Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The uses and abuses of volunteers

I can't stop thinking about a Guardian stage blog post on the current proliferation of old Etonian actors, commenting that acting is an expensive business and hard for those without much money to get into. I'm not ashamed exactly but definitely uneasy myself about the fact that I'm able to try and start producing in relative comfort because my long suffering parents can afford to let me move back home for a while - and I'm nearly ten years into my career. It's far too hard to make a living in theatre when you're starting out, whether you'd like to have your own company or work for somebody else.

There has been an awful lot of fuss about the legalities recently, particularly of internships with work-like conditions, but the reason why people are still offering these and long term placements is because mostly, for the charitable arts organisations, they're not illegal. There is very clear guidance on Business Link, but in essence, charities and statutory organisations are allowed to hire "volunteer workers" (as well as and distinct from "volunteers" who can be used by any organisation) who have work-like conditions and contracts but are unpaid. This is a specific exception to National Minimum Wage rules to allow people who genuinely want to give their time to a good cause for free to do so. Unpaid volunteering shouldn't be banned because it allows people who want to freely give their time - if they're retired for example - to do so without needing to be paid the minumum wage. Charities might need to contract these people or insist on other work-like conditions, if, for example, they are running a shop and need to be there at a certain time, or are trusted with certain responsibilities.

This isn't legal for commercial arts organisations, of course, and many abuse the system, but equally, even when it's legal it doesn't mean it's always right. To be a charity, what you do doesn't need to be educational (as I saw someone quoted as misguidedly saying at the State of the Arts conference) but it does need to be for the benefit of the public. I'd take this to mean that charitable arts organisations also have a particular responsibility to conduct their business ethically and fairly.

Many volunteers in the arts aren't volunteering because they want to help a good cause. They want work, and they can't get it without experience, so they are left with no choice: work for free or don't work in theatre. That rules out many. In the article mentioned above, Theo Bosanquet says "it does seem that the politics preached by much of theatreland – those of inclusion, of fairness, of equality – are rarely reflected behind the scenes, where the old hierarchies persist." We denigrate "McJobs" in our culture - do we really think paid work is so much less dignified than unpaid exploitation? And that's just the "fairness".

The actors might all be old-Etonians, or similar: so are many of the audience members. Huge and important efforts are being made by theatre companies to engage children, particularly, with the arts, to diversify audiences and to ensure that what we're doing is accessible to as many people as possible. Much of this work is wasted if the move from youth involvement as an amateur participant to paid work is impossible for many of those who want to take the next step. Theatre is still too elistist, and for change to happen, it needs to be empowered from within. That means changing the workforce. It feels to me that the lack of paid opportunities for those at the beginning of their career is a key factor in the stagnation of audience engagement. If you're always working with the same people, it's always going to be an uphill struggle to get a wider, more diverse audience. No matter how much you try and make them comfortable or get them involved, participants, audience members and volunteers, from their relatively unempowered standpoint, are unlikely to change arts organisations.

Of course not all voluntary positions are exploitative. Many are excellent examples of good volunteering practice: where timescales are flexible, can be combined with other work, offer mentoring and learning experiences, appeal to those who do have the right motivations. Also, even where they're not, it's difficult, I know. Money is not flowing, budgets are tight and many arts organisations are left in a situation where they offer voluntary opportunities or none at all. The Future Jobs fund, which enabled many to take on young employees, has disappeared. However, I don't think we can abdicate responsibility. We've got to be aware of what we're doing. Someone once said to me that by 18 or 19, it's too late anyway. A paid job or not doesn't matter - the kind of young people that can't afford to work for free have lost their opportunities to engage with the arts long before that. I hope that's not true. I certainly don't think we can use that as an excuse. I've worked with volunteers in the past, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes for ones I'm not totally sure I can justify, and I expect I will again. Yet I can't stop thinking about that blog post. I want to try and do something about it. There must be something we can do.


  1. I have mused about such things, B. I remember having an idea a year or so back about a possible solution: your thoughts please?

    For volunteering jobs in a charity that is an arts based thang, for it to be any good, has to be, what, 3 or 4 months long, to get any sense of the place and what is done there. Also, any job, be it volunteer or paid full-time in an arts based charity is going to be concerned about where the money is coming from/ fundraising.

    So, my idea would be: basis pay for intern, yes, I think here in Germany it is €300 per month minimum. BUT part of that internship is to be successful fundraising. In the sense that the intern comes with a plan (or you provide a basic plan that gets constantly bettered) to generate the same amount as the internship - to ensure the next intern.

    I understand that it may not generate the money, but the plan must be to get the money for the intern back. If nothing else, there will be insights into what works and what doesn't, ideas that might eventually generate money, but not now, if the intern manages to generate the money through fundraising then they get the mother of all references, if not they still might. It could well be stressful for the intern, but money worries are a constant in the arts, no? And a mad idea that only an intern might try, might work. They should be doing other things, obviously, and if they don't make the amount then that shouldn't be mentioned in a reference.

    So, what I think I am trying to say is, budget to spend £5000 (oof!) on 3 interns for a year, but choose the ones who understand enough to know that the arts involve getting money from somewhere on top of everything else that they love about it. If you strike gold then neither you nor the intern is unhappy, if they don't, you've budgeted for it and the intern learns an import lesson in arts funding.

    Too evil?

  2. As someone who got their first job in the arts as the result of a volunteering programme this is something I'm pretty passionate about. I volunteered with an environmental charity, but it was the fact it demonstrated my motivation that secured me a post in my chosen field. So it can work. And I didn't at any point in that transaction feel taken advantage of. The purpose of the volunteering was clear - the aim of the programme was to help recent graduates move into suitable employment more quickly. In addition to our roles we got support with dealing with the Job Centre, time to search for paid roles and support with applications. It worked - most people moved on within 6 months and many went into paid roles within the organisation hosting the scheme.

    I think ulimately volunteering is a transaction - the volunteer needs to be taking something identifiable from the experience instead of pay. Be that the feeling they get giving back to their community, the skills they need to move on in their life or career development. Both sides of the transaction need to be considered and articulated at the outset.

    What volunteering mustn't do is undervalue the individual and their skills. And that's where I think Donalda's idea gets tricky. If an intern is a good enough to earn the money back for their internship for that company then they should get paid an appropriate wage to do it i think.

    As for whether we can make the leap from the lack of early career opportunities to audience engagement - culture is about enriching your life whether you work in the sector or not. Your likely to want to work in the arts because someone helped you identify and nurture that passion when you were younger. So for me - it all starts there. Inspiring young people to find their cultural passion in the first place.

  3. Gina, sounds like your experience was an example of really good practice. I volunteer myself at the moment too - for a good cause, much more than the experience, though the organisation is interesting and it's nice to get an insight - and think the way they run it is another example of good practice. I do really have to remind myself of those when I get annoyed about volunteering because I get very suspicious.

    I think it's too easy to get in volunteers to do something you can't afford to do - I totally agree with you about value and paying for the skills you need. It's interesting though: I'd say, if you're not paying someone, either they've got to genuinely want to do it for the cause or it's got to be more about the benefit for them than the benefit for you. Still, I think even that can be hazy - for example, legally you're not allowed to give training or perks to volunteers beyond what they need to do the job. Then it becomes a transaction; they're doing it for some kind of pay even if that's in-kind and in which case, you need to pay the minumum wage. Unless they're a 'volunteer' not a 'volunteer worker' - ie no responsibility, no set hours, etc etc.

    Think therefore I'd tend to agree with Gina, Donalda. If someone is good enough to fundraise well, they should be being paid; but fundraising success rates are often so arbitrary I don't think commission is the right way to go. I'm fundraising at the moment, and it's a difficult climate - I'd be furious if it was suggested I should get paid for the work I'd done if it wasn't successful! Only if I wasn't doing a good job.

    As for the leap to audience engagement - absolutely agree where the interest in working in the arts starts. Where I was going, is that I think lots of people are trying to do something about nurturing that passion in young people. However, diversity rates in the theatre workforce are ABYSMAL. We may still not be doing enough about when people are younger but I also think taking the next step into a career is equally hard, and less attention is being paid. It's getting harder and harder to find a paid job, and that's going to rule out people who can't afford to volunteer while they get experience. Regional theatres are better than most actually, I think - I know lots of young people who've come up through box office or ushering jobs. London seems worse, ironically given London is doing better than most areas at the moment.

  4. ...that was meant to say SHOULDN'T get paid for the work I'd done if not successful!