I was speaking to a friend in Russia recently about youth work. “There’s something about you Westerners that puzzles me,” she said, “What is it with your fixation on volunteering? Why don’t you expect to receive proper payment for all the time you spend working with young people? ”
It’s an interesting question. I can’t imagine my life without volunteering. As a young Scout, I saw service as a necessary (if not very exciting) part of the programme. I remember a number of cold and wet afternoons clearing rubbish from the Stroudwater Navigation. At fourteen, I visited an old people’s home regularly for about six months, talking to residents and drinking tea with them, whilst I worked for my Duke of Edinburgh Bronze Award. I’ve been a volunteer leader in Scouting since I was 17, kick-started by the service element of my DofE Gold and since then an activity that, in many ways, defines me as a person to others. I’ve been a school governor, served on boards as a trustee of several charities, spent my summer holidays working on community projects, delivered flyers for my chosen political party, have occasionally cooked lunch in a soup kitchen, raised money for good causes. I don’t see myself particularly as a “do gooder”. I know lots of people who would share a similar profile and many who give much more of their free time than I do to their volunteering activities.
But why do I volunteer? Part of the reason is because I just believe that I should. Whether that’s a result of my Judaic Christian upbringing or post Colonial guilt, I cannot say. But I would feel uncomfortable if I were not doing some kind of volunteering during a week. I recognise that part of the reason is also that I do, genuinely, want to leave the world a little better than when I entered it, and volunteering helps me to go some way towards achieving this. The major reason, though, is that I enjoy volunteering and benefit personally from it. I sometimes find it immensely frustrating, but most of the time I just love it. I have seen countries I would never otherwise have visited, met people I would never otherwise have met. I have developed self-confidence, grown in self-esteem, learned new skills, widened my horizons. Indeed, I recognise that I owe my professional career to the various experiences I have had through my volunteering.
It feels rather egocentric to admit that a major reason for doing what I do is because it does me good rather than that it benefits others, but I’m comfortable with that selfishness. Indeed, I find myself doubting the motives of those who tell me that the only reason they volunteer is ‘for the kids’ or ‘ to save the planet’. I wonder if this is a ‘generation X’ issue. Perhaps the generation before me really was more selfless. Perhaps today’s young people are more altruistic than me and my peers are or ever were.
Whatever the case, I am now in a position where I am encouraging others to volunteer. What advice should I offer? I think it would be this: Recognise your own drivers for volunteering and be honest with yourself about them. It’s OK to want to improve your cv, to develop your networks, to change the world or to challenge yourself. Choose your volunteering carefully. It needs to meet your needs, but it also needs to live up to Google’s corporate maxim of “do no evil”. Volunteering is not of worth just because it is volunteering. Volunteering is only worthy when it does real good – and is seen as positive by those it seeks to support.
Now, where’s the Skype address of my Russian friend?