Work. Fair. Volunteer.

Mandatory work placements weaken our community sector.  Volunteer managers should keep sight of our definition of volunteering, and be honest about what it’s not.

In the training I do, discussion can arise when we’re looking at volunteer motivations.  “Why DO people get involved in the first place…?”  is a question I ask a lot.  We play bingo with volunteer motivations, we look at research, we tell stories of ours and others’ experiences, we unpick what it is that makes people get involved and we look at how understanding this is the key to getting the best for everyone out of volunteering.

VMT SlidesMore often than I’d hope, people’s responses include… “because they’ve been sent… because they’ve been told to”.  This is tricky.  A big reason why people get involved in something is because they’ve been asked, or even had their arm twisted into it by a persuasive friend.

How is this different to being told to volunteer by a stranger? punishing povertyPossibly a stranger threatening that you’ll also lose the state benefit you’re entitled to?

Volunteering. Spending time, “unpaid, doing something which aims to benefit someone…other than or in addition to close relatives, or to benefit the environment.”  This definition is from a national survey in 1997 and is very similar to both the Police Act and Jobseekers’ Regulations’ definitions.  Many would go further, adding that it needs to be independently chosen and mutually beneficial (Greater London Volunteering).  Voluntary.

P1020067croppedWe sometimes lose sight of the reasons people find themselves at the door of an organisation.  Maybe because we need their help, maybe because we know that the experience once through the door is a brilliant one and we think it’s worth the coercion.  (Read YMCA’s compelling argument  here.)   But whatever we call it, defining voluntary activity and how people choose to get involved is important so as not to lose sight of what it achieves.

It is the act of choosing to get involved and sticking to it that is the transformative thing, not the simple turning up.  Cajoling, motivating, nudging you to go, hearing about your first experience, encouraging you into the second visit, you getting round to it in your own time… all of these things happen from persuasive and well-meaning colleagues, support workers, friends but the choice is ultimately yours – and that’s how unemployed volunteers might build confidence, skills and attitudes that lead to employability and work.  Either this, or maintain these attributes instead of feeling gradually more useless and unemployable.LVSC Intro VOls

Mandatory work activity is not volunteering.  Volunteers of every flavour built the voluntary organisations we work and volunteer for, and motivations for this were – and remain – many and varied.  They didn’t do it because they were told to.  Plenty of people, unemployed and otherwise, are continuing to build our communities as volunteers – although some are being lost because they are being forced elsewhere to complete unmatched work placements; as well as a loss to the organisation, what loss of experience and skills for the volunteer?

Mandatory work placements in private companies – Asda, McDonalds to name just two – are simply unfair – they make a mockery of competition, and don’t achieve their goal of job creation or getting people into employment.

Mandatory work placements in voluntary organisations shift our mission from community building to disempowerment, and muddle our view as a nation of voluntary activity.

I will continue to work for support and funding to persuade, cajole, motivate, and encourage as many people as possible into volunteering: this experience has an amazing effect on individuals and communities.  Volunteering – Getting Involved – Participating – changes lives, and there are projects up and down the country providing these opportunities and getting people into them every day.

Support them. Not Workfare.

Other links:

Find out private, public and voluntary organisations participating in mandatory work activity programmes. Avoid them!

Mental Health Charity Mind’s statement on the workfare scheme and the work programme

IVR’s ‘Gateway to Work’ report: the link between volunteering and employability

Pathways through Participation research: why people get involved and stay involved.

Find your local Volunteer Centre: often the place in your area that knows the most about volunteering projects for harder to reach groups.

The high profile case of the volunteer forced to work in Poundland in favour of her own freely-chosen volunteering


My Values… in Spoken Word.

Why do I do what I do?

It’s a funny thing.  I started fiddling with this a couple of months ago because I was blown away by two spoken word poets.  They said what was inside of me.  I realised that some people describe why I’m driven to keep getting people involved, sharing experiences that challenge our assumptions and standing up for social justice FAR BETTER than I can explain it – and they’ve never even met me.

Coincidentally, I’ve just started working on the local Words over Waltham Forest Festival recruiting and co-ordinating the volunteers. It’s exciting – language and literary inspired events in libraries, pubs, pop-up-whatevers all over my home borough.  So it seems appropriate to share these words now.  Over to you, lads… You say it so much better than I ever could.

“You can’t explain the present ‘til you work out what the past meant”  KATE TEMPEST
“You can’t explain the present ‘til you work out what the past meant”

“Language is a gateway to an attitude” GEORGE THE POET
“Language is a gateway to an attitude”

"How do human beings ever learn to do anything?  Performance... feedback... revision"  BABA BRINKMAN
“How do human beings ever learn to do anything?

"Cos in this country of billboards covered in 'tits'... I think we should try to get used to this."
“In this country of billboards covered in ‘tits’… I think we should try to get USED to this.”

“We all have different abilities, thought process and genes… so why is a class full of individuals tested by the same means?”  SULI BREAKS
“We all have different abilities, thought process and genes… so why is a class full of individuals tested by the same means?”

“It was you that didn’t know when to stop digging deeper and building higher…” DAN le SAC vs SCROOBIUS PIP
“It was you that didn’t know when to stop digging deeper and building higher…”

"I'm not sure I've worked out how to work it" TIM MINCHIN
“This is my brain… I’m not quite sure I’ve worked out how to work it”
(Okay. This isn’t spoken word. But hey it’s good)

The silliest of silly ideas.

I had a great conversation with my Grandad the other day.  He’s 93 and fairly vocal about how bonkers he thinks I am so it’s often humorous, but this time I could tell him I was doing a triathlon – and he also gave me the opportunity to TOTALLY NAIL  my answer to “So what’s food sovereignty then?”me on biketrailer

I wish I’d recorded it, because now I’ve forgotten what I said.  But hey – my Grandad knows!

It’s sort of why I decided to do a triathlon. So that people would ask me.   Yup, I wanted to be fitter…  And a triathlon sounds like pretty spectacular motivation.  But getting people talking and funding some practical action seemed a good idea too. And as well as the arms trade and CAAT,. which I’ve already written about, I reckon that practical action and chat should be about FOOD. The thing we all have in common.

So it was decided:  Clacton Sprint.  750m swim, 16k bike ride, 5k run. 7th September. Raaaaar!

It’s happening tomorrow. merunningjuly13 And it turns out: a triathlon IS pretty spectacular.  And… it seems I DID lack the motivation to get properly fit.  So… I’m still the same me that told everyone I was going to do it 6 months ago.  Eeek.  But hey, people are asking me about food sovereignty.  And that’s cool!!

So what did I tell my Grandad?  It’s about us having control over our food and the means to produce it.  And by ‘us’ I mean me, buying from someone else, and I mean my friend who farms sheep up in Cumbria, and I mean small farmers globally who produce the majority of the world’s food on medium or small scales.  It’s about challenging the idea that we need manufactured seed to feed the world. It’s about asserting that access to food is actually the bigger problem – not how much we produce.

There is a growing movement of organisations and producers building links with other producers globally, gathering evidence of the success of sustainable food systems, and generally getting the word out.  Having been involved in small veg projects I know how they are make-or-break for smaller scale farmers, and how much their support matters, but also how small these stories can be in amongst the media flurry of ‘feed the world’ and ‘convenience’.  My silly jaunt this weekend is one way I can support some of this work, and I’d love you to support it too.  What I raise is nothing compared to the quantities food speculators are gambling around with but every penny will be spent wisely! Or you could find a local veg/fruit scheme that connects you to your produce, or find out a bit more out about food sovereignty and share it with someone else.  That would be great.

And in return I’ll run/cycle/swim myself silly.

Thanks for reading!  Spread the word!

Teach Them Well… Kids and Volunteering

This was originally posted on  as a Thoughtful Thursdays blog post.  Feel free to continue adding thoughts, there or here!

Being in charge of a child teaches you a lot about what’s achievable – and what you as a person want to achieve. I don’t think this learning can only come from being a parent, but for me that was the catalyst for changing my attitude to volunteering roles and young kids. This post is about sharing the things I’ve realised, and the roles I think work, and inviting a friendly flood of ideas for the ways parents and young children (and older children – why not) get involved with our organisations.wheelbarrrowstones

In the Before Times, I did a lot of assuming as a volunteer co-ordinator and broker.

“Volunteers can share childcare between each other easily, can’t they?” (They can, but it takes confidence, time and strong social networks.)

“Volunteers would want childcare or a crèche so that they can do a volunteer shift” (Will they? Really? What about involving both?)

…So what I never contemplated was that a parent volunteer – and that strange creature is now ME – might actually want to be with my offspring.  I have now discovered that in a lot of activities I’m getting involved in, I want my daughter with me.  Not because I can’t bear to be parted from her;  I am the kind of parent that needs my space and to maintain my identity, and I’ll go to quite some lengths for that.  No, it’s because the things I am desperate to learn, and haven’t stopped wanting to learn because I have a child, coincidentally are linked to the things I’d like her to learn too.  The things she won’t see from inside a classroom when she goes to school.  How people are when they work in a team, the effort that goes in to making a play session happen, how some things are important enough to stand holding a banner about in the cold…ivy and lel chopping2

These things are leading me to shift my ideas of what it means to get involved, and weekly I’m shifting my ideas of what we can achieve together.  We’ve done growing, making cob from straw and clay, running a cooking session and I’ve now found out from others about marshalling a Parkrun, fundraising and event planning all being grand carer/kid endeavours.

And the list is getting longer of wisdom I’ve gleaned from our little outings…

  •     Do take snacks.
  •     Don’t expect to get there at all.  You may be pleasantly surprised.
  •     The promise of swings later-on will get you a long way.
  •     Don’t expect to have in-depth conversations with the other volunteers – you’ll be the one explaining why the wheelbarrow has one wheel and why the slope is slopey.
  •     You know how the best volunteer co-ordinator can break things down into little chunks that more and varied people can get involved in?  Do that, but more so.  The tiniest tasks for them to get involved with alongside your (hopefully) bigger ones.
  •     Things will often feel more manageable when it’s your thing:  running your own kids session for example in your own time, or organising a ‘playing out’ in your street with your child.
  •     Expect to achieve.  Something.  And to both be excited by that achievement!

I’ve got two requests.

I’ve learned a lot as a volunteer, and now I’ve also got ideas as a volunteer co-ordinator.  What about you?  What roles are there in your organisation where parents/carers are getting involved with kids?

Do you have roles in your organisation which might suit a parent/carer and child, but haven’t yet?  Think flexible involvement, or where the volunteer has some autonomy over the time tasks take, low risk etc.?   I’ve been thinking recently about matching young kids activities with activities for older people – they seem to get so much out of being together. Maybe older people’s lunch clubs?

Are there roles that you’ve tried to involve carer/kid volunteers in, and it’s been too much of a challenge?  Please share your hindsight!

I would LOVE to hear your thoughts, whatever they may be, as a new parent-unteer and as a fellow co-ordinator.  Maybe me and the girl will pop down and road test your opportunity one day… we could write about it too…

And my second request – do you know anyone doing something with their kid that THEY wouldn’t consider volunteering, but that is essentially getting involved and getting something done?  I’d love to hear about them.

Get in touch and follow the blog (or @volunteersyeah on twitter) for more on volunteering with kids and guest posts from others doing it.  cheers!




Why All the Fuss? Managing Volunteers

This is so beautiful I want to marry it.  Here are the bits you don’t see – the reason it’s an art to get a project up and running, to get people involved, to make sure we all support each other.  The reason it needs recognition and a bit of cash every now and then.


‘Getting Involved’ with a Kid in Tow.

I’ve been getting involved in a few projects with my toddler.  With varied success.  Gardening, cooking projects, and a bit of demonstrating since you ask.  And I’m considering wwheelbarrrowstonesriting about my experience… from volunteering practitioner to parent, and the steps in between.  I’m wondering… has anyone else has written about this sort of thing?

Have you volunteered with your kid?  What did it look like?  Would you have called it volunteering?  what success have you had?  What have you learned?  What feedback would you give to the organisations you helped out with if you had the time and energy?

Or, as an organisation, do you have roles that an adult can do with their child in tow?  What kind of things do people get up to in this way?

I’m working on how I can share me and my daughter’s volunteering experiences…  watch this space and please get in touch if you have experiences to share.  Thanks!


Proving our Worth. Who, When, How?

This was originally posted on as a ”Thoughtful Thursday’ volunteer managers tweet and blog chat.

At the tail end of last year, my colleague Kim and I had the opportunity to work with Greater London Volunteering, developing a set of tools to evaluate what volunteers and organisations achieve through their work. Continue reading “Proving our Worth. Who, When, How?”