activity?) How will we know that commercially valuable information about us gained through our volunteering activity is not abused by this or future governments?
  • If we are all to volunteer to gain care (assuming an hour now is worth an hour then), could we be in a position where we have 30 million people all trying to do 7 hours of volunteering a week? Who on earth is going to develop and manage all of this volunteering? Volunteer management is already under-resourced, and today I read an interesting blog on the need for more support for volunteering. A question made even harder to answer given the current financial climate – for example Somerset County Council is cutting all funding to its Rural Community Council, Councils for Voluntary Service, Volunteer Centres, etc and has also cut all of its funding to arts, culture and heritage organisations.
  • The systems for Timebanking already exist. But Timebanks appear to be working within local communities, with limited numbers of people, based on trust and relationships, and with redemption of credits over a relatively short period of time. To me that is their glory (and it would be great to see more of them). But it is very different from a system that we all engage in.
  • Will this lead to a two tier volunteering system where those organisations with approved opportunities flourish, and there is a Below the Radar world of activity deemed undesirable or not worthy by the state, or which is not able to be structured enough to participate (and what will this do to the existing Below the Radar sector described in a new report by the Third Sector Research Centre).

Oh, I can’t help myself…

  • Will the points I earn be taxable? Or have I found a way of doing what rich people do and minimising how much I contribute financially to our national life?
  • If I spend all my points down the shops, will someone still look after me when I am old? Can I have a look at the new social contract please?
  • How many favours for my family and friends can I turn into reward based transactions without alienating them?

HANG ON. STOP. THIS IS MADNESS…

Let’s be honest. What is being proposed isn’t volunteering. So please stop calling it that.

Volunteering is great because it is a gift. Compulsion changes everything. Timebanking is great because it builds social capital in local communities.

If Big Society is doing stuff for reward in order to have a good time now and be cared for in my old age that sounds like work, pay and taxation. If we need to do more work and pay more tax, then be honest about it, don’t call it volunteering and don’t try to mask it as Big Society.

Let’s not spoil what we’ve got in order to enter into an experiment that even Lord Wei is reputed to have said that elements of which might be a pipe dream, and which Patrick Butler says is not for everyone. If this is what the architects and proponents of Big Society think then I think it is time to step back from the precipice before we end up with a Broken and Irreparable Society.

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PS

In case you weren’t sure, although I am aware of what I gain out of my volunteering these concerns are secondary to the difference I can make to the lives of others through what I do. I would hate it if this was changed because of the politicisation of civil society structures and processes.

 

Musings on the Big Society

As the new government settles into its stride, we are beginning to see some of their thoughts on volunteering be fleshed out.

Big Society is clearly at the heart of what is being spoken about. It is hard to fault an ambition to get more people involved in local communities, helping to set local agendas/priorities and giving more time to things that matter to us all. In fact, it is a laudable aim, but if has had a lukewarm reception and there remains a lot of uncertainty about what it actually is.

I have heard it suggested that Big Society should not be defined but should grow organically. This is fine, but it does lead to a lot of confusion. Given the ambition described in the previous paragraph, it is interesting to hear government ministers describe almost anything as Big Society as though by including the words the activity is validated. For example, at the Conservative Party Conference, Dr Liam Fox described the armed forces as a glowing example of Big Society – much as I respect the work done by our sailors, marines, soldiers and airmen (yes you can tell I come from a dockyard town) I am not sure that by doing their jobs they are doing Big Society. This sort of rhetoric is not helping. We need to have more leadership and better communication if we are to become a real Big Society nation.

I have worked/volunteered in and with community organisations for well over twenty years, and still do. I love this. Communities getting together to do things make a real difference to us all. But, there needs to be a word of warning. Often it is the people with the loudest voices and the most inclination to be heard who drive these (yes, I can be guilty as charged at times!). If Big Society is to work, it can’t only be these people who make things happen or set the future direction. At the moment, members of one of the community groups I am involved in have varying views on parking solutions, business occupancies of mixed use developments, licensing hours, street lighting – the best long term and sustainable results are probably not going to be the ones where the loudest nimby is followed (though these are the ones that the press talks to). Somehow we need to have consultation and representation for Big Society to work – this sounds like local government to me, though somehow it needs to become more localised and able to listen to solutions that might not fit a party political agenda. We need politicians to change the way they work, and we need to find ways to listen to those who feel voiceless.

Anyone who has worked in communities for any period of time will know that a bottom up people based approach to solving problems, developing local solutions and enhancing lives is not a quick fix. It will not happen overnight, it will probably not even happen during the life of a parliament. It will happen as the culture of the nation changes, and cultural change takes longer than just about any other. The trouble with long term solutions is that they do not fit into short term spending programmes (and realistically that is what a three year settlement is). We need a long term view on Big Society, and in support of this the next two paragraphs are vital.

I am going to try to avoid being cynical about Big Society being a mask for cuts. The Prime Minister is right that he has been talking about it for years. But Big Society is not necessarily Cheap Society or Small State Society. But in this phase of the economic cycle it can be hard to divorce the two. This morning I heard about a local authority cutting 60% of its budget for support of community groups, the very basis of Big Society. A couple of weeks ago at Devon Community Foundation Volunteer of the Year Awards we were reminded that volunteers give their time, but still need money to buy “stuff” (I loved that description) – and that is so true. People and organisations who take on a long term support role for Big Society need to be paid (most people cannot afford to work for nothing for ever). And development of new activities often needs frontloaded investment. I’m not saying that there should be no changes to the way that funding is allocated to community groups, charities, social enterprises and other Big Society organisations. But, as when we set up the NHS at a time of financial crisis, Big Society could change all of our lives for the better and is worth investing in now, next year, the year after that, next decade, and the decade after that.

I think the biggest danger that Mr Cameron and Lord Wei’s vision for Big Society faces comes from themselves. They have made it a political issue. For months before May 6th we were told that we lived in a Broken Society, within days of becoming Prime Minister we miraculously became a Big Society with local activity everywhere. The contributions that individuals across the country make to civil society should not be used on a party political basis; they are made by individuals off all party political allegiances and none and should be celebrated by all. If used by one party against another the principles can be damaged. And ultimately, we need all political parties nationally and locally to be working together to build Big Society. If Big Society becomes something that is specifically a Conservative response. If because of a change of government all initiatives by the previous government are rubbished and abandoned. If we do not have a policy connect between national and local government (even within the same party). If some activities are acceptable as Big Society, and others aren’t purely because of whether they are liked by a governing party. If members of one political party feel disenfranchised because of the politicisation of the rhetoric and delivery… The Big Society (or whatever else it is called) will not be supported, encouraged or fully adopted. Mr Cameron, as Prime Minister you hold the power, within the coalition it is your Conservative ministers and advisors who are leading on the Big Society agenda – it is down to you to take the lead and stop using Big Society for party political purposes.

Big Society needs to be all of us. As individuals, the choices we make in how we engage in the engagement-participation-volunteering continuum makes a difference to local decision making, services and quality of life. The ways in which we choose to spend our money, and the choices we make about work can help or hinder Big Society. All sectors contribute to the Big Society agenda. New ways of doing government, commerce, business, and organisation in civil society need to work together for the good of everyone, not just the good of a few. Whether it is good governance, better corporate social responsibility or excellence in working for the beneficiaries of civil society organisations we can all contribute to a fairer and bigger society… I’m an idealist, I want things to be better than they are, I am driven to see everyone achieve their full potential as individuals and as a society. I’d like our community life to be bigger and better – but for the moment I’d settle for a fair, inclusive, properly resourced and non politicised Big Society.

 

Volunteering

If you have read my earlier blog entries it will come as no surprise to you that I am passionate about volunteering. I suppose that stems from volunteering being about generosity being channelled and, to some degree, structured or organised. For this reason, volunteering is likely to be something that I blog about on an ongoing basis. So I thought I would start by asking some questions that I don’t have answers to; questions which nag at the back of my mind and which I keep on coming back to.

I guess that a few years ago, a blog about volunteering would have often focused on language (‘volunteering is an old fashioned word and we need to find something trendy to replace it with’), recognition (‘we never hear volunteering being talked about in the media’ or ‘government doesn’t support volunteering’) and professionalisation (‘Volunteer Centres / Volunteer Managers need to promoted as specialists and experts’). Whilst the latter is still considered a live issue; it can be argued that we have come a long way with the others.

But I wonder. Have things really got better? Or does being successful in arguing a point have unintended consequences, or for that matter any consequences at all?

I often hear the word volunteer mentioned in news broadcasts, in documentaries and even in dramas. Local, and even national, print media carries volunteering stories. There is plenty on the web (recently Google even recognised www.i-volunteer.org.uk as a news source on volunteering). Most of the stories are positive, and many do not promulgate the previous stereotypes. Some volunteering initiatives, such as Orange RockCorps, have even gained major media backing and a ‘cool’ T4 image.

So far, so good. Volunteering is increasingly recognised. It is no longer something that is seen as the domain of old people and ladies who lunch. But the media is much more likely to make a major issue about a few disaffected young people than a large number of young people doing something positive. The one volunteer who does something wrong is going to be the one written about, not the many who continue to be the lifeblood of their communities.

With extra media coverage you would think that there would be increased interest. Anecdotally we hear of lots of new volunteers joining in initiatives. Volunteer Centres tell me that they have never been as busy. Yet despite all of this and the increase in media coverage, the statistical research would indicate that there has been no marked change in the numbers of people volunteering. Why? Without spending a lot of money on research we will probably never know. I am not about to do this, but do have some opinions. I’m not going to explore them all in depth now (though I might well come back to the subject in the future) and have already touched on them – but would be interested to hear what you think.

  • Over formalisation – in recent years there has been a focus on improving the management of volunteers. This has been necessary and appropriate, but we now have a very formal approach to involvement, and this is predicated on larger and more structured programmes. I don’t always want to volunteer to do something long term that is managed as though I am at work – and I know that I am not alone in this. And when running small local community volunteering stuff I find that most of the good practice is irrelevant. In driving up standards are we in danger of losing the anarchic spontaneity of grass roots voluntary action?
  • Language – the understanding of the word has developed in recent years. It no longer only portrays an image of elderly ladies in charity shops or on hospital tea trolleys. But lots of volunteers don’t see themselves as such; they describe themselves as ‘helping out’ or by describing the activity they undertake. This links into the former point – as we create structure we formalise language. We have often heard that the best way to recruit new volunteers is word of mouth. Are we using the wrong language to ask people to do the right thing?
  • Government – I am really pleased to see that government has become increasingly supportive of volunteering. But this is not all good news. Support comes in two distinct, though linked, ways – policy direction and cash. Let’s quickly think about the money – it is needed, but comes with specific targets and measures (funding to support a 25 year old to volunteer for a set number of hours, but not a 26 year old to volunteer on an ongoing basis). The constraints of national funding programmes can often cut across local circumstances and needs whilst at a local government level there is often not the funding to develop local volunteering programmes. And policy direction can make people feel that they are being asked to do the government’s work for nothing (look at some of the current cynicism about Big Society).

So how can we promote and encourage more volunteering without putting people off?

What’s in a name?

Recently I have been writing about the work of the artist Martin Bush. I’ve enjoyed the challenge of working outside my comfort zone, but the work has made me think a lot about the language we use. As with any work I do for a client, I make sure I do research to better understand what they need from me. So I started reading Artist Statement’s at exhibitions and articles in magazines. There is a certain style to what I read; I could understand (most of) it, but somehow it made me feel like I wasn’t in with the in crowd, I was an outsider.

I am sure that none of the artists, critics and journalists wanted to make me feel this way, and would probably be horrified to think that their efforts to communicate had done this. This set me to thinking about how I could effectively communicate about Martin’s work without falling into the same traps (and I hope I’ve managed to do that – publication of an article in a major journal will soon give me an idea!).

But then I also started to think about this blog, and that left me scratching my head. One of the things I am likely to blog about is the work of charities, community groups, and social enterprises. As this blog isn’t targeted specifically at people who work in these organisations I’ve been thinking about the language I should use. As I’ve already described, the trouble with jargon, acronyms and insider and/or politically correct language is that leaves others unsure, or made to feel excluded – and that is something I don’t want to do.

Now for years I’ve been working on the inside. I am fluent in the jargon. There is terminology I recognise as I helped to promote its use. Now, taking a step back and looking at it from the outside I’m not sure that we have helped ourselves. The language we used as shorthand amongst ourselves is now used to describe who we are and what we do to a wider audience. What is worse, it has been adopted by politicians who are trying to taking control.

So, if I follow the latest, politically correct, trend I will talk about Civil Society Organisations (as ordained by the Prime Minister) – but, for most people, what’s one of those? I could talk about the Third Sector – but that term was banned by the Prime Minister in favour of CSOs (whoops – jargon alert…) and I’m not sure that is particularly accessible as a term either. For that matter, Voluntary and Community Sector doesn’t seem to me to be much better although it is probably more descriptive.

I think the problem with all of these terms is that they are trying to create a generic term for an enormous number of diverse types of organisations doing fantastic work. They might be easier for government to understand (though I remain to be convinced that this is the case), and might therefore make it easier for Civil Society Organisations’ umbrella bodies (these would probably be known as trade associations in the commercial world) to quickly describe the organisations they represent – but to me they have no heart and soul.

I think language matters – I believe it should be accessible. As such I think that names matter. I think they need to have meaning to those who use them, and to those who hear them. So I’ve made a decision. I’m not going to be politically correct, and I’m not going to use the in crowd language. When I blog about charities, that’s what I’ll call them. If I talk about community groups, that is how they will be described. Social enterprises will be exactly that. And if I want to talk about more than one type of organisation, I’ll use a list. I think those are terms that most people will understand, and will make sense within the context of what I have to say.

And, if I use jargon – please tell me. I’ll correct it!

Generosity

There is something about some people that makes them very attractive. And, no, I’m not (necessarily) talking about physical appearance!

Have you noticed how some people are givers? I don’t necessarily mean that they are the ones who have their cheque books at the ready to make donations to charities and good causes (though they might, and cash gifts are always welcome by any charity I am involved with). It’s something more, something intangible.

My mother likes restaurants that provide generous portions. Not just because they seem to give better value for money, but also because they are demonstrating their hospitality and welcome to you in a very practical way. They don’t have to be big and flash, they don’t have to be expensive – quality and generosity are always winners (unfortunately lots don’t seem to appreciate this).

Everyone appreciates it when someone makes positive comments about things we say and do. I really appreciate it when people are also constructively critical. They have taken praise a step further; they have spent some time and emotional energy thinking about how I can do better. Such supportive encouragement is generous and makes me feel valued.

As I watch people interacting I spot some who are always willing to help, and others who don’t even notice that help is needed. I see people running errands, offering assistance, sharing expertise and skills. I see people whose DNA seems to focus on others as well as themselves.

And that’s what I find attractive: people who take time out to help others in practical ways, in encouraging ways, in developmental ways. Without their generosity the world would be a much poorer place.

Belonging…

What is it about places? Some of them feel familiar and comfortable, even on a first visit. Others feel alien no matter how much time you spend there.  Occasionally you find a place that you feel that you belong…

I am fascinated by this. Why do I belong to Plymouth? What is it about the city that calls me when I am not here? Why do I feel more complete and more myself when it is home? Why, from the time work took me away did I yearn to be back? I spent almost all of my holidays here, and was continually scanning the vacancies columns for local employment opportunities that I liked the look of.

Yes, I was born and grew up here. As a city it has a lot of memories; I’m not looking through rose tinted spectacles – some of these are good, some are bad. It is also consequently associated with family; though siblings and cousins have moved away without the same sense of belonging. We were all born here, and all have generations before us who were as well (Dad’s family tree research has so far got over 200 years of ancestors on both sides of my family being from Plymouth). I certainly qualify as a Janner!

If not family, is it friends? The quick answer is ‘no’. I’ve lost contact with all my childhood friends (though through social media I have re-acquainted myself with some of them). My strong friendship base is in London; the 3½+ hour journey means that weekends are not often spent together – my spare room is not continually booked up. I’ve got some fab friends in Plymouth – but they are ones I’ve made since I moved back in late 2006.

There is no denying that Plymouth is in a beautiful location. Nestling between rivers, moors and the sea it is surrounded by accessible nature. We grew up walking the moors, spending time on beaches, exploring the countryside. Villages, gardens, county parks, National Trust properties and, as we grew older, country pubs were part of normal life throughout the year. Listed buildings abound, some beautiful, some less so; there is history, art, theatre, good food. But Plymouth is not unique in this; though the particular mix is fairly special!

So what is it about 50° 25′ North, 4° 15′ West? Why that co-ordinate? Why does the sea here feed my soul more than the sea elsewhere? Why does Dartmoor make my heart leap and other moors not? I don’t know – what I do know is that I love Plymouth and belong here.

And so the journey begins…

So here it is – my first (long promised) posting on my very own blog. In some ways it’s quite scary to be putting my thoughts out there for all to see – but at the same time it is quite liberating not to be writing for someone else. No-one is paying me for this, and I don’t have to think about someone else’s politics/opinions/instructions. I can be me…

As I begin blogging I thought I would start by writing about different things that matter to me; that way you’ll be able to get to know a bit more about what makes me tick and I’ll be able to feel my way into doing this on safe ground…

Thinking about it, the first blog therefore becomes quite easy to theme. I’m writing this because various people have been telling me that I should be saying what I think, as Julia Neuberger said to me: “it’s time to use your voice”.  So this entry isn’t about voice (that’s what I’ve set the blog up to be), this is about people.

People matter to me. Not just in terms of loved ones, vital those these are to me. For me there is something special, almost sacred, about people. Each of us is unique; each of us has abilities, foibles, potential. Seeing other people achieve does something positive to me; I find watching people become more themselves fascinating, moving, inspiring. I want to be involved in the process.

And that makes me think about myself. I know I can have a tendency to being a hermit; being someone who is naturally shy and much happier behind the scenes than in the limelight can make me awkward in company. But… I know that there are certain people who draw me out of myself. Different people in different ways can help me think outside my box; encourage my creativity; inspire me; set my mind jumping; make me laugh, and cry; challenge my perceptions; catalyse change; give me a kick up the arse. They can do for me what I like to see in others – help me to be more successfully myself. Looking back on my life I can see a lot of these people – some have been part of my life for a long time, others have moved on, a growing number are people I have met relatively recently. I’m not going to name everyone, but a big thank you to you all (writing this blog has inspired me to make sure that you know how much I appreciate you, and I’ll be doing that in various ways over the coming weeks and months).

I will thank two people here. Both I have only met recently, and both through Twitter – Ann Holman (@annhoman) for inspiring me to blog, and Robert Pickstone (@RobertPickstone) for setting the #21day challenge which has given me the added incentive to start – I look forward to seeing where this journey you’ve together helped me to start takes me…