Sunday, 29 October 2017

Volunteers - and where would we be without them now.

Walk down any High Street and you can’t miss the charity shops - all staffed by volunteers.

Go to any surgery, and there are leaflets about this support group and that support group, and often a transport scheme for those needing help to get to hospitals - all run by volunteers.

Go to any community hall, and the likelihood is - it is run by volunteers.

Children’s sports clubs, youth groups - all rely on volunteers.

And where do they come from, these banks of volunteers? Some, of course, depend on the self-interest of the volunteer - support groups for people with a particular health condition are run by people needing connections with others who have the same problem. Cricket clubs are often run by people who want to play themselves.  Even so, if they want to encourage young people to join it means adults giving up their free time to teach them. 

But there are also armies of volunteers who simply give up their free time for no other reason than a general feeling of ‘needing to give something back’. I’m not at all sure what that means. But if it keeps the show on the road ...

For the show, given the lack of government investment or even interest in the way many people are struggling to get by, is a bit crumbly at the moment. Where once it was reasonable to assume that the council might invest in services for children or keeping the park clean or supporting the frail or keeping libraries open - but we’ve no hope of that now. 

I have a problem with these jobs being cut. Part of me would like to let the system collapse so that people could see the extent of the damage these years of austerity have done. But we can’t - because real people will suffer and resources such as libraries will be lost forever if we do.

So here I am, in a new town, trying to get to know people. And along came the opportunity to volunteer at the local Arts Centre, to support their work with children and young people. Ten years ago I suspect someone would have been paid, on a sessional basis, to do the ‘dogsbody’ tasks that underpin these projects. But the half-term painting project, completing wall after wall of pictures for the local pantomime, would have been almost impossible for one worker and one artist. 

It was knackering but I loved it. Three days with children, helping to mix paint, cleaning brushes, and somehow creating great pictures in spite of the chaos and the mess - it was wonderful. I know, in the current climate, I’ve not deprived anyone of paid work. But should things change then it’s essential that I withdraw ... or maybe apply for the job ...


  1. Well done you! Yes, the whole system would now crumble. Our library is only open thanks to volunteers. And this *** govt uses it as an excuse to cut the local Govt grant further. I see, with horror, that they are now proposing hospital patients could recover in people's houses! Having closed all the cottage hospitals. Can you imagine it? Being sued coz someone's family member died in your care? Utterly utterly irresponsible and uncaring. Vile people! I'm ranting again....

  2. I don't think it is as simple as saying that volunteers have directly replaced paid staff (although I do agree that this current government has gone too far in this regard) - that may be the case with some projects but it certainly hasn't been my experience.

    For those who don't know I am a trustee of Eastcott Community Organisation, and we manage Savernake Street Social Hall ( (I'm also Jo's daughter - for my sins!) We are a volunteer led-organisation with two part-time members of staff who between them work around 20-25 hours a week. Everything else - so opening and closing the hall, health and safety checks, publicity and promotion, gardening and maintenance, some cleaning and bookings management, etc. - is all done by volunteers. When managed by the council there was a caretaker - but it was rarely properly cleaned and never promoted so it was hardly ever used as he was in charge of several buildings and so did not have the capacity.

    On top of that you have the events and activities. Last Saturday we ran our annual Halloween drop-in. That event took around 100 volunteer hours to run, split between 10 people. Given that the hall only has a maximum capacity of 140, we would have to charge around £5 for a cup of tea just to break even - which would result in precisely nobody attending!

    In two weekends time on 12 November we will run Swindon Repair Cafe (shameless plug alert! ( where we will have around 25 volunteers, many of whom will share their professional skills to help people fix their stuff and keep it out of landfill - all for free. Given that the only income from that events is donations and refreshments, it would not be possible to run it if we had to pay everyone - the sums simply don't add up!

    I've been volunteering for years and I love it! I've also been paid to run community events and activities - so I have seen both sides of the coin as it were. And I do think that volunteer hours are utilised very differently to paid hours - they are both more and less flexible. I'm not convinced that these differences are altogether forced on us by government cuts (although that the roles are now voluntary in the first place might be) but I think there is something intrinisic in the way we as people take on voluntary roles and the nature of the effort that is put in that means that often the end result is something that could not be achieved if payment was part of the equation.

    (Note: this post was made in a personal capacity and not a representative of ECO.)

    1. I knew I could rely on you to look at the complexities of this, Anna - many thanks for thinking this through.

  3. There's such a lot to be gained from volunteering, and it sounds as if nobody would b doing it if you weren't! So don't worry about it :) If such jobs are paid in the future, you'd probably be a front runner to apply!

    1. I agree - there is so much to be gained from volunteering - but I just hope we're not papering over too many government cuts.

  4. I don't know the half of what is happening in the UK, but volunteering is equally big and important here. My daughter started volunteering at a city children's farm and they are now paying her to work there three days a week, so you never know, Jo! It might be a job for you anyway! Well done anyway. I bet you loved every minute!

  5. I loved it, Val - and I know that many projects would collapse without them. But I'm not happy if it lets the government off the hook!