Guest Blog – John Walsh & Zoe Bojelian “Seeing the diamond & focusing on the lens”

This blog is co-authored and co-published with John Walsh (@johnwalsh88).
Thank you John, it has been a honour & pleasure to work with you – Zoe Bojelian
“It is impossible to escape the impression that people commonly use false standards of measurement — that they seek power, success and wealth for themselves and admire them in others, and that they underestimate what is of true value in life.” – Sigmund Freud
”It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see”  – Henry David Thoreau
Volunteers and their work are a key aspect of many services, charity shops and organisations. The NHS and other health related bodies are part and parcel of this pattern. The Official Statistics published by Cabinet Office in February 2013 showed an increase in people volunteering. The number volunteering at least once a year had increased from 65% in 2010 to 71% in 2012, with an even bigger increase in the proportion of people volunteering regularly.  (Source

The  story of volunteers varies from place to place. There are areas where volunteers are valued and made to feel part of the work and future of the organization. There are other places where the volunteer is not valued or even noticed. Yet Volunteers are an essential ingredient of the good that services provide. This blog will try to make a clarion call for us all to see and include people who volunteer in better and fuller ways in our organisations.  We don’t wish to see this rose perish on the vine but rather blossom and grow in effective and wonderful ways.

A couple of friends of ours shared their experiences of volunteering. We believe their words express what a person who volunteers can experience. The first friend wrote ‘I have often volunteered not just to use the experience I have built up over the years but also my professional skills,  I hope, in a positive way.  Very often I will be the only or perhaps one of two volunteers in a large group. I sometimes like to play a little game during tea breaks. Rather than approaching other members of the group to chat, I wait and see if any of them approach me.  I find it fascinating to see who comes over to chat and indeed how many people. Sometimes the volunteer is left standing alone. This is a poignant sign. That sense of isolation often persists through the organisation as whole.  I think one sign of volunteers being welcomed and being used well, is if an outsider could observe an meeting and not know who the volunteers are, as everybody’s expertise, experience and time was being equally valued. ‘ These words have real significance and depth. Volunteers left standing alone and not spoke to. This non inclusion as a sad indictment of deeper organisational problems – as a sign of an organisation not connecting with all its parts and suffering from a sense of isolation.
The second friend recounted how posters appeared around the organisation she regularly volunteered with alerting employees to a survey being carried out by the organisation as to what it was like to work there. She was struck that volunteers were not included, feeling the same sense of isolation and exclusion as our first friend. She then was in a meeting, being the only volunteer. The senior managers were lamenting the fact no-one had a particular skill needed to do something during the meeting, a skill the volunteer had and used everyday in her previous paid work, but unlike the paid staff, she was just assumed not to have it, as “just” a volunteer.
Yet another possible vision emerges. Volunteers spoken to, included and valued in such a way that a visitor couldn’t see the line which marks off paid staff from volunteers. The lessons for services and us all are many here. We would like to just mention two. We will call them the Lens and the Diamond.
The Lens is how we see a thing. Not just look but see. Volunteers are sometimes not seen as people having and bringing great value. Why is this? One reason is we can see people as objects. Patients are seen as problems or their health issue. Volunteers are invisible or just doing tasks. Its always worrying when this de-humanizing takes place. As long as we see people as objects we won’t see their value.  Another problem is the word ‘Just’  – just a volunteer, just a nurse, just a support worker, just a junior doctor. We see job titles rather than individuals with all their skills and talents. This we might term positionalism. This is not about respect for positions and roles. It is about the bowing down before positions as what really matters. This positionalism is fundamentally a lie – it says it is where we are or even how much we earn is what matters. The truth is that it is what we are that matters – from cleaner to consultant. It is the heart that matters most not the name plate. It is also a snare as we can chase power and prestige by chasing those we think have it – not seeing what is before us. To really see, like a lens we have to focus; focus on the volunteers, focus on what they as individuals bring and like a lens hold and value them. Having a good lens works in parallel with having a good ear. We need to learn from volunteers about their skills, their passions and their lives. We can also ask them to provide a lens on us, our work and services.
The Diamond is obviously a precious thing. If we don’t see the value of a diamond we can ignore it or step over it. When we see its value we are different. We no longer just see its sparkle. We see its beauty. It is the same with people. We need true person centred approach to families, volunteers and the friends of those using and supporting services as well as care. To see the diamond is to see the person with all their gifts and value – to value the value. Like a diamond, with nurturing people can shine.
We promote best culture for volunteering fundamentally in deeds. Words are good and important. Yet they often need to be connected to living action. Its how we act and act each day that makes the difference. Words can be substitutes or replacements for true actions. They can even exist where the opposite is taking place. Over the gate of Auschwitz and other death camps were the words ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ meaning ‘Work makes you Free’. Yet no one was ever free at Auschwitz.
We believe the real test is how do we treat volunteers. What is their experience and voice on this ?
No amount of paper statements or policy documents can move that reality. What do we do to include volunteers now?  Do we invite them to meetings, do we know their names and use them? Do we invite them to work events and the Christmas party?  Do we offer them opportunities for training and development? When they leave do we buy a present and a card to say thank you? Do we consult them on how we are as a service? Do we ask them about their priorities or just expect them to respond to ours? Do we concern ourselves with the things going on in their lives in a way we would for a colleague; birthdays, bereavements and the like? Do we acknowledge and celebrate their passion, commitment and attachment to our organization? Do we enable them to use all their skills and talents? These little actions tell us so much. They say with a clear voice whether we fully value the person or see them as ‘just’ a volunteer. And above all we need honesty here. If we are failing we need to name and own our failings. From these deficits we can start to build the possibilities of ascent to better practice and work. Without saying what is we won’t be able to adjust the lens and marvel at the diamond.
We all have a choice here. A choice to work for inclusion or not. A choice to value or not. Culture is essentially about human relations and how we will be with others. On how we answer this call depends the future of our services and organisations. This may sound grandiose. It is not. It is precisely in how we will be to our neighbour now and tomorrow that will either shape our services to be truly person centred in all features or not. It is that serious and that vital. We need to think of how we see and how we value others as the means and the measure to journey to where we need to be.
John Walsh
Zoe Bojelian
*The opinions expressed are the bloggers own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Health Innovation Summit.
Twitter @HIC2016
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