Wally Harbert: The parable of the pebbles

Like Chesil Beach, volunteering is so treasured that it is under constant threat of being subverted by its friends, writes our columnist

Providing those who volunteer with payment or other benefits undermines its value, writes Wally Harbert
Providing those who volunteer with payment or other benefits undermines its value, writes Wally Harbert
Chesil Beach is an 18-mile stretch of pebbles on the Dorset coast. The pebbles gradually increase in size as you travel east. Local fishermen know where they have landed by the size of the pebbles underfoot. It is part of the Dorset and East Devon Coast Unesco World Heritage Site.
A fine of up to £2,000 can be imposed for removing a single stone, but tourists cannot resist stuffing pebbles into their pockets. This is known as the Chesil Beach Syndrome. The beach is so admired that people are prepared to destroy it just to own a part of it. Students of Freud will recognise this syndrome as closely related to the Oedipus complex.
What has this to do with the third sector? Well, the same thing is happening to volunteering. It is so treasured that it is under constant threat of being subverted by its friends. Last year, just as a vigorous campaign to empower charity trustees to pay themselves was thwarted, the Labour Party argued that volunteers and trustees should have a right to time off work for charitable activities. Now the Local Government Association wants volunteers to receive discounts on their council tax.
The concept of volunteering is that people give their time to serve others. If they are rewarded by payment, time-off or other wheezes such as council tax rebates, they are not volunteers. I am sorry if that sounds obvious, but it apparently needs saying.
It is only in recent years that there has been sustained pressure to compensate volunteers. More than a million women from all walks of life served without payment in the WVS (now known as Royal Voluntary Service) during the war. They bought their own uniforms with their own clothing coupons. The WVS did not shut the door when it was overwhelmed by new volunteers, but utilised their skills to enlarge the management team.
Since then, there has been a shift in underlying values in wider society. Everything is now valued in monetary terms and the market dominates. Whereas in the 1960s and 1970s I would have been affronted if someone had suggested that I would work more assiduously with the promise of a bonus, it is now common practice to award bonuses to people who do no more than comply with their job descriptions.
It is little wonder that, in this atmosphere, young politicians fail to understand the meaning of charity and altruism. They are entranced by the uniqueness of volunteering in a wicked world but believe service without an exchange of money is demeaning. They feel uncomfortable if the Good Samaritan does not send an invoice for his time.
Fortunately, the cost and the complex bureaucracy required to implement the proposal ensures it will never be enacted.
We should not apologise for volunteering or introduce gimmicks that betray its values. If politicians want to raise the profile of volunteers, they should invest in staff training, extend the honours system and encourage more town hall receptions to celebrate their achievements. The instinct to give is deeply embedded in the human soul. It is manifested in every major religion and is the basis of all societies. Like the stones on Chesil Beach, volunteering is a heritage worth protecting.

Wally Harbert has worked in local government and the voluntary sector

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