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I could volunteer a name for pests like this
08 May 2007
by Carol Sarler

Round my way, one of the charity shops that speckle the high street is managed by someone you will recognise.

Radiant with sacrifice and self-importance, she has honed the art of sorting your rags from mine and selling them back to us – an art that is apparently enhanced by reducing to tears her slower, more timorous fellow volunteers with plaintive irritation and tangible contempt.

She would tell you, as she frequently tells them, that she doesn’t know how they’d manage without her; in fact, she is there because thanks to – what shall we call it? – her “personality”, this thug, in real life, would be completely unemployable.

It is with this gorgon in mind that I worry about the revival of interest in the voluntary sector: pats on backs from the Cameron camp, last week’s special edition of You And Yours and, now, a book – The Guardian Guide to Volunteering, which asks: “Are you keen to put something back?”

On the face of it, this is just a beneficial feast of altruism: give a little, live a little, polish that halo and the world will be a fitter place. In practice, however, there is too much to go wrong. During many years I spent as a charity trustee, one of our first lessons, harshly learnt, was to resist the entreaties of volunteers in favour of at least minimally paid workers – even though it meant we had far fewer of them.

Too much of the free labour was offered by, as with our lady above, those whom nobody else wanted. And with good reason. So you start out with the handicap of their flaws, which doubles when you discover that to lead “an army of volunteers” is to herd cats. Without the mutual discipline of financial contract, you can neither make them do nor stop them doing anything, as each pursues his or her amateur conviction of the correct way to proceed.

The slightest sense of power, usually hitherto denied them, is hungrily embraced; little people become big people, weight is thrown around, and such is their relish for the sense of office that they can be mighty hard to get rid of: how do you “sack” somebody you have never “employed”?

This is not to decry doing our bit. Rattling tins come Poppy Day, for instance, where everybody is clear about who’s what and what matters, is obviously to the good. But if you are, say, running a shop or an office, if it’s a long-term position, if it carries title or hierarchy, that is different; in short, if it looks like a job and it quacks like a job, then it is a job and in the wider interest should be paid as such.

If a worker is good, she will earn her slender wage back in spades. And if she is a saint, nobody says she may not donate it straight back again.