Saturday, 16 April 2016

Something For Nothing

For the past few years, I have been brooding over the issues of volunteering and the widespread perception that the arts should be free. A while ago, the Universe delivered three items for consideration within the same week: a dancer friend had a well-deserved rant over yet another person who wanted her to put on a show for free, and two Radio 4 discussions, one about whether we have a moral obligation to give a percentage of our income to charity, over and above volunteering or donations to charity shops, and another on whether we owe the arts and artists a living (which was primarily about taxes used to subsidise the arts).

Of course, as a dancer and crafter, I consider the arts as essential and life-enhancing, although I am aware of a few people (mainly men) who are all about sports and couldn't give much of a stuff about anything else. Don't get me started on the emotional blackmail inherent in most charity campaigns, especially those where you are asked to take a no-make-up selfie or film yourself being deluged in a bucket of iced water, and then post the resulting film/photo having paid a contribution. They raise a lot of money, but I notice many people are doing it under peer pressure, to avoid the adverse judgement of their friends and acquaintances. When I become a multi-millionaire, I shall take great pleasure in subscribing to all of the charities which tug at my heartstrings and will buy lots of arty, crafty presents. In the meantime, I mainly give in kind - I source some materials from charity shops, and give the occasional workshop or performance for 'free'. I admit, I do enjoy the 'feel-good' factor brought on by a spot of altruism, and charity events are often very sociable and fun. However, I earn very little and am not eligible for any benefits. Warm feelings are lovely but they don't pay the bills. A girl's gotta live on something, and to give back, you must first have received.

My brooding was originally triggered by another set of three events: there was a fresh round of waffle about the 'Big Society'  in the media, I attended a presentation by the Ceredigion Association of Volunteers, at which they stressed that volunteers should never be left 'out of pocket' but admitted that many charities, understandably, did not pay travel or parking costs if they could help it, then I received a flurry of requests for belly dance entertainment, none of which would pay even travel costs ('we can't afford to pay you but please bring your dancers, you can do it for the exposure/experience and advertise your classes', etc). I expect all dancers and musicians are familiar with this one. It seems that artists are not the only ones - writers and speakers are also expected to be willing to work for nothing.

Why do people think entertainment should be for free? Answer: Because they can usually find someone, somewhere, who will volunteer to do it for free. Occasionally, that includes me. But there is a difference between someone who wants work done for free because they don't really value the training, skills and experience which lie behind it, let alone the costs incurred in terms of travel, equipment, costume and so on (and when it comes to entertainment, don't regard it as work because, hey, you do it for fun, right?), and the third sector charity and not-for-profit organisations who rely on volunteers to be able to get things done.

It's amazing just how much voluntary work goes on and, in some cases, is utterly taken for granted. Last year, I saw a local charity advertising for a qualified accountant to be a voluntary, unpaid, full-time financial and administration officer. I suppose they might have got lucky and found someone qualified but retired and looking for a new interest in life. I also saw a job ad for a full time volunteer for another charity which would involve a lot of local travel, in your own car, for which they paid rather less than the current tax-allowed expenses rate of 45p per mile. Considering the poor state of many of the local roads and the increased wear and tear this causes, it hardly seems fair.

In fact, many people pay for the privilege of volunteering as they incur costs which are seldom, if ever, repaid.  You may give your time for free, but transport between home and a primary place of work is not an allowable tax expense, so you wouldn't usually get travel costs if you are based in one location such as a shop or office. You make some cakes or biscuits for a charity event for free, despite the costs of ingredients and fuel to cook them. You might perform at a charity event, but have to pay a concessionary ticket price for the evening on the basis that you'll be watching the other performers. If you organise an event, you may make phone calls and extra visits to a venue, create posters to advertise it and print them - for free.  Perhaps you buy cheap yarn or fabrics to make stuffed toys or little hats for premature babies. Most of the data collected on wildlife such as birds, butterflies and moths is done by by volunteers, giving their time and expertise, buying their own equipment, paying their own fuel and parking costs. Sadly, all of this support is not generally considered as 'giving to charity'. You do it for love, so it's dismissed as a 'hobby'. But time is money. It would be fascinating to know the total value of casual work done for charities in the UK.

I believe that money isn't everything and you should do what you love. You never know where these things will lead. I've done a few performances where we dancers were well looked after in recognition that we were donating our services while others were donating money, and we've had a wonderful time. I like to barter my workshops for others' workshops or services; giving and receiving time and services in lieu of paying or being paid seems like a fair exchange. Getting something out for putting something in, rather than feeling used, is what makes all the difference.

Last year, I found a local Age Cymru Over 50s gentle exercise class and joined in just so that I could meet some people in my new area. It was very cheap, huge fun, and finished with chat over tea and cakes. As a bonus, it has led to a couple of engagements to talk about belly dance. I was very impressed that the exercises were mostly seated, so properly low impact, safe and effective. The social side is also important, fostering new friendships and support networks. Then I had the opportunity to train as a LIFT (Low Impact Functional Training) leader for Age Cymru, so I took it. I've completed and passed the 4-day course, and also updated my emergency first aid during a volunteer day. The training course was extremely well put together and delivered, with very good supporting materials. I've already covered a couple of classes for other leaders who are on holiday, although I'm still waiting for my pack of props such as exercise bands. I may not be paid for my time, but I get to do something fun which can make a positive difference to people's lives. It's difficult to put a value on that.

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