Doing good in bad times

The Big Issue

THREE o’clock at the office. The sounds of clerical work reverberate through densely packed cubicles. The familiar clackety-clack of fingertips on keyboards, the laboured breathing of printers under the duress of impending deadlines, and the mechanical slurping of a hungry paper-shredder form a percussion track that’s been playing since morning. Among it all sits a young woman, attuned to the rhythm of industry. She types, files, tends to chirping phones. She’s a typical office worker in a typical office, except for one important distinction: she’s not getting paid.

Talulah is a volunteer; one of a growing number of laid-off workers looking for something to fill the empty pages in their yearly planners. You might expect the recently redundant to be confirmed misanthropes, oozing spite from every pore. But, in some cases, the opposite has occurred.

“A number of not-for-profit organisations are reporting an increased level of volunteer enquiries, particularly from those who’ve been made redundant,” says the CEO of Volunteering Victoria, Dianne Embry. “Primarily, people are seeking to connect with their community, to do something worthwhile, and to feel a sense of meaning in their day.”

But, as always, there’s the issue of money. Judging by the sheer proliferation of its symbols – dollar signs, percentage figures – you’d say money was plentiful. Yet most people are continually on the hunt for this slippery substance, upheaving couches – and companies – to get at the spare change beneath. The whole planet is engaged in this pursuit of cash. So why would anyone want to work for free?

Talulah does it partly for the atmosphere. Her office is immersed in sound because it’s the administrative hub of a Melbourne community radio station, 3RRR. For around 10 hours a week, she operates the switchboard, fields listeners’ calls, and hosts the ‘graveyarder’ – the shift in which the DJ attempts to cover up the awkward silence between 2am and 6am. “I’d come here every day if I could,” she says, over the clomp-clomp of high heels on wooden floorboards.

She also does it for career advancement. “I would like to work in media arts so part of the reason for volunteering is to gain more experience in that area.” The know-how she picks up here also applies outside the insular, soundproofed world of broadcasting. “I’m sure I could have done reception jobs in the past, but I’d never really operated a busy switchboard,” she says. “Volunteering is a good way of learning a new skill.”

Talulah used to work in retail. For months, business had been slowing and shifts had been cut back. Management fobbed off requests for extra hours and started scrutinising staff performance, searching for excuses to fire people. The embattled workers muttered and moaned, then threatened to walk. The entire design team was sacked. Tension clogged the air-con vents.

“The day that it actually happened was kind of this huge culmination of these sort of bad vibes,” says Talulah. She was called in on her day off and told the store could no longer afford to keep her. Talulah hopes her volunteering at 3RRR will impress employers next time she pounds the pavement, resumé in hand.

Karen Kirton, a human resources manager, agrees that volunteering can look good on paper. “It shows some kind of dedication to something you’re not forced to do,” she says. But she stresses that sprucing up a CV should not be the sole motivation for offering your services. An unpaid position can be as demanding as a paid one. Without a genuine passion for the cause, commitment quickly wanes.

Until recently, Kirton was the national HR manager for FedEx Kinko’s, a printing business with 13 retail centres in Sydney and Melbourne. In September 2008 she got the call from headquarters. “That’s when they told us they’d decided to close operations in a couple of countries – and Australia was one of them.” Her bosses in the US lumped her with the unenviable task of telling 250 printing staff that their jobs were also destined for the wastepaper basket.

Kirton found the redundancy process, which was drawn out over six months, “emotionally draining”. On one occasion, she broke the news to a male employee on his birthday. His wife was pregnant at the time. The man was given several months’ notice. On his last day at work, his wife received a call. She was being made redundant, too. Effective immediately.

When Kirton finished up, she used her time to volunteer for 10 weeks in Ao Luk, Thailand, teaching English to adults. But it was no holiday. “You’re living in these communities. You’re expected to be working – in that volunteer sense – for most of the day, six days a week.”

Erica Louise was formerly the Australasian regional manager for Global Vision International, the agency that placed Kirton overseas. Louise says she saw a “surge of interest” in volunteering last year. Five or six redundant workers were calling every month; previously, the agency would receive only a few such enquiries a year.

People like Kirton and Talulah are the lucky ones in this story. They had a choice to volunteer, but 62-year-old Jim [not his real name] wasn’t given that luxury. Before the Global Financial Crisis he was happily retired, with his savings squirreled away in a super fund. Then the stockmarket took a dive, and the value of his shares plummeted $200,000. Now he can’t sell for fear of crystallising his losses. For the time being, he’s living off the Newstart allowance, but because he’s over 55, he has to complete 30 hours of unpaid work every fortnight in order to get paid. As silly as it sounds, Jim is an involuntary volunteer.

But is it right to force people to freely offer their services? Surely the restorative power of charity lies not in the thing that is given, but in the fact it is given without being demanded.

Even if volunteering is hinged on ambition – gaining experience, garnishing a resumé or travelling to an exotic land – selflessness and a desire to pitch in is also apparent. Perhaps that’s why many people say they’d continue to volunteer even if they managed to secure full-time employment. Talulah sums up the sentiment best: “I love volunteering more than working and getting paid!”

Hard times may present challenges, but opportunities can also arise.

This article is available for re-publication. Email greg.foyster@gmail.com for details.