Value of volunteers
BY BILL KIRKMAN
The tradition of voluntary work, undertaken through a sense of service to the community rather than a wish for fame or glory, is not a new phenomenon.
Our volunteers are busy people, their contributions are that of enthusiasts.
EARLY this month we held the annual general meeting of Camread, of which I am the chairman. Camread is a local Cambridge-based charity providing a service for blind and partially sighted people. Its main activity is the production every six weeks of a tape magazine, containing news, information and entertainment for its listeners. A few days ago we had a "birthday" party to mark the 250th issue of CAMMAG.
The AGM dealt with all the things that AGMs have to do: an annual report, the presentation of accounts, the election of officers and committee. In the case of this AGM and it has applied for many years the notable feature has been the presence and enthusiastic participation of volunteers. The charity has a small and dedicated paid staff, but it simply could not exist without the volunteers. It is they who produce the magazine, who organise the "Friends" body, who stand with collecting boxes during fund-raising activities at local supermarkets.
Our volunteers are busy people, but Camread really matters to them. Their contributions are that of enthusiasts.
This is only one of many examples of the value of volunteers. In the village in which I live there are people who serve on the committee of a playgroup, who run Scouts and other youth organisations, who serve on the School Association. There are people who serve as school governors, and people who are members of the Parish Council, which involves many meetings of the council and its committees during the year.
This does not reflect political ambitions. The Parish Council of a village, even a large village, is not a great centre of political power. The politically ambitious would need to seek bigger arenas.
The tradition of voluntary work, undertaken through a sense of service to the community rather than a wish for fame or glory, is not new. I remember my father, in the 1930s, when "official" provision of services now seen as standard simply did not exist, establishing a division of the St. John Ambulance Brigade. He got a group of people to work with him, none of them in well-paid jobs (this was a period of economic recession). They raised the money to buy an ambulance, and staffed it, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, on a completely voluntary basis.
A big difference
One big difference between society in the 1930s and now is that then the disparity in income between the well paid and the poorly paid was much less than it is now. For many years, British society has been moving steadily away from that position. In absolute terms, it is true; the poor are better off than they were a couple of generations ago. In relative terms, the difference between their earnings and the earnings of those at the top of the pile is far greater than it was.
What has come with that change is a much more selfish attitude on the part of many "successful" people. There are many manifestations of it. One is a lax attitude to the prosecution and punishment of financial fraud. Commenting on this in The Observer, Will Hutton, who runs the Work Foundation, remarked that in part this was due to "a rational if unedifying desire to keep our dirty linen hidden" adding that the reaction of some of the business community betrayed a less laudable instinct that "business and the rich should not be subject to the rule of law as a matter of principle; it is an interference in `wealth generation'."
That may be an extreme view. Certainly there are many successful business people to whom it does not apply. It is, however, undoubtedly true that making money as an end, rather than as a means is much more likely now to be accepted as normal and desirable than it was half a century ago, let alone in the 1930s.
Faced with this change, the pessimists proclaim "the end of society". Attending the Camread AGM, and observing the modest and largely unsung activities of the people who serve this and a great variety of organisations around the country, is a good antidote to such pessimism.
As a wry corollary, although I do not have precise statistical evidence, my impression is that a majority of those who serve their communities as volunteers are still not those who are in the best-paid jobs.
The writer is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, U.K. E-mail him at:
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