Monday, August 30, 2004

The British volunteer

Three posts so far and readers (the few – two to date outside the family) might wonder why ‘reward in heaven’. It’s all to do with expectations – blessed are they that expect nothing and all that.
One of the things that happens when you retire is that you find out what your other half has been up to while you were out at work. You might also discover aspects of her character (it is mostly her for my generation) that you never suspected or didn’t realise were being put to use.
My wife (aka M or SWMBO) is beautiful, intelligent and the best cook in the Three Counties. I have basked in my friends’ envy of these qualities for nearly forty years. I only now find out that she is organised, efficient and ruthless in the conduct of the other interest she took up some years ago, when the boys grew out of needing full time TLC. She became a volunteer with a global, and very worthy, charity I shall call Cuddle Our World. Cash COW it could be called, seeming as it does to absorb a hefty part of my pension in petrol, phone calls and donations to every event it organises. She says she gets the petrol and phone calls back as expenses, which is true, but quietly forgets that the payments go out from my account and the expenses back into hers. Meanwhile the house is full of collecting tins and buckets and of stuff on its way from the public to the COW shop. The charity shop is a feature of the British high street nowadays, almost outnumbering estate agents. Since they pay much reduced business rates I assume the deficit has to be retrieved from somewhere and it doesn’t take many guesses to home in on the overburdened middle class homeowner as the likely sucker who unknowingly obliges. Yet another flaw in that particular system, of which more another time no doubt.
M works in the shop an afternoon a week and has many ideas about improving its effectiveness. Some are adopted (she’s not actually in charge), some ignored and some go through an apparently weekly cycle of adoption, cancellation by one of the regulars working on a different day and reintroduction on M’s next watch. It must be a hive of intrigue, with the window being redressed while someone is taking the money to the bank or the goods being repriced while the miscreant who put the designer-label cardigan out on the rack at £1.50 is occupied at the till, only to have it all reversed when the shift changes.
But the shop is really a hobby compared with the serious work - the politics of the organisation. As with BT, Tesco or Barclays Bank there are departments, sections, areas and regions and of course managers to go with them. Many of these posts are held by paid COW employees. These are reportedly, and unsurprisingly, subject to all the normal human traits, weaknesses and sins of omission and commission that you would expect to find in the managers of BT, Tesco or Barclays Bank. But with a charity it’s worse. A charity has to keep its costs down, its ratio of income to expenses being both a measure of its performance and its defence against criticism for paying anyone. It also needs a widespread network of people to keep plugging the message, staff the shops and collect the five pound notes and small denomination foreign coins in the tins and buckets outside the supermarkets. This mostly unskilled work is unloaded onto volunteers, organised by a smaller band of still volunteer organisers and leaders. These have some characteristics (cheerfulness, persistence, persuasiveness, dedication or high boredom threshold according to which way you look at it) in common with the Gentils Organisateurs of Club Med but are mostly about thirty years older and all fully dressed. These in turn work through the paid district or area managers appointed by the COW hierarchy. Because the volunteer organisers are mostly competent and organised (they would be on the fast track to the funny farm if they weren’t) while the employed ones are subject to the usual operation of the Peter Principle, clashes of ideas, policy and personality are inevitable. M has this taped. When a district manager failed to perform to her standards recently she filled in one of my blank P45s and sent it to the offender’s boss. The boss was not amused but had no redress against a volunteer and could not afford to lose one who was doing good skilled work in a different area. The new district manager is much better. It is such ruthlessness that now dictates my life.
A Christmas present of an A4 filofax a few years ago (lots of room for recipes I thought) has backfired into the schedule that rules my life. COW commitments go straight in, in ink, usually well in advance. The affairs of my relatively casual, disorganised and impromptu life mostly have to be fitted around them, with severe penalties in marital discord if she has to resort to the correcting fluid. I now understand the angst of the suburban housewife, confined to the house to answer the phone (mostly from COW), pay the window cleaner and fend off people wanting to resurface our drive, while the dog paws at the study window demanding to be exercised.
I have to confess here that I’m not immune to this volunteering lark myself, having been heavily involved over a decade or so in the affairs of a national sport association, a not for profit organisation, ruled though not run by volunteers (the difference is critical and can be fatal to the organisation) that I have discovered has many parallels with a charity. I’ll have to come back to this one but it disturbs me that each of us has got ourself into a variation of the same fundamental situation: work disguised as play, for no material reward and precious little of the other sort this side of the pearly gates.

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