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.