Volunteer managers as creative producers


Part of NCVO’s International Volunteer Managers Day 2015 series.

Ben Jarman is a researcher, currently looking at practice in prison volunteering for Clinks, as part of a project commissioned by central government. Ben previously worked as a volunteer manager at Fine Cell Work, and a secondary schoolteacher before that.

Ben would like to hear from organisations that involve volunteers in their work in prisons; if you know of any good examples, please send Ben an email by early December.

I once had a conversation with a friend who is a producer of contemporary dance shows. I’d never seen myself as very creative, I said, and couldn’t imagine myself doing what she does. Ah, she said, ‘creativity is spread more widely than you think’.

She explained how many ‘creative’ types need support when dealing with other vital tasks that they don’t always feel as motivated to do, such as funding applications, or negotiation with venues. Creation, in that context, wasn’t just choreography and performance; it also meant a ‘producer’ creating space in which the finished piece could be devised and performed.

Managing volunteers in a restrictive environment

I used to think back to this conversation when I explained to people what it was like to be a volunteer manager. I worked for Fine Cell Work (FCW), a charity that teaches prisoners to produce skilled, paid, creative needlework. The use of volunteers imparted something different to the relationships involved, many of which were long-lasting and profoundly rehabilitative.

The involvement of a volunteer, especially in the long-term prisons that FCW mostly works in, can help break down the ‘them and us’ culture of prison. It also means a lot to some prisoners that someone from outside wants to give up their free time to work with them, and that they don’t represent the prison or ‘the system’.

With volunteers in prison though, there is often a need for some ‘production’. Volunteers are not professionals but independent individuals, and whilst there need to be safe boundaries around their work, they also need to be allowed some leeway to let the work express who they are – rather than simply being expected to fulfil a defined role to the letter.

Grey areas

What should you do, for example, with a request like the following? A volunteer phones the office saying that one of her stitchers (a current prison inmate) has spent several months making a quilt as a personal project, using scrap materials. He wants to send it as a gift to his elderly father outside the prison. The volunteer asks whether she can bring it out and send it on the stitcher’s behalf. She knows that there are very strict rules around items entering and leaving prisons. But the request is so positive, so kind – it seems wrong to say no.

Or to take another example; a volunteer brings to your attention that a recently released stitcher, whom she has worked with for many years in prison, has sent her a friend request on Facebook. She is not very comfortable about it, but is aware that he was very anxious before release, having been imprisoned for more than ten years. She knows that the prison forbids contact between people who have been released and those who are still working in the prison, but she’s worried about the stitcher.

Or a final example; a volunteer arrives at the prison expecting to run a class, but is refused access to the prison by the gate staff, who give her a vague, security-related explanation. She made an 80-mile round trip to the prison and is far from happy that her journey has been wasted. She goes home and later phones your office to say that she has noted the identity of the officer on the gate and plans to send in a complaint. She asks you whom the complaint should go to.

In none of these cases is there a definite rule or policy to follow. Instead there are courses of action, each carrying its own likely consequences. Helping someone get something they want can be a powerful way to build trust. But prisons are restrictive places – for good reason – and this can generate powerful senses of frustration or unfairness, on your own behalf or that of others.

How should you respond?

It is rarely wise to act directly on your first instinct in these situations. Cultivating patience, circumspection, and the habit of consulting others before acting is important. Trust can take a long time to build and only a few moments to lose, and in prison (as in life) little of worth can be achieved without it.

And thus the role of the volunteer manager was often similar to my friend’s work as a producer. Positioned between a problem and its possible solutions, my role was often to help think through a situation and weigh up the pros and cons of different courses of action. Sometimes it involved extra fact-finding, and only very rarely did it involve giving an outright ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.

Most importantly for me, though, was that it involved respecting the independence and responsibility of volunteers. You cannot expect that prison work will generate only predictable, clear-cut situations.

What would you have done in each of these situations? Let me know in the comments section below.


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