It hasn't just been my experiences of being in a foreign country with no means of getting paid work that's made me enthusiastic and supportive of voluntary work. It's always been something that's been a part of my life – my mum worked full time but she did some voluntary work and then later I started doing voluntary work in various places. Then later I ran a service that would have collapsed had it not been for volunteer workers and student placements. I've experienced all sides of the volunteering process from sitting on committees (blah blah blah important blah), managing volunteers and actually being a volunteer. The easiest thing out of that is to sit on the committee and periodically say 'good job' or don't say anything at all and ignore the people who do the work. The worst thing, in my experience, is to manage volunteers because generally you're stuck between the committee (blah blah we have no idea of what it is you actually do but we're going to tell you how to do it anyway) and have to manage people who are being expected to work, often in very complex and demanding roles, without payment. And yes, they choose to do it which is why it's called volunteering and not conscription but people still need to be motivated.
And then there's the issue of not confusing volunteer with amateur (my mother was an accountant – she did the accounts for a charity gratis but they had to be done properly – 'oooh, not being paid for this so can't be arsed to make it balance') and getting everyone to realise that what a volunteer does is important and it matters just as much as if they were a salaried member of staff. Volunteers have to understand that they have to turn up – of course they can have time off but they need to plan it in the way that paid staff do. I've seen some shocking treatment of volunteers in my time but equally I've seen some behaviour from volunteers that has been outrageous. The service that I ran used volunteers along with paid staff and we also took student placements. All our volunteers got approprate training leading to useful qualifications which was the major reason for them doing it. We turned down lots of applicants who would then badmouth us saying that it was only voluntary and why were we so choosy.
This all sounds a bit self-serving, I suppose, but I wanted to actually note what it is I and my colleagues do. Last night was the AGM of the Tafel – the organisation that provides food to poor people. It's a nationwide charity that relies mostly on volunteers and donations. Each Tafel has two paid employees who manage the building, the staff and deal with donations of food and money. Everything else is done on a voluntary basis. Last year in our branch there were 24,000 staff hours worked and we shifted 5 tonnes of food (I didn't eat it all). 1600 people of whom 430 are under 18 get food from us each week. We are open from Monday through to Saturday. We have never, ever not opened the doors to people. We provide food for a soup kitchen, a womens' refuge and a centre for children of refugees. Later this year I'm going to be involved in a project providing breakfast for children in a local school. Just to pay the salaries for one branch would be 250,000 euros per year and there are 30 Tafels in Germany – it's a lot of money that's not being paid.
I've started some different voluntary work in the local hospital where I'll be visiting patients who perhaps don't have family locally or who have no family at all or who have refused to see any of the paid 'nice' people like the vicars and counsellors. Evidently a lot of the patients prefer to see us volunteers because we're not a part of the system and because we do it as volunteers we're seen as being more genuine.
I like volunteering, I like what I do and get a huge amount out of it and certainly don't do it because I'm a saint. Last week I met up with Frau S for my conversation practice and she said to me that everyone (I assume that's the whole world) is really impressed with me and my enthusiasm and how I do so much. 'Is everyone like you in England?' she asked. That to me just makes the whole thing really worthwhile – it makes being ignored by a professional, paid member of staff okay. Just once, someone notices something that you do and tells you and it can make such a difference to your day.