Volunteering

To this, Euryalus, you plead in vain, And but protract the cause you cannot gain.

I don’t volunteer. Maybe it’s because I’m lazy or not very charitable. Or it could be that my past volunteer work was illuminating for all the wrong reasons. I’m not alone in having been thus illuminated, Philip Greenspun sums it up well in his blog:

Non-profit organizations exist to provide their staff with great jobs and the fun of making decisions and spending money. The folks who work at a non-profit organisation are very interested in drawing a salary higher than their skills and working hours would command at a for-profit enterprise subject to competition. They are not especially interested in efficiency or accomplishment. If you’ve come from the commercial world, in which McDonald’s must be ruthlessly efficient for fear of being destroyed by Burger King, working with or in the typical non-profit organisation will likely drive you to insanity.

There, that’s the gist of it. If you’re pressed for time, please feel free to read no further.

Early volunteering career

I haven’t always been a misanthrope. As a student I worked pro bono for sever causes I held dear. It was alright. Student volunteers – bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, eager to please – are treated well everywhere. Because: people diskile being personally responsible for sowing cynicism in young hearts.

pick me

Then I got a real job, there was a greasy pole to climb, my passion for bettering the world was put on hold.

In 2012 the Olympics came to London. After taking two weeks off work to lend a hand I was so pleased with myself, I wanted to continue. Which I did as a trustee of The Charity: small but old, helmed by a few volunteer members of the local gentry and some professional charity employees.

A one-charity trustee vs a multi-charity trustee

There’s an important difference. The former are folks who serve on the board of only one charity or non-profit. They are or have been employed full time in private or public sector, they often have a personal connection with their charity’s line of work, and they are not in any way remunerated by any charitable organisation.

Multi-charity trustees are a different breed of cat. These are professional charity workers, interlinked with other such persons via a network of paid full-time or part-time roles, ad hoc culsultantships and volunteer directorships and trusteeships[1]. It’s a sort of a demented SPECTRE, if Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s chief aim were to keep his buddies on some charity’s payroll doing fuck all. 

Professional charity workers are better

All who work in the City eventually learn to handle certain remarks from outsiders – sometimes subtle, often tactless – without a blink. My favourite response to “What do you do with all that money” is “I preserve: banknotes with plums and crab apples. I’ll email you the recipe”. The truth is, very few in the City earn the proper big bucks. Most of us don’t. We don’t do our jobs because we love them, money isn’t how we keep the score – it’s how we pay the mortgage.

In my experience, as far as charitable sector folk are concerned, working in financial services makes one a millionaire with no morals. Volunteering at a non-profit while working in financial services makes one a millionaire wtih no morals in search of redemption. At first I thought the misconception silly. Later it began to chafe.

The governance

I expected the trustee board, and governance in general, at a smallish charity to be something of a shambles, though not anything quite so unholy as what I found.

Board meetings in the City are held mainly to endow what has already been decided. Where a new initiative requires board approval, first the executive directors informally “socialise” the proposal with non-execs. If non-execs are broadly in favour, it is put on the agenda to be discussed at the meeting. If non-execs are unconvinced, they ask for further information, evidence, input from various business functions. Once/if they’re satisfied, the proposal is put forward. Ambushing your non-executive directors with unexpected motions at the board table is a career-limiting move. Also, making requests where there’s a chance of outright refusal is embarrassing.

Surprising trustees with new proposals not much progressed from a brain fart new idea stage was modus operandi of The Charity’s management. The mode in which the proposals were put forward made it clear that the director was merely seeking a rubber stamp. Queries were treated as a nuisance, especially finance-related queries: a charity’s purpose is to Do Good, you understand, it is Not A Business and hence we shouldn’t Focus On Money. Such cavalier attitude can be frustrating if your role on the board is Hon. Treasurer, which kinda makes you responsible for ensuring the outfit remains solvent[2].

Givashit is a depletable resource

I volunteered at The Charity out of a genuine, albeit misguided, belief that my contribution would help make a difference. There was no other reason. It’s not and never has been on my CV. I had to tell the HR and Compliance at work to get a conflicts of interest waiver as per terms of my employment contract, but I never told anyone in my team, nor my boss. Some friends found out about my extracurricular activities towards the end – we were moaning about work, someone wished for more meaningful employment, e.g. at a non-profit, I failed to suppress a rant – and some didn’t.

For The Charity’s employees who ran the place day to day it was a job. A cushy job with flexible hours, above-average skill-adjusted salaries and no management by objectives. There were limited opportunities for advancement internally, but only the director was ambitious. His ambition was, from what I could tell, in the political line and he devoted a lot of his time to networking seeking collaboration opportunities with other non-profits and local politicos, and CV-building by attempting to represent the charitable sector at whatever latest social manifesto initiative the Labour party would trot out.

My first year at The Charity was the best, for there was hope that I wasn’t wasting my time enabling a hot air filled non-entity not bright enough for the private sector climb his retarded version on the greasy pole. As this hope diminished and then dissipated, so did my givashit.

Should you volunteer on a charity board?

If you’re retired and are being gnawed by an urge to make this world a better place, what the hell, give it a shot. After all, what do you have to lose? If you’re old enough to be retired and not yet cynical as fuck (which you can’t be, given the aforementioned urge), then you’re probably resilient enough to work for any sort of charity and come out of the experience unscathed.

But don’t do it if you’re still employed and depend on your income. It takes time to do it well, and trustees are ultimately responsible for everything a charity does. They can be legally accountable for decisions made. Trustee indemnity insurance protects you financially but can’t protect your reputation. And if, as part of your job, you’re subject to the PRA’s SMR regime, signing up for the board of a loosely governed non-profit is madness. If you’re itching to do something, then write the charity a cheque. Not only is it tax deductible, it’s also quicker, easier and more enjoyable than having debates about what constitutes effective and financially sound management.

Notes:

  1. The clergy should be excluded from this group, even though some are involved with multiple charities. It could be argued that for them it comes with the territory.
  2. For fairness’ sake I should note that this was pre-Kids Company. Maybe that episode, which ended with the charity’s directors banned from running companies for up to six years, has knocked some complacency out of the charitable sector. At least I hope it has.

 

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8 thoughts on “Volunteering”

  1. I had the same approach when I left work, when I first read Greenspun’s article it resonated with me. I’ve got a bit more chilled about this – it’s possible to be creative with it.

    Many retirees volunteer their time – bird reserves and the like would cease to function without them. These volunteers are presumably fearful of gettting bored and/or want to replace the structure and social interaction they had at work. That sort of thing leaves me cold and I can’t jump over the notion that if you want my time on a regular basis, you get to pay for it. There’s nothing wrong with it per se, just not right for me. And as for being on committees and regular mettings and all that malarkey, well, that’s too much like work IMO.

    But I have helped some people on one-off projects particularly where a little bit of engineering or experience of doing things would make something new possible. Also working with artists is interesting, and it’s always volunteering because so very few people turn a profit with that. But it’s interesting, because an artist’s approach to life is at right angles to the rational, but nevertheless can show meaning and relationships between bits of the world that I don’t get elsewhere.

    None of this is regular and often not repeatable, and I guess that doesn’t fit with a regular working pattern, it is only for the retiree.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What you’re doing with the creative crew sounds like fun. If I were an engineer or that way inclined I think I’d enjoy doing that sort of stuff. A guy I know writes apps for fun. This one time he and his mate wrote an app for Alexa – a guide to North Korea – and took it to a party, we all nearly pissed ourselves.
      My problem is, I don’t have any practical / enjoyable skills – that’s one of the downsides of being a corporate rat.
      I recon when I retire I’ll take classes in geology, or history, or volunteer at archeological digs if they let me – stuff like that. When I devote my time to anything, there has to be something in it for me, even if that something is merely to satisfy my curiosity.

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  2. Yes, surely volunteering is an opportunity to do something different and/or interesting (for free).

    Volunteering to sit on committees and attend meetings? That way madness lies?

    No practical or enjoyable skills? Jesus! You need to sort that out?

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    1. True. Committees and meetings are neither different nor interesting, I think that was part of the problem. I should dust off my DSLR and renew my interest in photography. It’s not really a skill one can volunteer, but it is enjoyable. Learning celestial navigation is also on the list… I doubt anyone would call it practical though 😉

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      1. I really hate to rub it in, but your tragedy is that you need to make it fit in with work, which will be lifted when you get to FI 😉 That restricts you to things that fit in with a regular schedule, and I guess meetings and committees are a typical example.

        You already have all sorts of key skills that interesting organisations can use. Too many retirees assume what they have to offer is time and unskilled labour – I was never going to volunteer my time. I do most of what I do in that space through personal connections. Some things are simplay a case of basic intelligence and numeracy – I ran a bird survey in Suffolk and processed the data – being able to analyse data, write coherently to get people on board is probably something you do every day. I recently did the same to help our town council put in a bid for Lottery money to improve a cycleway. I’m not the world’s best cyclist, but I surveyed the route, got the GPS track, took pictures of the bits that confused me and biked twelve miles mostly through nature reserves. Now people know what the issues are and can see them – in some ways the same as writing a report for work, but more fun 😉

        I take lots of pictures for people to promote things. I’m not the greatest photographer in the world, but I get into places by knowing the people, and I observe the pros, and see what people want – I now tend to take my 100-400 lens rather than a 35 because I have learned that people and news orgs want pictures of people and often MCU or closer above all else. I hated taking pictures of people because I’m an introvert, but I’ve got a lot less bad. I’ve taken some pictures that people include the subjcts really liked. Not yet sure it isn’t the thousand monkeys and Shakespeare, but I am improving my hit rate dramatically. Seeing people draw and paint seems to help there, though I will never be able to draw.

        Volunteer intelligently and flexibly. That’s not to knock people who volunteer their time – our wildlife trusts and the RSPB would shut down in weeks without their army of volunteers, and good for them. I guess I am just a peacock and I have an entremely low tolerance for the routine. I would actually go as far as to say Greenspun was wrong, altough it was his article that both put me off volunteering for a long time and also taught me how not to do it.

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        1. Or I could use my early retirement to master HTML code 😉
          You writing your blog is a form of volunteering, is it not? It helps people, too. Certainly helped me by being an exhibit in the body of evidence that inheritance / lottery win + BTL is not the only way to retire early. Also thanks for the useful practical tips, e.g. keeping gold in taxable accounts. It sounds common sense now, but it didn’t click for me until I read it in one of your posts.
          I don’t think I’m cut out for volunteering though. Things that involve regular appointments are too much like work, and as for ad hoc stuff, sure, if someone I knew asked to lend a hand because it was important to them, etc. I would, but I won’t be actively seeking out opportunities to do so anytime soon 🙂

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  3. Hi – love the timing of this post, as I volunteer with one organisation which actually is quite well run. At first I displayed a level of skepticism, and whilst there is a lot that could be polished I don’t think it’s bad by any means. I’ve been in to observe/spy/help out during the day a few times, and they are always busy. I won’t get started on the “doing things the way we’ve always done them” approach, mainly as I don’t want to have to support any new changes I introduce all through the change cycle. And the reason I’m putting in so much effort, is that I might be taking over the chair role, so doing my due diligence before I commit to anything.

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