Each year I volunteer with Crisis at Christmas; a project that provides immediate help for people experiencing homelessness at a critical time of year. I can’t imagine spending Christmas any other way, and while I started out wanting to do something to ‘give back’, like many other volunteers I know I receive much more in return.
I always say Crisis is a project that shouldn’t work. It’s staffed almost entirely with volunteers, 60% to 70% of whom will never have volunteered for the project before (everyone receives training). It helps people with some of the most complex needs possible.
At Crisis I never assume people’s engagement. If I disempower or fail to engage a volunteer the likelihood is they will walk away. In the workplace people may walk away, or they may stay, disengaged and demoralised.
We are always conscious someone else on the team might know better, that ideas developed together are more likely to deliver, and that the full involvement of every volunteer and guest will ensure that we deliver all we can. We constantly ask people what they do, find out the skills they have, and use them for the benefit of our guests. From CV writing to archery, we find ways to let everyone’s talent make a difference. Crisis has taught me that engaging discretionary effort is often as simple as inviting people’s participation and remembering to never take people for granted, pay cheque or not.
Crisis really brings to life for me that mystical being ‘The Organisation’. As a project that sets up for weeks rather than months, that being never really has a chance to emerge. It never becomes something we blame, never dictates, never takes on a life full of its own self-importance. The small, amazing team of staff who support the project are always focused on what they can do to enable volunteers. As volunteers we realise that Crisis is us: a group of people creating and delivering something special.
It’s said that ‘volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy’. At our volunteer briefing we often say that whatever is happening in the world outside, the community that develops within those walls each evening is the one we create together. Crisis has taught me that regardless of what’s going on around us there is so much we can do to create the kinds of environments in which we can all feel welcome, participate and thrive.
A Crisis guest once told me “the first thing I lost on the streets was eye contact”. Think about that for a second. It’s a sobering thought. It has taught me to never walk past someone on the streets without sharing that basic human dignity.
It has also caused me to reflect deeply about whether I really ‘see’ the people I work with, whether that is noticing people in the lift, writing policies truly with colleagues in mind, or delivering a performance appraisal in a way that has someone feel truly seen. My New Year’s resolution is to seek to create teams and organisations in which that longing can be fulfilled.
Is that a fairy tale? A pipe-dream? Perhaps that’s what New Year’s resolutions and volunteering are all about. If we can dream it we can do it.
Are you interested in volunteering this year? Made a New Year’s resolution of your own? There are many organisations right across the country who rely on volunteers to help them deliver the amazing work that they do. Your skills could be vital, and I have no doubt that what you would get back would be more than you give.
Siobhan Sheridan is civilian HR director at the Ministry of Defence and HR magazine's Most Influential Practitioner of 2017