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LucyGransnet (GNHQ) Mon 13-Jul-15 11:37:23

Volunteering: the nature of the beast

Elizabeth Mountford describes her experiences as a long-time volunteer, and the different perspectives and relationships that form between volunteers and their paid managers. Let us know about your experiences of volunteering below.

Elizabeth Mountford

Volunteering: the nature of the beast

Posted on: Mon 13-Jul-15 11:37:23


Lead photo

Do you volunteer?

Recently, circumstances have given me pause for thought about volunteering. For one thing, as the Women's Institute celebrated its centenary, I celebrated my second anniversary as a volunteer in my local hospital and I am thankful that I have skills which can be put to use in that context. Volunteering is a time-honoured arm for the need for service, sometimes ad hoc, sometimes permanent. I see it, amongst other things, as a back up for paid professionals who simply haven't time enough to do all a situation requires. There are probably two streams: one that uses the volunteers' professional skills directly, say when nurses go, temporarily, into an area where there is a severe outbreak of disease to do their usual work, and the other where the skills may well be professional but are no longer used in gainful employment, or are factored in for use when there is free time. In that case, the volunteering is often open-ended and can continue ad infinitum.

When I was in paid employment, one of my duties was to train and supervise volunteers who worked with the public in what has come to be called 'the helping professions'. They were a mix of people still gainfully employed and those who had retired or had no need to earn. All of them were happy to give time where they felt they could offer something valuable enough, where there was a need. A conclusion we came to which was incontrovertible, was that what they were doing was a professional job but without pay. Today, I still see that as the foundation of the phenomenon. However, there is a vital difference between that sort of professionalism and the paid sort: volunteers, being without monetary recompense, have a different relationship with the paid staff who manage them - if any. While the volunteer must give of her/his utmost, the management should bear in mind that the usual strictures and sanctions on paid workers may not be equally appropriate for volunteers.

The corps of people available to volunteer year after year after year is inevitably largely made up of those who have retired - often of the generation who took this need for service for granted.

The corps of people available to volunteer year after year after year is inevitably largely made up of those who have retired - often of the generation who took this need for service for granted. They may have had mothers who rolled bandages during the war or who made sandwiches for refugees created by the bombing and destruction. If I were able to state a viable demographic, it would probably emerge as a picture of a middle to late-aged woman or man with a certain level of education and, possibly, time, though they wouldn’t necessarily be cash rich. This would fly in the face of the need for diversity and equal opportunities, essential elements in the world of today. But wait a minute… Is this absolutely the case? Of course, if we keep the age, level of education and possible freedom from the need to earn, diversity and equal opportunities can easily be accommodated. Where there could be problems is where the diverse and equal do not have a history of volunteering and are also youngish and on a possible career path with a CV to consider. I believe that the foundation stone of 'professional' volunteering is long-term dedication and the gift of experience. I know, I know, it does sound like a band from the much-misunderstood Women’s Institute. Misunderstood because what they actually do is based on caring and compassion, experience and a belief in the duty to give back to society. It is in no way just 'jam and Jerusalem'. This kind of volunteer can work for as long as they and their marbles, can handle it. The young will be short-term, moving on to find a way to earn a living and add to the store of experience - or the humdrum - in the outside world. Volunteers must act professionally. Professional managers should manage them as volunteers.

By Elizabeth Mountford

Twitter: @Gransnet

Jane10 Mon 13-Jul-15 11:51:46

I'm not sure what comment you're looking for here. I volunteer and run a specific project related to my professional career. I do it because it needs to be done and no one else is doing it. I have a 'handler' who I inform if there are any problems and also to keep up to date on how things are going. I do feel a bit sorry for him at times as I think I'm maybe a bit intimidating for him being a middle aged, educated and very experienced professional. That's another side to the story!

kittylester Mon 13-Jul-15 12:08:34

I volunteered for 13 years and, immodestly, I can say I was very good at my job. I was told so by the professionals with whom I came in contact, the people I helped and by my managers who also had very positive feed back from the outsiders mentioned above. I loved the work, felt fulfilled and valued.

Unfortunately, my immediate line manager 'took against me' and 3 other volunteers as I feel she felt intimidated by us. We were all long standing volunteers, all late middle aged, middle class and well regarded in our roles. She made a complaint against us (entirely untrue!) but the paid professionals all joined ranks and backed each other up and we were dismissed (using various methods). I am very bitter that my 13 years dedicated and successful volunteering was ended and, because I was unpaid, I had very few options open to me to clear my name and I also know that all four of us had our names (and reputations) besmirched.

Onwards and upwards - I am now a volunteer to keep our village library open and I love it! sunshine

annsixty Mon 13-Jul-15 13:03:28

I have very mixed feelings on voluntary work and I have done it on and off for years. I enjoyed helping with Brownies cub scouts and going into the local primary school helping with reading and craft work etc.

I did three years looking after a very disabled child,in my own home,after school for an evening and one full day a week in school holidays and sometimes weekends. Sadly the relationship with the parents broke down when I couldn't do more, there were other difficulties as well.

I did a hospital tea bar with WRVS also enjoyable, but when I started with an organisation with every one else a paid employee I felt a distinct change in how I approached it .This probably says more about me than it does about the job, but I often felt used and asked to do things others didn't want to do or was a bit beneath them.I did give it all up then but loved working to keep youth and other organisations going when everyone was a volunteer and worked for a single aim.

annsixty Mon 13-Jul-15 13:14:39

I have reread the Blog and realise now that that is all about Professional Volunteering, so different to my own, so my observations are probably best ignored.

Anya Mon 13-Jul-15 13:26:56

I've always had some form of volunteering in the go since the children grew up and left home. I had two on the go until just this weekend when I've just given one up after 5+ years. I think there often comes a 'burn out' time and when managers change, and don't understand the unique nature of 'managing' volunteers, it doesn't help. Though sometimes sometimes enough is just enough.

vampirequeen Mon 13-Jul-15 13:42:32

This is a prime example of volunteer mismanagement.

It's not a one off situation with that charity. My mum volunteered to work at the hospice making cups of tea etc. They insisted that she work from 9 until 5. She explained that she was scared of driving in the rush hour and to get there for 9am she would have to leave home at 7.30am not because of the distance but the amount of traffic. The same would happen in reverse at 5pm. She offered to work from 10 until 4 which would allow her to miss the heavy traffic. They brusquely told her that she either worked their required hours or not at all. Needless to say it was not at all.

DH offered himself as a volunteer in their local shop but withdrew his offer when he found out they wanted more personal information and references than if he'd been applying for a real job elsewhere.

Anya Mon 13-Jul-15 13:52:16

The voluntary work I'm keeping on is acting as a guide at a historic local church. I'm not religious, it's the history of it going back over 900 years that intrigues me, plus meeting and talking to visitors from all over the UK and the world. So far I've met Russian, Italian, Chinese, American and German all in one duty.

The training was excellent, the other volunteers and paid staff are friendly, and if I can't make a duty or need to swap that's not a problem.

vampirequeen Mon 13-Jul-15 14:24:58

That's how it should be for a volunteer. There has to be leeway for missing days etc.

Nelliemoser Mon 13-Jul-15 14:26:24

I suspect a lot of these problems are down to mangers thinking they are God's and taking over. There was a quite dreadful dragon working in our local charity shops for a while and no one wanted to volunteer.
There has to be something in it satisfaction wise for the volunteer.

Jane10 Mon 13-Jul-15 14:52:40

Quite a few people working in charity shops are doing community service which puts managers in a difficult position: juggling those who have to be there and those who are choosing to. Shifts have to be covered too. I suppose details of volunteers are necessary as well as CRB checks if working with children or vulnerable adults. Fortunately my cert was still current when I started.

Auntieflo Mon 13-Jul-15 16:36:16

I volunteered at my children's school years ago now, and loved it. I listened to them read, help with jam tart making and getting them dry after a swim in our outdoor pool, now long gone. None of us were CRB checked in those days, but lots of Mums helped out. My own Mum was a playground assistant and loved her time with the little ones, some even called her Mum
When I retired from work, I joined a local charity shop, as a volunteer, and have been there approx. 12 years now. I used to do two half days per week, but after a heart attack and pneumonia, my energy levels have depleted, and now do just one half day each week. It is great. I have made many new friends, and met up with others that I used to know many years ago. I think I enjoy it so much, is that the charity is local to our town only, not a huge nationwide organisation, so it feels personal, and I may need their help one day soon.
We also take an autistic man to Church once a month, alternating with another couple, and he loves the visit. As my DH sometimes does the Audio Visual display for Sunday church services, I am on tea and coffee duty, with others.
It's all about joining in and being part of our town life. What could be better!
So yes, give volunteering a go.

coles Mon 13-Jul-15 17:38:25

There are so many ways to volunteer, other than with official charities. One can feel needed in making a cup of tea for a needy, lonely, bereaved neighbour. Certainly, volunteering in the local library is fulfilling, we would have lost our library in our village had it not been for local people training and offering their time to learn the ropes. Then on a Saturday morning, a community cafe is open there and the place is full up with readers, chatterers, and those who cannot get out on their own are driven in and can meet up and feel they are wanted and taken an interest in. There is no end of reasons, opportunities available, what rocks your boat? What are you passionate about? I volunteer from time to time at a Peace Centre, I mentor students, bake cakes for occasions. There is someting out there for everyone, whatever your passion. Sincerely, Margaret.

eGJ Tue 14-Jul-15 12:28:17

Being a volunteer driver taking people to doctor or hospital appointments or to Day Centres is out there for all drivers. Whilst doing this you meet all sorts of people you might never otherwise meet! The interesting conversations as you drive, the experiences you hear are all fascinating as well as helping your local community continue and thrive. Why not try it out; there are schemes everywhere AND you can say NO when you want; no arm twisting. "No" is a sentence in itself was advice I was given, so you can have a life as well as grandparent duty which is of course a pleasure too!! Loads of other ways, but this is a good way to start in a new place as you get to know geography VERY quickly!!

fluttERBY123 Tue 14-Jul-15 15:09:26

I volunteer at the CAB, now called Citizens' Advice. It's difficult to tell who is a volunteer and who is paid - some of the people do half and half.

The rules seem to be much the same for all. If you need to go home early you have to tell in advance and why - hols to be noted in advance in the diary.

I did think I would not feel it was a proper job if I was not paid but it does feel like a proper job and the expenses cheque for car mileage helps

My professional skill I would say is the ability to get people who are often inarticulate or have poor English to communicate exactly what their problem is.

I volunteer 2 days a week, and on those days have to get up early, dress a bit better, be on time. And then there's plenty to talk about when I get home.

Sally17 Thu 16-Jul-15 14:29:59

I've been a volunteer reading helper with the literacy charity Beanstalk ( for seven years - since retirement from a long career in children's publishing. Some sort of voluntary work with literacy had always been on my list so Beanstalk was the obvious fit once I found out about it. It recruits and trains volunteers to work one-to-one with primary-school children to support reading. The interesting thing about Beanstalk is that the entire service is delivered by volunteers - some 3500 of them countrywide supporting nearly 10,000 children each year. The role of the salaried team is fund-raising, publicity and administration of the service - recruiting schools and volunteers, training and supporting volunteers, providing books and games for use with the children, managing child protection, ensuring the charity does what it says on the tin.

It is absolutely right that volunteers need to be professional in their approach to volunteering insofar as they need to turn up when they should, be reliable and professional in their relationships with the organisation and clients, and collaborate closely with the professionals. But as a Beanstalk reading helper in a school you are free from the requirement to deliver a specific curriculum - you can be flexible and responsive to your children's individual needs and their mood on a particular day in a way that their class teacher can't and you can give the children regular personal attention and mentoring which there may not be time for otherwise. You are helping and supporting children who have been chosen by the school because they need that attention and friendship from an adult which they aren't getting at home for many different reasons. And they flourish on the attention - their reading improves but so does their general progress.

Here's the other thing - you get far more out of being a volunteer if you approach it in a professional way. You are treated as a professional and you find that skills you acquired in the workplace transfer to volunteering whatever the field. The fact that you aren't paid is irrelevant - and indeed giving your time and something back to the community is the reward in itself.

rubylady Fri 17-Jul-15 02:21:05

If I can get myself sorted in the next year or two, I'm thinking of maybe becoming a hospital visitor. Has anyone had experience of this and can you tell me how it works please.

I came across an elderly gentleman in the coffee shop at the hospital a few weeks ago and we got chatting. He said he had no one, no one to visit or to care how he was. It sounded awful and it has played on my mind ever since.

I used to be a nurse, and then into care work later on so to go back to some sort of caring work, all be it voluntarily, would be great. smile

KatyK Fri 17-Jul-15 11:09:30

My DH, having suffered with cancer last year and now in remission (we are touching wood), is training to be a 'cancer buddy'. The shock of his diagnosis and the months of treatment were horrendous for us all. We were told (and have seen from TV campaigns) that many people go through cancer alone. We are lucky enough to have a very supportive family and the thought of going through cancer alone is unthinkable. He will be trained to sit and talk to people, take them to and from appointments and generally help in any way he can. He says he wants to give something back after the wonderful treatment he received from the NHS. The organisation he will be working with tells us that they are desperate for volunteers.

KatyK Fri 17-Jul-15 11:10:39

I also volunteer in a school one afternoon a week, helping children with their reading, who get very little help at home. It is very rewarding smile

Longdistancegrnny Fri 17-Jul-15 18:33:58

I worked for a charity for 20 years and a major part of my role was managing volunteer drivers. It was vital to get to know them as individuals and what they were capable of, and treat them in a considerate and friendly manner. I hope I got it right - they were always willing to do plenty for me, and the family of one of them asked me to speak at his memorial service when he sadly passed away, so I like to think that says it all. Alongside my job I always volunteered - NCT Committee member, School Governor, PTA, supervising behind the scenes at Dance Shows, and then as my children became more independent I volunteered for a telephone helpline once a week - initially I thought this was very well managed, but when I left for personal reasons after 8 years, with notice and a full explanation, I did not even receive an acknowledgement, let alone a 'thank you' or 'goodbye'! Now recently retired I help to sort donated food at my local Food Bank and also at a local landmark occasionally during the summer months - both of which I enjoy for very different reasons. I would like to become more involved in a volunteer project, but because we are often away for longish periods visiting DD and her family abroad, it is difficult to make a commitment - I am working on it! Any ideas?