Volunteer: noun 1. a person who freely offers to take part in an enterprise or undertake a task.
Another volunteer week has been and gone. In the words of our beloved leader, ScoMo, "how good are they?"
At the end of last month, thousands of events were held across the country to thank the six million Australians who volunteer their time. We all know one, we may be one, we may have been helped by one.
Doing is important in an odd world seemingly dominated by commerce and commodities. Why?
Maybe the answer lies in the French origin of the term. Interestingly it is a military term "late 16th century (as a noun, with military reference): from French volontaire 'voluntary'." Maybe it's why we often refer to armies of volunteers? They are indeed at war in many cases within, and with, the 21st century.
Anxiety is climbing across all sectors. Alain de Botton in his book, Status Anxiety, raises many reasons why we are anxious.
"Not the least being that we are constantly told we can be anything we want to be. And when we fail we are destroyed because we did not become that thing we thought we could".
Our society at large is based on a meritocracy.
Volunteers ignore meritocracies. They simply supply love and concern regardless of your status or rank. They are a wonderful antidote to the meritocracy virus.
An anxiety valve, if you like.
Volunteers come in all kinds, from the Pink Ladies in hospitals to business people who volunteer for the promotion of their communities. It is ironic, in this fair city, that the business volunteers are pilloried in the media by a council intent on destroying the goodwill built up over decades of toil by these volunteers.
It is ironic that the council voted during volunteer week to dismantle Business Improvement Associations (BIAs) run by volunteer boards who organised to train armies of volunteers to greet visitors to the city and inform tourists and locals of the offerings available in the Local Government Area.
These volunteers also marched out to businesses informing them of the goings on in their business communities. A forum here, an event there. Handing out info sheets and rallying small businesses in particular to get involved.
"All ships rise on a rising tide" they say. "Times are tough, we are stronger together than apart. If it is going to be, it's up to me". Ra, ra, ra.
These volunteers were a strong asset of BIAs, in particular Newcastle Now, appearing on no balance sheet. They helped guide confused Supercars visitors around the city. They assisted Hamilton when the heavy rail was truncated, they know no BIA boundaries. They just helped where help was needed. They provided a valuable tourist resource in a gaping void of a sector.
Over the years, tens of thousands of dollars were spent training students and retirees in the art of welcoming. Other volunteers hid in the background, applying for grants. If you've ever had to apply for a grant, it's a special type of human that can do it well.
In Newcastle Now's case grants were awarded for improvements and public access to Nobby's lighthouse. In fact they had a $500,000 grant from the Port Authority at the time council found fault in their reporting. Council repealed Newcastle BIA's funding, essentially forcing them to forgo the grant monies. That money was handed back, lost to the city forever, when all that was needed was a chat to clarify paperwork confusion between the BIA and council. Another grant for $175,000 to improve night time spaces was also handed back to the NSW Justice Department.
Now we hear that Hamilton BIA is in breach of its agreement and will be no more. No discussion, just a series of email demands by a council acting more like the Levy Police than the collaborators they could be, respectful of volunteers.
As one volunteer on a Business Improvement Board, I can tell you we take the responsibility seriously. We spent a great deal of money on compliance with ever changing council business models, external auditors, annual reports, insurances, applications, DAs, communications and wages to conduct the compliance and train, you guessed it, volunteers.
But compliance comes at a cost. Wages for staff to attend to the compliance. Volunteering has its limits. We don't gain revenue from our operations, thus our admin costs can look high. Charities are often criticised for the same accounting issues. Accountancy does not value 'in kind' contributions. But the community does.
I know the anxiety among my community. Business is tricky and any help is welcome, particularly from one of your own. Despite the treatment from our council, I will continue to volunteer.
Volunteers are strange creatures. They make the ones who feel invisible, visible. And, in a world dominated by dollars, it's a wonderful pursuit that money can't buy.