Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Tea, cake and graffiti - National Volunteer Week

This week is National Volunteer Week - just in case it may have escaped your notice. Just in case you've had your head stuck down a dark hole or something. Just in case you are just emerging from rehab for the seventh time - that sort of thing. National Volunteer Week - seven days in which to sing the praises of volunteers from all walks of life, undertaking voluntary roles within all sorts of organisations. Over 21,000,000 people volunteer in the UK each year, contributing an estimated £23.9bn to the economy - so we aren't talking small beer here. To put it into perspective, if all the UK' volunteers were members of a single organisation, it would be the largest organisation in the country. So massive is volunteering in the UK that this year Volunteer's Week actually runs from the 1st to the 12th of June.... although they might want to look at the name... just saying...

A week such as this is particularly relevant to anyone who works within the heritage field at the moment, and even more so within the field of community archaeology. You see, the things is, without the input and help from any number of amazing volunteers, most community archaeology simply wouldn't happen. It couldn't. Without the thousands of hours these amazing people put in to doing something that they love these projects just could not take place. Take the graffiti surveys for example. With over 1150 surviving medieval churches in Norfolk and Suffolk alone - and a couple of cathedrals - any attempt at fully surveying them all with any degree of thoroughness would take an individual many, many years to do. If undertaken by a commercial organisation it would cost tens of millions of pounds - at a time when that sort of money is barely available to even keep the buildings water-tight. The only way in which to carry out surveys on this scale has been with a fantastic band of loyal, and slightly barmy, volunteers.

And what volunteers they have become! Take for example the Norwich cathedral survey volunteers. They began, as I'm sure they won't mind me saying, as a rather disparate bunch. A few had some archaeological or historical experience, but most came to the idea of undertaking a detailed building survey as something entirely new. However, in the last four years they have more than risen to the challenge. They have undertaken measured surveys, and drank tea. They have carried out raking light surveys, and eaten cake. They have tried their hands at doing RTI surveys - and laughed, smiled and joked their way through countless Saturday's. They have led tours of the building, spent hundreds of hours talking to the public about medieval graffiti - and have even been involved with training the cathedral guides. And whilst they were doing all this, whilst they were busy enjoying themselves and educating others, they have become some of the very best graffiti surveyors I have ever come across. I have no reservations in stating that they are now far better than many of their commercial counterparts - and much more fun to be with.

The thing is, much as we value our volunteers, and simply couldn't get along without them, we simply aren't very good at working with them all the time - and it's quite likely that they won't be around too much longer anyway. 

In community archaeology in general it is worth remembering that those people leading the projects - myself included - are first and foremost archaeologists. We aren't volunteer managers, have usually only received the barest training in working with volunteers, and have generally had to make much of it up as we went along. Occasionally we get it wrong - but hopefully learn from the experience. It shouldn't be this way - but it is. However, if we want to continue operating these sorts of projects into the future then that really, really has to change - because volunteering is going to change - and that change is coming very soon...

At the moment there are many, many projects being undertaken in the UK that completely rely upon volunteer input - the medieval graffiti surveys being just a single example. There are also some pretty major heritage organisations, in particular charities like the National Trust and many major museums, whose own business models - essentially their ability to function - is based upon being able to access a large number of volunteers each and every day. Without volunteer input these organisations just couldn't carry on doing what they are doing in the way they are doing it. Only a few weeks ago I was a small part of a much larger team of archaeologists who spent an entire week training National Trust volunteers many different aspects of archaeological fieldwork. During the week the volunteers learnt everything from undertaking a geophysical survey and standing buildings recording, to graffiti surveying and landscape history. By the end of the week the individuals were volunteering for additional archaeological activities - and were already taking an active part in one of the National Trust's largest ever archaeological projects. The problem, of course, is that this level of volunteering quite simply won't be available in the future. There will, unquestionably, be a far reduced number of volunteers available - and they'll be very different volunteers than the ones that so many projects rely upon these days.

The problem is pretty straightforward really - age and economics. As the individuals who currently volunteer get older, but largely remain fit and active (quite possibly in part due to their volunteer activities), they'll want to continue volunteering. And why shouldn't they? They offer a wealth of experience and knowledge that any organisation would be just plain daft to turn down. However, whilst there are only one or two things that volunteers in the 55-70 age group can't currently do, as they get older there will be increasing physical limitations. Certain activities are going to get more difficult or problematic. As a result the volunteer activities they undertake will have to change - and the business models will have to change with them. Now this wouldn't be much of a problem if there were a new generation of volunteers appearing to undertake those tasks once carried out by the older volunteers - but it simply isn't going to happen. The time when people could retire at sixty-five, sixty, or even as young as fifty-five, is soon to be long gone. As life expectancy increases so will the average retirement age, with recent studies suggesting that retirement at seventy could be the new norm by as soon as 2030. What that means is that for those people currently in the forty to fifty-five age group retirement may simply never happen. They'll be too busy working to volunteer for anything.

The end result of this is that many, many organisations - from the National Trust and major museums, all the way down to local community archaeology groups - are going to have to start seriously addressing the issue of future volunteering. In the first instance we are all going to have to make much, much better use of the precious and finite resource that volunteers represent. Large scale volunteer led projects, such as the county graffiti surveys, may have a limited shelf life. If they aren't completed in the next decade or so then it is quite likely that they will never be completed by volunteers at all. For organisations such as the National Trust and many museums the challenges may in fact be far greater - and more long term. They are going to have to fundamentally rethink how they operate. So I suppose the lesson is, in this week where we celebrate all our amazing volunteers, let's make them really understand just how special they really are. We need them more than they need us - and that is going to become increasingly clearer as each year passes...

So - Colin, Pat, Tony, Mark, Jess, Lesley, Paul, Claire, Terry, Ann, Clare, Brian, Hugh, Kathleen, Bev, Sarah, Chris, Simon, Frances, Joy, Louise, Jenny, Robert, David, Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike - and all the other Mike's, Kett's rebels and the wonderful tea-drinkers - thank you for ALL of the hard work, the friendship and the support. NONE of this would have happened without you.

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting article. I had not thought through the consequences on the voluntary sector of people having to work longer - and how right you are.