has two passionate, well-argued contributions from Mike Palmer (chairman of the Waterway Recovery Group) and Malcolm Turner (chairman of the Trent & Mersey Canal Society) about the role of volunteers on our waterways.
We only had space to print an edited version of their views in the printed magazine, but it seemed a shame not to give people the chance to read a fuller version. So here's the unedited version.
THE WHOLE VOLUNTEER “THING”
BWs Volunteering Policy has been an ongoing development since 2000 and, thanks to some good champions within BW and considerable campaigning from external bodies, it has now got to the point where it is both ready for implementing and has support from the very top. It has been acknowledged that volunteers could make a significant contribution to almost all aspects of BW at almost all levels – not just the inevitable example of litter picking but in management, administration, customer relations, heritage, engineering, operations, etc. People at the highest level talk about it being a massive untapped resource. Most importantly if you delve deeper the reason given for involving volunteers is not saving money but getting much better links with all those communities that one way or another support (or should support) the waterways, getting a more diverse and resilient organisation and opening up the organisation to the huge range of skills, experience and opinions that waterway enthusiasts (or potential enthusiasts ) possess. Unfortunately if you ask for a summary it tends to come out as “well it would help plug our funding gap”. Which really is not the main benefit in my opinion. However lets gloss over that minor detail and, now they have a policy and a few key employees in place, I’d like to suggest some practical points to drive the implementation forward:
1) Make sure every member of BW staff attends a “Working with Volunteers “ seminar. Nothing fancy or costly – just a few hours to put over the basics. Because in my experience its no good just having a few “volunteer officers”, you need to ensure that all the staff understand about volunteers. Too often I have had fantastic support from some BW staff only to be let down by others with a small but key role to play. These seminars need to concentrate on three areas – firstly, they need to lay to rest all those traditional ghosts regarding volunteers taking jobs, doing low quality work, being unsafe, that sort of thing. I don’t think there is much resistance to this within BW but it still needs to be addressed officially. Secondly there needs to be a real explanation of the motivations of a volunteer. Because that is utterly key to both managing volunteers and getting the very best out of them. Volunteers are not doing it for a living – do not attempt to manage them as though they are. This will also mean considering all those other Third Sector workers – people in rehabilitation schemes, offenders, retraining, etc. they too have different motivations and will need managing differently. Thirdly, and closely allied to the second point, is that you need to have a very different attitude if you are ever going to inspire volunteers . Put simply, if you can’t see the difference between “Yes, if…..” and “No, until….” then you are never going to get on with volunteers.
2) Once these seminars are in place BW are going to need to allocate decent resources to ensure that attempts to involve volunteers are successful. I say again that volunteers are not free labour, the benefits lie elsewhere. BW need to learn to properly value these benefits, understand how they are making their organisation better and accept the costs. As an aside this means that managers need to have a clear steer about how they are to value these benefits in their accounts and reports so they can justify the costs.
3) Then there are all the “support issues” regarding volunteering. Currently if you want to promote the waterway, or contribute to restoring its heritage, or run education events then you are expected to accept all of the risk. Why? You are not the main beneficiary – that’s more likely to be the general public, the waterway itself or even British Waterways. Surely if BW are truly in partnership with its volunteers then the risks must be controlled and acceptable in the same way as they are with their employees. Recognition and adoption of the risk by BW would be a clear indication of full integration with volunteers.
4) There is also the issue of honesty and respect – although I would hope that this would be threaded through all of the above I have stated it separately here because it is a two way street. If we are expecting BW to understand that we have evolved from that wonderful band of enthusiasts who patched locks with balsa wood and chewing gum then we have to accept that they have moved on from the organisation that closed those locks and dropped those bridges.
5) Finally both sides have to understand that, although no-one could doubt the commitment of existing enthusiasts to waterways, we are not really the target of all this. Whilst we have much to give, and groups like WRG are determined to lead by example, the aim is to get the whole community to actively support the waterways. Lets try not to fall out as we move to what might be the only sustainable solution for waterways.
BW's 2020 VISION
So BW have announced they have been thinking about the future and they now want to be a Third Sector organisation. This is in response to the new wind blowing through politics with regards to funding the public agenda. Rather that individual government departments giving out cash directly, it is now devolved down to more local organisations - Local Authorities, RDAs, Health Trusts, etc. who decide the best way to spend it based on their agendas. So, instead of chasing funds from DEFRA, BW want to chase funds from just about everyone in an attempt to get contracts to deliver all those diverse bits of the public agenda that DEFRA currently funds – heritage, tourism, freight, social inclusion & exclusion (they are different you know!), regeneration, etc.
This leads to lots of questions (such as “Didn’t you try this 10 years ago?”, “How on earth can chasing lots of little contracts be more secure than one big annual payment from government?”, “Are you really ready for the cut-throat world of charities bidding for contracts (read the Guardian on any Wednesday for relevant horror stories)?” ). However there is no point in me dealing with these questions because a) it is slightly off-topic and b) you can all ask the BW directors yourselves by going to their road-shows.
So let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that in ten years time we now have a sort of wet National Trust looking after our waterways. It would certainly seem that a Navigation Authority with a charitable aim of “Waterways – for ever, for everyone”*, would be desirable. One that is no longer the Governments “political football” and is unaffected by the whim of Treasury. An organisation whose diverse funding streams were underpinned by contracts that promised to deliver public benefits to the widest range of stakeholders. It all sounds very desirable.
In the light of this proposed metamorphosis is the question of volunteers still important ? You will not be surprised to hear me say it is even more important than ever and I’ll give two examples one practical and one strategic.
If you only get funding for things because they can deliver public agenda items then how do you expand or improve the network? Will a hard pressed health authority invest in a regeneration project on the grounds that it will deliver benefits in a few years time? Who will take the germ of an idea and develop it up to the point when it represents an sensible case. The answer is, of course, volunteers – just like the olden days.
On a more strategic level all these contracts only succeed if you have fully engaged with the stakeholders. It doesn’t matter how many posters you put up saying “It’s your waterway”. Unless they actually feel part of it they will not support (demand even!) the funding of it . This involves exactly the same techniques as engaging with volunteers. Indeed you could logically argue that stakeholders are just volunteers who stay at home ! If you can’t convince volunteers, who already have an interest in waterways, that they are part of the fabric of waterways then how are you going to convince the other stakeholders you desperately need?
I think that the next 12 months are going to be key to BWs long term health. I truly believe, irrespective of their long term ambitions, the need for BW to engage with volunteers is essential and should be at the top of their agenda. It is an indication of both how committed they are to a sustainable future and how fit they are to achieve it.
I have only talked about British Waterways in the above but I am pleased to say that the Environment Agency have just presented a comprehensive report on volunteering to their Board and indeed AINA (representing the Navigation Authorities) are holding a conference on the subject in the Autumn. In fact, it is so important that the IWA is thinking of writing a policy on it !
Malcolm Turner - Chairman, Trent & Mersey Canal Society
People volunteer to help projects for a variety of reasons. They may want to show support for the restoration of a piece of history which has fallen into disrepair such as the Anderton Boat Lift, the reward being to see it in operation again. Or they might see an opportunity to get some hands on experience with something such as a boat restoration like Symbol, where the result may be the chance to take the tiller. They may offer professional support if they have qualifications or just time to get stuck into the mud if they have an office job. What I've never yet met is somebody who turns up without any idea of what they want their efforts to achieve. Yet this year I've seen or had communications from organisations who quite literally want volunteers to replace paid labour.
The canal world is a very special and unique one. When it emerged on the landscape there were no roads, no cars, no railway lines and no trains. If you wanted to go somewhere, you had two choices, walk, or if you were lucky, you could travel by pony and trap or by a cold, drafty coach pulled along rutted pathways which soon became quagmires when it rained. If you had fragile goods to transport, you suffered losses through breakage, and saw your profits tumble and your costs rise.
In the canal age, you could travel in relative comfort. With a stove to keep you warm and a cabin to keep out the wind and rain. The journey was smooth and although perhaps not quite as fast as a coach and horses, you ended the day feeling a lot less tired and weary. If you had fragile goods to move around the country, you could move a much greater quantity, with much fewer breakages.
Wasn't that a really important and major step forward in the process of making Britain “Great”? I certainly think so, and I know a lot of people involved with the canal movement who agree with me.
Unlike most other breakthroughs in science and technology, much of the fabric of the canal age is still intact and working, in many cases in it's original state, everything is there to inspire thousands of volunteers to help keep it alive and around for another couple of hundred years. But the organisation we have to manage this national monument has always suffered from the whims of government strategies, and while having some good years has probably had many more leaner years financially. So too have the Museums which celebrate the canal age. Gloucester has recently closed and all of the others are perpetually strapped for cash. Isn't it criminal that such organisations should be placed in a situation where they feel the best they can do is ask for volunteer help “no experience necessary as full training will be given” British Waterways has been underfunded over the last few years and have started to welcome the help of volunteer groups and organisations to help in projects. Indeed with the new regions within BW the co-operation of volunteer groups is a key part of their way forward. They've recognised for some time now that canal societies registered as charities and the IWA and other groups can get access to funding they apparently can't. Ellesmere Port Boat Museum, now the National Waterways Museum had a very successful Easter Festival, thanks to the return of the Historic Narrow Boat Owners Club, some excellent weather, and lots of volunteer assistance. But some of that assistance was sought from within other volunteer groups, who can ill afford to lose members.
Surely that shouldn't be so. The politicians, ministers and civil servants who are saying no to the funding that BW and the waterways museums need, are the same people who fall over themselves to support and fund thousands of much less important projects, even projects in foreign countries. As I write this, the expenses scandal within Parliament is dominating the news, These are the very people who seem happy to let us pay for every aspect of their daily lives, plus a fat pension, while letting a national treasure deteriorate.
Canal Societies, the IWA, and all the other projects to restore canals, boats and associated artifacts need volunteers desperately, and they need them now. Isn't it scandalous that museums which should be publicly funded, and BW which in effect is probably the last of the old nationalised industries, should be put in such a position that they need to look for volunteers as a means of free labour.