Last week (17/2/13) we saw an apparently landmark ruling, as a scarf-clad student stood outside the courts declared that young people would no longer be forced into slave labour by the evil right-wing Government.
Unusual in the circumstances, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of pride when I heard the decision, having been following the full story for a while. Not because the young student, Cait Reilly, had won a victory over a particular scheme, nor because I hate pound shops – but because Miss Reilly had been forced to give up a voluntary role that she enjoyed and found useful in pursuit of a blunt instrument policy that led her down a meaningless dead end. It reminded me of an experience I had a few years ago.
In 2009, I was one of several to be hit by a second wave of redundancies at a PR firm which had experienced the highs and was now experiencing the lows of specialising in lobbying on planning applications.
Like many people who lose their job, I experienced an inner wave of self reflection, beating myself up over things I might have done differently to save my own skin, and questioning my own abilities. The decision hadn’t come out of the blue, and I’d been relatively active in the job market for a good period beforehand. But, of course, filling out endless applications after work grinds you down, and upon the receipt of several rejection letters (if they can be bothered to acknowledge you!) it is easy to wonder why you bothered.
I’d been thinking for some time that I’d like to do something more worthwhile and fulfilling in my life, having had enough of being shouted at by people who didn’t want a giant supermarket built in their back garden, but I never seemed to have the time. Then, suddenly, redundancy granted it to me.
I went online and found a volunteering website where I submitted my details and some preposterous, out-of-date and extensively duplicated search results popped up. And so I opted for a more face-to-face approach and headed down to the local voluntary centre. I had free time on my hands for as long as it took to find myself another job, and I wanted to offer my services voluntarily to whoever could benefit from them, I said. The old ladies in the centre were perplexed. Clearly this sort of thing didn’t happen often. They gave me a lop-sided form which looked like it had been photocopied using soot, asked me to fill out my details and skills and said they’d try to match me to an opportunity. But I needed to hurry because they were closing for the day shortly (it was lunch time).
Saying what skills I had wasn’t easy. I’d been what anyone outside the Westminster bubble would term a ‘career politician’, jumping from university to parliamentary researcher to election organiser to lobbyist. What could I offer a local charity that they couldn’t get from anyone else? As much as I’m a big supporter of Guide Dogs, the thought of taking one out for a walk filled me with horror… since I was a kid, dogs have tended to be way too keen to test how tasty my legs are. Yes, I could stand behind a counter in a charity shop and had done so as a teenager, but was writing prices with a blunt pencil on the inside cover of an old Mills & Boon novel a waste of whatever talent I had? Thankfully there was a box for ‘Media and Publicity’ which I ticked before returning the form.
It is fair to say that, on the whole, charities are awful at encouraging people to volunteer for them. National giants that are run more like corporate bodies aside, most don’t even know where to start to attract anybody that isn’t already connected by personal circumstance. Websites are usually out of date and littered with broken links, emails bounce back, phones go straight to clunky answer machines. But who can blame them? For decades they’ve been getting by as best they can, often pushing their volunteers to the limit and relying on an occasional grant from a local mayor. And when people do offer their services, they don’t know what to do with them.
Websites and centres designed to link volunteers with opportunities tend to be problematic too. If I’ve seen the advert offering me the opportunity to do the accounts for the local nursing home once, I’ve seen it twenty times repeated in the same search. All posted three years ago.
Surely if the Government can run other more complex initiatives (please debate this another day), they can arrange for someone to set up some decent straight forward scheme to support such organisations and assist people like me?
Having submitted my forms, I heard nothing for weeks. In the meantime I’d written to all the charities I was a member of offering my time. One large mental health charity which I’d supported for a long time didn’t even reply – an extremely sad omen given the number of unemployed people who either suffer with or develop mental health issues. Eventually I received a few pages listing four charities in the area that might need my skill set. I contacted all of them, but only one responded – a regional Autistic Society.
So I found myself sat in the ‘office’ of this charity trying to explain to three confused ladies about how I might help them and why. It seemed they were deeply suspicious of me, probably wondering if I was just going to steal their donation tin and run. But, thankfully, they gave me a chance, and I gave them whatever time I had spare between the usual job hunting.
Over the next month or so, I helped to give them a new lease of life. I wrote and designed new eye-catching leaflets and posters; rejuvenated their dingy website; organised events at a nearby autistic school; got the local newspapers along to cover their work; publicised a sell-out barn dance fundraiser (no, I didn’t have to dress up as a cowboy); and won them a £1,000 grant.
Not only were they delighted but I had new faith in myself. It reminded me that I did have skills and experiences that were very valuable to others. Writing a press release was second nature to me, but clearly wasn’t to the retired gentleman who happened to have some vague publicity role on their committee. Marketing techniques I’d learnt elsewhere and the ability to actualise them on a computer screen was lost on the ladies who were still doing everything by Pritt Stick and fax.
Then came the stunning bit. On my fortnightly visit to the job centre, as the advisor tapped away on his keyboard, ignoring my list of job applications he was meant to be checking, I mentioned to him that I’d also be doing volunteer work. He stopped tapping and glanced up. “You can’t do that”. Oh? Why not? I was told that if I continued to do this amount of volunteering, my Jobseeker’s Allowance would be removed. “I could just lie to you,” I said. I received a glare and for once I shut my mouth and left with my form signed.
Ay, there’s the rub! Surely we have everything entirely upside down? What nonsensical society can we be living in where not only are some people not incentivised to work, but they’re even punished for working for a good cause for free?
Surely, if the ‘Big Society’ is worthy of its name, we should be encouraging and indeed rewarding people not only for showing initiative but for giving their time to benefit others. In a period when funding is being withdrawn from lots of charities and long-term volunteers are increasingly pushed for their own time, surely this is when we want bright talented individuals to step forward and pick up the slack. It is in their interests as much as everyone else’s.
And this is what was wrong with the situation Cait Reilly found herself in. She had been intelligent and resourceful, finding voluntary work in something relevant to her skills, experience and ambitions. Yet the Government treated it with contempt. Giving your time to the local dog pound is considered less worthy than giving it to the local pound shop. Charity books aren’t as important as tins of beans when it comes to replenishing shelves, apparently. But as the judges in the case made clear, there was nothing inherently wrong with forcing people to work for free, per se. Then why aren’t we sending them in the direction of voluntary organisations instead of national companies?
So here’s a bold idea, Mr Duncan Smith: why not help charities to find these people and make use of them? Why not get Job Centre advisors to tell them what their volunteering options are? Why not … heaven forbid I’m accused of espousing people ‘earning’ their benefits … make a percentage (say 20%?) of the Job Seekers Allowance dependant on doing one day’s charity work a week? Let’s see how the country changes when 2.4 million people offer a combined 57 million hours a week to the perplexed old ladies at the voluntary centre!
And to conclude, when I was finally successful and received a job offer, the fact that I’d “got on my bike”(as someone once said) to find myself opportunities and kept myself busy was a major factor in me being chosen ahead of other candidates. The benefits of such an approach are wide-ranging.