I was at an event this week at the launch of the Royal College of Psychiatrists report on “Self-harm, Suicide and Risk: Helping People who Self-harm“. The report provided an interesting example of the how the voluntary sector is working with the statutory sector on a growing social problem.
One of the speakers was Joe Ferns, Acting Director of Policy Research and Development at Samaritans. I was struck by how he described the contribution of the over 15,000 volunteers who work supporting callers to Samaritans, and by extension the role of the voluntary sector alongside other public services in support of those at risk of self harm and suicide. He emphasised how it’s the volunteers’ distance from officialdom that enables them to offer the service they do. Samaritans offer a confidential emotional support service which gives callers the opportunity to talk through their concerns and worries through a range of different channels including telephone, email, text and face to face.
Ferns strongly made the case that the fact that it’s volunteers delivering this service makes it distinctive. Volunteers offer callers the opportunity to talk to a person about their life, without having to expose themselves to a wider system that formalised public services can represent. Legal imperatives and institutional practices can make more formalised services less able to offer personal and intimate support in the same way a volunteer led structure can.
Samaritans has greater scope for ensuring callers’ confidentiality is protected precisely because the relationship with callers is more informal. Callers can have the freedom to talk, without fear that what they say may have an unintended repercussion on their lives or on the lives of others close to them. It’s the fact that the people the callers talk to are volunteers that enables this informal, yet structured relationship.
A key part of the recipe here is the structured informality that voluntary organisations can provide. This structured informality comes from the fact that they are led and powered by stakeholders who volunteer their time and commitment. Volunteers offer these organisations like Samaritans the benefits of informality, such as putting the person before the process, along with the advantage of structure, such as being able to offer the support within limits that the service user feels comfortable with.
This idea of structured informality reminds me of why I got interested in volunteering in the first place.
I remember my own naive attempts to befriend and support the homeless guys who hung out drinking at the bus shelter near where I lived as a student. The relationship however personal, chatty and informal it got, I’d say never overcame the feeling of ‘them and us’. There was an invisible barrier that meant we had parallel lives. When I began to volunteer with ATD Fourth World I discovered the power of creating an informal structure for fostering more authentic personal relationships that crossed social divides.
ATD Fourth World is an international organisation that seeks to offer support to families who live at the extreme end of poverty and disadvantage. When I started to volunteer with ATD Fourth World this meant helping with the running of family breaks in a big house in the middle of Surrey called Frimhurst. The breaks were for families, often referred by social services, from around the country who, for multiple reasons, were under all kinds of pressure and disadvantage.
The aim of the breaks was deceptively simple: that everybody had a great time together as a family. As volunteers, our role was to provide some structure to what was a very informal atmosphere during the time the families spent together. We did this through organising the activities that meant the break went smoothly.
At Frimhurst, volunteers and those benefiting from the service, i.e. the families themselves, were able to chat and get to know each other while making a meal together and doing all kinds of other everyday things. Families said that their relationship with the volunteers who ran the breaks was totally different to the relationship they had with all kinds of other professionals they had in their lives, such as social workers, teachers and doctors. The relationship with professionals was often restricted by the demands of formality.
At the same time, the structure meant that relationships with volunteers could begin to overcome the ‘them and us’ invisible barrier that exists when we’re unable to articulate how we’re connected in personal terms. A sign of this often came at the end of the breaks which were typically poignant and tearful occasions, as participants (volunteers and families alike) said their goodbyes and reflected on special and happy times together.
And now looking back on it, I can’t help but feel it returns to the same point Joe Fearns was talking about in relation to Samaritans volunteers. Being a volunteer often means committing to deliver services without any guarantee of the authority that the volunteers on their own can deliver the end ‘product’, such as an enjoyable break or comforting call. We understand that there are times when authority can get in the way of the service. Volunteering’s value comes from its recognition that social change can only come about through working collaboratively with the intended beneficiaries of change.
Paradox of a formalised voluntary sector
If the voluntary sector brings about difference and change through divesting itself of power and authority, how should the sector work with the policy makers, the civil servants and others who are invested with formal authority and power in today’s society?
This lead us to the possible paradox of professionalisation. There are many calls for greater professionalisation in the voluntary sector. Professionalisation means many things (I’ve explored some in a previous post) but it’s clear that it’s often used to include ideas of a more formalised voluntary sector with greater authority. The paradox is that greater professionalistion of this kind, may well undermine rather than consolidate the value of volunteering and voluntary sector if it results in breaking the delicate balance of the sectors unique ingredient of ‘structured informality’.
Volunteers negotiate a social identity
I was recently reading a paper(PDF) by anthropologist Michael Madison Walker about his experiences working in Mozambique and how his identity was perceived in all kinds of different ways, e.g. from priest to development worker to volunteer. He was actually carrying out fieldwork living on a monthly stipend provided by those funding his research.
His experiences reminded me of my own in Guatemala where a volunteered with ATD Fourth World living on a monthly stipend. My identity to those I worked with varied with the context. To the kids who attended the street activities we organised for those not in school, we were “los profes” or “teachers”. To others, we seemed to resemble the religious missionaries common across much of Latin America, while to yet others we were simply ‘gringos’.
It seems to me that part of being a volunteer and this lack of formalised authority, is rooted in this absence of a clear social identity. How many volunteers or people working in volunteer management have difficulty in explaining to others what it is they do? It’s no coincidence. Lack of a clear identity is something that comes with the territory in volunteering. Moreover, lack of a formal social identity is what makes the relationships between volunteers and service users: first, possible, and second, fruitful.
The space between the public and the private
How many resort to saying that they’re a teacher, a nurse or youth worker when asked by acquaintances because it’s too hard to explain what they really do in the time allowed in most social situations? Or worse still, how many take on the universal label of ‘volunteer’ because a straightforward comparison with a more formal identity is just too elusive?
I’m convinced that this lack of a clear social identity for many volunteering roles and the structured informality of volunteer powered services in voluntary organisations are closely linked. In fact, perhaps they’re clues to understanding the essential nature of volunteering. For me, that essence has something to do with the space between our formalised public lives that comes with authority, power and clear social identity; and our private informal lives on the other, that are shot through with the familiar, the intimate and infinitely complex reality of human relationships. Volunteers who bridge the formal and the informal, public and private spheres face this challenge and opportunity of having to continually negotiate their social identity.
This space between our public and private lives is one that’s been blurring increasingly over the 20th century, a process that’s gone into hyperdrive with the advent of the social web in the 21st century. Writers like Jeff Jarvis, Danah Boyd and others are some examples. It’s no surprise therefore there’s increasing interest from all sides in particular social phenomenons like volunteering, that have such a highly developed pedigree of managing to bridge our public and private lives. That’s just one of many insights I think volunteering can offer on the future of our society.