Can’t give any more: volunteer fatigue in Croydon (part 1)


By - Thursday 28th June, 2018

Is Croydon taking its volunteers for granted?


“There are things that you do because it’s your passion, that you truly believe will make a difference. The Big Society [expands] the great work of volunteers.” (David Cameron, former Prime Minister, 2010).

“The Big Society is about getting more for less.” (Eric Pickles, former Secretary of State for Housing and Local Government, 2010)

“This is a 19th-century or US-style view – cut the state back, and somehow civic society will thrive.” (Ed Miliband, former leader of the Labour Party, 2010).

“To say that I am disheartened and upset is putting it mildly. Despite extensive advertising for volunteers to give just two or three hours in ONE day, just ONE day, for a lovely festival here… I have just TWO coming forward. Yet people will still come and expect to have a great festival, manned adequately with happy, smiling volunteers.” (Croydon event organiser on Facebook, June 2018).

Volunteering is part of the fabric of community life. Many enjoy it and find it enriching. But reading between the lines, what’s really going on?

Initiatives have tanked when no-one had the time to take them forward

In 2010, newly elected PM David Cameron presented his ‘Big Society’ project as ‘volunteering plus’. It gave encouragement at a national level for people to support things that they value with their unpaid time and effort (tending parks and gardens, running youth clubs and so on), and had a most convenient side-effect: the payroll could be cut. The ‘Big Society’ was never, therefore, traditional volunteering. The services in question weren’t add-ons or ‘nice-to-have’s – essentials were going to be delivered but not paid for. It was a plan to enable austerity.

The following year, Croydon was torn apart by riots. A number in the town stepped forward, determined that the social breakdown of August 2011 would become a point from which things – as another prime minister’s followers once sang with fingers tightly crossed –  ’could only get better’. A raft of projects was launched, some businesses, others voluntary or not-for-profit, among the best known being community hub Matthews Yard, Croydon Tech City and the Croydon Citizen itself.

Some projects started on a shoestring, then attracted funding and grew

This national and local volunteer ‘pincer action’ has had a remarkable effect on the town. Much has been been achieved by the unpaid efforts of both the new groups and those which already existed: the friends of parks like Wandle and Park Hill, area forums tackling litter and neglected public realms such as Thornton Heath Community Action Team, representatives of faiths like the Ahmadiyya Muslims who do street clean-ups on New Year’s Day, food banksconservation groups and artists and creatives prepared to support and mentor others.

Some projects, like Croydon Literary Festival, started as voluntary, on-a-shoestring affairs, then funding applications allowed them to expand. Others, however, have tanked when no-one had the time to take them forward.

Work previously done by paid staff has also passed into the voluntary sector, including the running of some library services and the management of a range of festivals and events.

So how are the volunteers doing?

“He told me that he didn’t want to be involved again – he’d worked for too many hours”

The genesis of this article was a series of conversations in which people in voluntary roles all mentioned that they were tired. I started to take notice, and what I have heard will now form the basis of a second piece looking harder at the subject of volunteering in Croydon. Here I have simply set out to report on a worrying tone which, frankly, I wasn’t quite expecting to hear.

“I love being part of the community, but there is such a thing as taking people for granted. The level of expectation is very high.”

“There’s a lot of pressure. Volunteers get put upon far too much.”

“He did the event last year, but he told me that he doesn’t want to be involved again… he felt over-stretched and worked for too many hours. There was an assumption that people would work until the job was done.”

“Expectations of volunteers need to be discussed in advance and their time must be respected.”

“I just wasn’t given the right help and support.”

“If anyone will help you, you just grab them”

Volunteers don’t just serve teas and coffees, give directions or hand out flyers. Some take on roles that were previously done by paid staff. They may advise the public or even have access to potentially sensitive information.

“Volunteers can go off piste: I’ve heard them giving bad advice and had to intervene.”

“There are things that you might not want your next-door neighbour to find out, but with voluntary workers in some areas, there’s really nothing to prevent this.”

“Well-managed volunteers can add value – but this isn’t always the case.”

“One problem is not being able to tell in advance what someone’s motivation or skill really is.”

“If anyone will help you, you just grab them.”

“Paid staff who manage volunteers need to check their privilege”

“I noticed that my enthusiasm had waned. I was fatigued… there was a constant barrage of messages to volunteers. I thought – why am I flogging a dead horse?”

“They never once said thank you… you have to place a value on someone’s free time.”

“I’d like some managers to check their privilege. When people in paid roles decide to run an event on a volunteer basis – what do they then offer to those they want to participate?”

I would describe the mood of those whom I spoke to as stressed but still essentially upbeat. Many gain satisfaction from their volunteer roles, but they also felt somewhat taken for granted, or reported that others felt that way.

Perhaps it’s in the nature of us all to be as grateful for help at the start of a project as we will ever be. But gratitude is vital: not being thanked, or having your contribution just assumed, kills the ‘passion’ for community of which David Cameron spoke before you can say “Bullingdon Club”.

Volunteering requires fresh blood, and often

Rousing calls have been made for even more Croydon volunteers to step forward, listing the gains: new skills, new friends and a new sense of purpose. Others argue that volunteering is no panacea. I’d say that both sides make good points, but big societies undoubtedly require fresh blood – and often – as unpaid workers deplete their reserves of time, enthusiasm and cash. Even though Croydon appreciates them with civic awards, balancing it all can be tough. Volunteer-run ventures are also exposed: if unpaid workers fall sick, or life events get in the way, the sudden gaps are difficult to fill.

I observe a diminishment of goodwill, even from the best, happening amongst Croydon’s volunteers. Beneath the radar, stress and fatigue can accumulate, ultimately causing their can-do spirit to corrode. (Doubtless David Cameron knew this, but sticking around to clear up a mess that he’d made did not turn out to be a strong point.) As one volunteer remarked with feeling:

“The expectation that the Croydon community will pull together to do things with little or no resource is appalling.”

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Anne Giles

    Excellent article.I used to do official Neighbourhood Watch here, until my back went and I could no longer go up and down steps delivering things. I asked for help and never got it, so I resigned. I was also asked to do volunteering at a front desk, but declined. Now I do an unofficial Neighbourhood Watch, in my own time, and deliver by e-mail to those who are on e-mail. No-one manages me! I attend meetings only when I can.

  • Charlotte Davies

    Croydon is fantastically blessed by its huge number of volunteers who do the most enormous range of activities which we all kind of take for granted from looking after elderly and vulnerable people in the community to organising quite large scale events to proving all manner of support for the homeless. We are a town of faiths, quite literally whether you are of a faith or no faith we all basically subscribe to good-neighbourliness. We are also clever and I fear in many ways smarter than those who hold power in Croydon so there are all sorts of ways the Council and other Government agencies attempt to control and crush groups and individuals by restricting funding streams, excluding them from meetings and consultations and blocking, endless blocking. Volunteering is good it wraps everyone up in busy activities and distracts them from noticing quite how useless the Council are; but you have to be kept on a short lead and kept cash-strapped and exhausted. Just look around and think since the riots of 2011 when we all got up and came together how much support, real support has there been at a Council level to realise our vision for Croydon – not a lot. Tech City was a classic example – a brilliant idea, but there is a limit to how long three young professionals could go on sacrificing their own futures without any serious support from the Council. At Fit 2 Learn the other week, following a very successful trip to speak in Poland several Councillors asked me to e-mail David Butler, Director of Education and Youth Engagement, People Department, London Borough of Croydon. So I did, expecting little because I knew what to expect. Sure enough the reply concluded that “I am afraid I do not feel a meeting at this time would be productive..” I thanked Mr Butler for “so pertinently summing up the position of the Borough”. It has been an eventful month I screened 320 Croydon children 8 years+ 90% could not skip forwards and backwards with opposing limbs i.e. they did not have the physical development that you would expect of a 7 year old.
    We have to take ourselves more seriously volunteering is not the new “opium of the people” in Croydon, it is serious and Government needs to engage with it or resign why should we have a government and civil servants that do not serve the people.

  • Tony Skrzypczyk

    Since taking redundancy/early retirement have volunteered for more groups than I used too, and rather unsurprisingly it is many of the same people I see time and time again, although these were mainly gardening groups in Central Croydon.
    Also although Croydon Council want and encourage “Friends” groups they do not always seem support them as well as they could, not wanting to alienate CC I will not go into details.

    Also family has to come first and although I know someone who may disagree on the whole I do try to put family first.So on occasions I have not been able to attend sessions when I wanted too.

    I would agree with Charlotte that Croydon does have huge number of volunteers and hopefully they do feel that they are very much appreciated.

  • Sean Creighton

    Liz, a very timely contribution. Yes, tiredness is a factor, and for those of us who are getting older, stamina and pace become more and more of a problem. For those who have given years of volunteering and activism there is also demoralisation that one is not listened to, that one is hitting one’s head against a brick wall, and time is waste due to bureaucratic inertia and stupidity Volunteering is of course very different from ‘community activism’ ‘political activism’ and ‘party political activism’. See my 2013 discussion piece at http://historyandsocialaction.blogspot.com/2013/07/in-defence-of-busy-body-reply.html. In 2016 discussing the Council’s local devolution plans I wrote: ‘The roles of activist and volunteer are very different, but complement each other. It has to be recognised that most residents’ lives, especially in areas experience socio-economic stress have least time, energy and money to be able to be either. Volunteers need organisation and managerial support especially if they are ‘working’ in public service venues. (http://historyandsocialaction.blogspot.com/2016/11/is-croydon-councils-proposed-devolution.html). In March that year Susan Oliver penned a piece on the volunteer contribution of Croydon Transition Town to Stanhope at Ruskin Square. (http://historyandsocialaction.blogspot.com/search?q=volunteer). Volunteering and activism in the community and voluntary sector is massive in terms of the numbers of people involved, The sector is very complex and needs to be better understood – see http://historyandsocialaction.blogspot.com/2012/12/building-stronger-community-in- and https://historyandsocialaction.blogspot.com/2012/12/croydon-and-role-of-community- The sector has been going through a crisis with large numbers of organisations being wound up, especially those which supplied support to their member organisations like the London Voluntary Service Council and Community Matters. Many of Croydon CVA’s equivalents elsewhere in the country have not survived or are struggling. These issues were discussed at a recent Conference organised by the Voluntary Action History Society, at which I spoke on the tensions and contradictions involved in such organisations. There may be a crisis looming in London with the charity sector. The Centre for London has recently published a report in which it says: ‘Analysing Charity Commission data, we’ve found that the capital has significantly fewer locally based charities than the rest of the country. Moreover: •Local charities are unevenly spread across the city. The City of London has a particularly large number of London-focused charities, but other inner London boroughs are also well-endowed. However some outer London boroughs have less than one local charity per 1000 residents – way below the English average. •While London’s population has grown considerably, the number of charities focused on London causes plateaued during the five years to 2015. •While some inner-London boroughs, such as Hackney and Tower Hamlets, saw increases in local charities, most saw a fall. The fall has been most pronounced in outer London boroughs. •The decline in outer London charities is particularly concerning as poverty rates have been increasing.’ Could this be linked to the problem of the stresses on everyone of living and working in London, and for an increasing number the sheer daily day struggle to survive? Could it be that new voluntary and community initiatives are choosing non-charitable governance structures as social enterprises, community benefit societies and CICs? I look forward to Part 2.