Why volunteer?

The next layer of watercolour is being painted across the slowly disappearing pencil sketch, as the earliest of spring’s signs fade and the next flourishes begin to take form over the canvas of the Glaslyn Valley.  Perhaps today, however, isn’t one of the days when too many flourishes appear; the spring seems to be taking a breather under the dark cloud lying heavily over the landscape.  There’s a strong and chilling easterly wind which seems to be keeping the heads of the wildlife down and under shelter.  The vividness of the season is washed out by the greyness of the light and the eruptive sounds of spring are held back by the breeze.  The hill and mountain sides are masked under a veil of mist and haze with an occasional spot or two fine rain, taking more warmth away from the air.

The whooper swans have returned to their still snow-locked breeding grounds on their north Atlantic island, arriving while winter has still to loosen its grip. The fieldfares and redwings regain their strength feeding on the lawns of Scandinavian summer houses amongst the pines and lakes; even there the days can switch from warm summer-like mornings to afternoons of sleet, the land still not out of reach the slowly retreating fingers of winter.  Back above the Glaslyn, on the moor tops, the birds are starting to settle into their nests wth both the curlew and hen harrier on eggs.

In the shelter of the woodland, there is now a riot of colour as the bluebells are in their prime, covering the floor with delicate blooms.  Other flowers, however, have been and gone; only the standing leaves remain of the daffodils and the bright yellow of the gorse is starting to fade and dry.  The last few trees remain without leaves while many are still to be in their full flush. More is to come, however, with the bramble in leaf but yet to flower and the irises and foxgloves are starting to grow tall on the wet verges.  Down on the river bank, with the water now well below its winter flood, there’s a sprinkling of cuckoo flowers giving a backdrop to a paddling mute swan.

The young badger and fox cubs are becoming more confident by the day, taking greater steps away from their underground homes, and the otter pups have had their first dip into the river.  The bank voles are starting to appear more frequently on top of the drystone wall, feeding on seed left out for the birds, and the bats are out in the evenings, hopefully taking a few midges from outside the caravan.

More summer visitors are arriving from the south with the swallows now flitting across the meadows at the end of the journey I saw the beginning of only a few weeks ago.  Someone saw a swift nearby but I’ve yet to see my favourite bird and the house martins are in the area but also unseen by me.  Finally, a cuckoo breaks the gloom’s spell, a true herald of spring and now an occasional patch of blue comes out from behind the grey clouds.

Having found mates and laid eggs, the birds are now in the long wait for hatching and then the energy of spring really will come to its peak. Endless cries for food will spark parents into a frenzy of gathering and providing.  High up in the wind buffeted copse, three eggs now lie beneath the warming breast of an osprey but it will be weeks until the first cracks appear in their shells.

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It was a very quiet shift today, not a lot to mention at all; there wasn’t even a fish delivery to write about.  Aran was around the Glaslyn nest for most of the day but did disappear at one point and visit the ‘other woman’ at the Post Croesor nest but returned quite quickly and shared the incubation duties with Mrs G.  This really is the calm before the storm; once the eggs hatch, Aran won’t have much time for hanging around.

It’s an unusual thing to do, sit alone in a cold caravan or shed for hours on end making sure that no one interferes with the eggs of a wild bird, but people do it and many do other similar things.

Volunteering may seem to some like a selfless act but I think it’s just as much about the volunteer as it is about the cause.  We wouldn’t do it if there wasn’t something in it for us – well, my volunteering certainly isn’t selfless.

I volunteer for a whole range of reasons and, yes, supporting causes I care about is right at the top of the list and I wouldn’t volunteer if I didn’t feel I was personally making a difference (and sometimes I do have doubts).  However, another major reason I volunteer is because I feel it makes me more three-dimensional. It gives me something more interesting to talk about than what’s happened on Eastenders, who won the game last night or what I bought at the weekend. It also stops me being solely defined by my work and I love the fact that my volunteering is so utterly different to my job. I enjoy my work, and I like working in a big city. However, days surrounded by managed air amongst the glass and concrete lead to yearnings for the fresh air and greenness of the countryside.  Just working and making little of my weekends makes me miserable, and as I have a lot of spare time with which do whatever I wish, there could be a lot of time to be miserable.

Through doing a range of things I wouldn’t ordinarily do, or at least wouldn’t have done in the past, volunteering also expands my mind, increasing my knowledge and understanding, and leads to even more interests.  It’s just difficult to decide what to look into next.

Through volunteering you can have opportunities to go to places and do things that most people can’t – I don’t know many people in my day-to-day life who get to stay on a stunningly-lovely, almost deserted island for two weeks each year for free— and you get a whole raft of experiences to talk and write about.  You also get to meet fascinating and like-minded people, with whom to share those experiences; the only problem being they always seem to have done many more interesting things than me – I must try harder!

Volunteering can change you – even a meat-eating, car-loving, shaved-headed person like me can turn more veggie, beardy and earth-loving given enough influences from the right people. I’m certainly not the same person I was when I first began volunteering nearly six years ago – for a start, back then I wouldn’t have dreamt of posting soppy creative writing on the internet for the world to see!

Overall, however, I see the volunteering I do as a privilege; not everyone can or is able to do it and the experiences have made memories that I will never forget.

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It will be a month or more until I return to Glaslyn (I have two weeks on a stunningly-lovely, nearly deserted island before then) and hopefully there will be chicks in the nests when I do.

 

An apology to Greenpeace: it all comes down to money!

Recently I’ve had a go at Greenpeace on Twitter for pestering me to give more money per month. After recent news headlines of charities pestering people for money, I felt empowered to make a stand. I give monthly to a number of charities as well as giving quite a lot of my free time to charitable volunteering, so receiving calls from charities (Greenpeace certainly weren’t the first and won’t be the last) trying to guilt-trip me into giving more irked somewhat.

It started with one call, and then another, and another, and another. Over the past 18 months I’ve been plagued by nuisance calls by ‘companies’ trying to get me to make false claims for compensation as a result of the extremely minor and short-lived discomfort I suffered after a road accident last year. I have resorted to disconnecting my landline phone and not answering any mobile calls from a number I don’t recognise just to stop the endless harassment of these ambulance-chasers. These insurance scam companies don’t often use the same telephone number, they seem to be able to channel their calls through numbers all around the country, so when I started to receive multiple missed calls from the same number, I eventually called it back. When I did, I heard a recorded message saying it was a company working on behalf of Greenpeace and that they would be in touch again shortly. After a few more missed calls, I finally had my mobile on me when it rang from the same number and I spoke to a representative of Greenpeace. The nicely spoken young chap wanted to tell me about all the good things that Greenpeace had done recently; I instantly knew where this was going, eventually it would lead to a request for more money. At that time I was already giving more money per month to Greenpeace than any other individual charity, so I didn’t want to give any more. I said to the chap that I didn’t have time to talk and I politely ended the call. Over the following few days, I received more and more calls from the same number until I’d finally had enough. Not only was I being harassed by scam insurance companies, I was now being pestered by the charity I gave more money to per month than any other! (this is an apology, honest! Just keep on reading!).

I posted a tweet and got a tweeted apology from Greenpeace and I then sent an e-mail complaining about their behaviour and I cancelled my direct debit. I thought the only way that charities will learn will be for people affected by this behaviour to make some noise as well as stopping donations. I quite quickly got a nice e-mail in return again apologising, promising I would receive no more contact from them but saying that they hoped I would return to them sometime – ‘not I chance’ I thought! My mind was even more firmly made up when later that day I received a text from Greenpeace asking me to increase my donation to them by £10 per month. That was the last straw and I tweeted my annoyance again.

The issue of being pestered with calls from charities, which has been in the news quite a lot over the past few months, is, for me, coupled with a feeling that charities don’t always treat their staff and volunteers in the way they should. I should say here that I’m not pointing the finger at Greenpeace at all – I have no particular knowledge of their staff or volunteers’ conditions; this is a general rather than specific observation. For some time I have thought that some charities use those who want to work in their particular areas or ‘industries’, for want of a better word, by squeezing as much out of them as they can for as little investment as possible to a point where it gets close to, if not actually, exploitation. There are many charities, especially those working in areas where there is a great demand for jobs, which offer unpaid work, long term volunteering posts or internships, leaving those who want to get a foothold in those areas work without an income for months and in some cases many years.

However, these are blinkered, short-sighted views, of both the telephone calls and the employment of staff and volunteers, from a position of being comfortably off and already well into the career I set out to build. When the interests that environmental charities, for example, are up against can throw money at more frivolous activities such as the arts and sport (I’m not having a go at the hard work and dedication of sports men and women, just the elitist hangers-on) it just shows the difference in financial clout.

The hard truth is that the interests that cause the greatest damage to the earth and its environment are those with the most money. Oil companies, agri-chemical businesses, land owners or, indeed, whole groups or classes of people who have enough money and low enough scruples not to care what damage their desires have, all have huge vested interests against which environmental charities are struggling to have an impact. To be able to fight for their causes, charities rely on the contributions both in the form of money and time from the general public, and they have to account for every last penny and make the best of every hour. Few charities have products they can sell to generate millions or billions of pounds of revenue; they can only persuade the public to support them as much as they can. When those major industrial and landowning interests have such huge resources, and regularly don’t play clean, it’s no wonder that charities have to resort to sometimes less than comfortable practices to even vaguely compete.

The phone calls and the treatment of those who work and volunteer for charities is, for me, coupled with an increasing corporatisation of large charities. It’s not the local, individual charity staff who decide to make those calls, and they do not decide to squeeze budgets to such an extent that they have to turn paid jobs into voluntary posts; they have to deal with the day-to-day, the coal face, the delivery of the overall charity’s aims. It is, rather, the head offices of large charities that make those decisions, head offices in many cases staffed to a significant degree by people from the corporate world not the charitable one, people who have less interest in the charitable concerns and more thought on general finance and resources, as well that their own promotion and self-development. However, big charities need to have a corporate approach to enable them to combat the actions of the big corporates, but this can go too far. I get the general feeling that large charities, in trying to do their best for their primary goals, are actually moving away from what matters most; engaging on a human scale with those whose support they desperately need.

The sometimes hard actions of charities, whether it be nuisance phone calls or treatment of staff, do deserve inspection and frustration is at times understandable. However, these issues pale into insignificance when compared to the damage caused by the organisations and groups they are facing up to. It is right that charities have to account for the money they receive and spend, it’s the public’s money afterall, and they need to treat their staff and volunteers correctly. However, by fighting against them on these issues, we’re only making it more difficult for charities to succeed and hoping for them to succeed is why people give their money and time to them in the first place. Charities try to be whiter-than-white but this is a real struggle when they have to make the most of their resources and their opponents have enough money to liberally spray-paint their operations with white or, indeed, green-wash.

Time to give charities a break, give more money to support their campaigns, give more voluntary time in the hope they can provide more paid jobs and give them some leeway when they get it a bit wrong.

Sorry, Greenpeace!