Debra Allcock Tyler: 'It's great that people volunteer - but only if they are committed'

Charities cannot afford to accommodate volunteers who are simply doing it to make them feel good, writes our columnist

Uninterested trustees are disrespectful to the millions of committed people who volunteer come rain or shine, writes Debra Allcock Tyler
Uninterested trustees are disrespectful to the millions of committed people who volunteer come rain or shine, writes Debra Allcock Tyler

You have to wonder why some trustees bothered to become trustees at all. They seem to see volunteering for a board as a brief dalliance that makes them feel good rather than a committed relationship that requires some hard work.

Keeping calm

At a recent meeting of a board that I support, my ire was roused by one member's repeated failure to read the circulated papers in advance, causing loads of delay and repetition of what everyone else already knew. It took every ounce of my self-control not to yell: "Get over yourself! The staff aren't here to serve you! They are here to serve the beneficiaries!"

This particular individual is one of those who turns up occasionally to the full board meetings and suggests tasks that have already been done, or insists that lots of extra work still needs to be done before you get his or her vote, but never actually volunteers to do any of the tasks and, when asked to do anything additional, is always too busy to contribute.

For some months, I'd been keeping my mouth firmly shut (yes, it has been known, dear reader), but it was those immortal lines "I am a volunteer, you know – I'm doing this out of the goodness of my heart" that made me finally flip. Being a volunteer is not an excuse for being lazy, disorganised and clearly uncommitted.

We can't afford to have volunteers of any kind who are doing it purely because it looks good on their CVs

Of course it's marvellous that people volunteer – I'm as grateful as the next person – but only if they are actually committed to carrying out the role. I'm also thrilled that people become hairdressers, but if they lose interest halfway through cutting my hair, you'll understand why I'm going to be peeved. Imagine the analogy anywhere else – who wants a half-hearted heart surgeon or a pilot who drops you in Brussels because Istanbul just seems so, er, far away?

It makes me especially mad in the case of boards because it's so disrespectful to the millions of people whose volunteering isn't of the sort where you turn up when you feel like it, act self-importantly, tear the executive team to shreds and then bugger off, leaving them bleeding in a heap. It disrespects those who get up at the crack of dawn to staff a helpline or give up a week of their own holiday to provide support care, or show up to train the local youth team come rain, shine, hell or high water.

Priceless work

The work of volunteers who are committed to the cause is priceless. It's priceless not because it's benefiting them (although it might be) but because without them we simply cannot serve our beneficiaries as well. So we can't afford to have volunteers of any kind who are doing it purely because it looks good on their CVs or because they are being made to do it by some mandatory government initiative. For me, genuine volunteering is about caring and giving a damn – and not just when you feel like it: you either do or you don't.

Beneficiaries need commitment, so don't just flirt with being a trustee or volunteer of any kind. If you want it, you need to put a ring on it.

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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