A letter arrives from the charity where I’ve been volunteering on and off since we arrived here, announcing the end of its volunteer service due to lack of funding. To be honest, they weren’t the best organised outfit I’ve ever volunteered for (though neither were they the worst) but what they managed to do they did well, and it seems to be part of a worrying trend – the local conservation volunteering coordinator doesn’t look as though he’s having his contract renewed either. He was Mr Health’n’Safety gorn mad, and rather over fond of his paperwork (in fact I more or less stopped volunteering for him over a slight difference of opinion about whether asking volunteers to fill in time sheets was a justifiable use of dead trees or not) but you couldn’t fault his energy or his commitment to his job.
I’ve been a regular volunteer all of my adult life, since I first spent a summer peeling potatoes at a homeless shelter in Washington DC in the middle of the crack epidemic. Drug-crazed knife-wielding vagrants notwithstanding, this process has only got harder every time I’ve moved somewhere new and trotted down to the local volunteer service to see what use they could make of my time. I’m pretty certain that my nineteen-year-old self would not have persisted with filling in a three-page application form and providing two references, which is about the minimum required for a wannabe volunteer these days (and I’m fairly certain she would also have told anyone who asked where they could stuff their timesheets so some things don’t change). I can sort of see why charities have professionalised their volunteering operations, or tried to, but I can’t say it’s led to much of an improvement in my experience. The best volunteering I’ve done has always been with groups that were entirely volunteer-run themselves. And they’re not dependent on time-limited project funding to provide an officer who ends up justifying their job description by thinking up new and exciting kinds of paperwork for people to fill in.
So when it comes to the Big Society, I’m actually pretty conflicted. Obviously I would never want my volunteering to come at the expense at someone’s real job – much as I’d love to pretend to be a librarian (all those books! And rubber stamps!) I’m buggered if I’m going to give up my time doing someone else’s job badly for free so some cheese-paring councillor can claim the front line has not been affected – but I can see the attraction of groups of like-minded citizens getting together and just doing something that needs to be done without there needing to be a whole lot of paperwork first. But while that works well for litter picking and tree planting and things like that, you can’t just march into vulnerable people’s lives and start doing good at them without some sort of structure in place. And I really can’t see how we’re all going to fill in the holes being left by the cuts through our own uncoordinated efforts. Somewhere between anarchy and bureaucracy there must be a happy medium. It’s just I don’t know where it lies, and I suspect David Cameron et al have no idea either.
But never mind all that, on a happier note I saw some blue skies and a flying chicken today. I was beginning to believe that the first was as implausible as the second…