And the value of nothing.
Updated: Aug 3, 2020
When it comes down to it, freelance copywriting is about producing a bespoke product. Whether it’s ready-priced work through an agency, or a brief closely worked on with a client , my role is essentially the same: write the required copy, send it in, job done. I craft text and hand it over to the client. The work belongs to them and, though I might feel a degree of professional pride in the finished product, it's a commercial transaction.
So my feelings on recently finishing a piece of voluntary work took me by surprise. I’d been overhauling a local club’s website. It’s a club for members who participate in a particular outdoor sport - I don’t want to say which one, since that would identify the club! Like countless similar clubs, it runs on volunteers, and I’d taken the work on a voluntary basis - 'a favour' I think were the words used.
Then came the slippage in the brief: updating a bit of site content somehow morphed into building a replacement site from scratch. Much time and effort later, I’d built a shiny new site. Without any doubt, it promotes the club much more effectively. That’s not just my view; the feedback from members confirms it, as does the overwhelming increase in hits and the surge in new membership enquiries coming through it.
So when the club’s governing committee decided it was time to take back control of the site I felt affronted. I’d been used. They didn’t appreciate the work I’d put in, or the value of what I’d delivered. They didn’t have the first idea about how to manage it, and the person who'd be in charge of it only wanted to fluff-out their CV. Amateurs!
Once I’d cooled off, I rationalised that I’d always known this would happen once the committee considered the work to be finished. It’s probably true that they don’t know what they’re doing, but they’re elected by the members to run the club. It's their prerogative to make all the decisions, and if they do mess it up, that’s no reflection on me!
Having said that, the whole episode left a bad taste and has changed the way I feel about volunteering, or at least volunteering my professional skills. I'll definitely think twice the next time a friend says something like, 'you write stuff, don't you - could you help us out?' The blurring of lines around professionalism and 'favours' can get very messy.
I also found myself reflecting on the relationship between work, control, ownership and output. I’ve never been precious about my work product. Even when a client’s decisions confound my professional advice, I recognise their ultimate right to make them.
So what was different this time? I suppose it’s obvious when you think about it; I just never had. It boils down to the intrinsic qualities of the relationship between volunteer and beneficiary.
By definition, volunteers are motivated by reasons other than financial reward, so they’re more likely to be personally invested in whatever they've volunteered to do. Paradoxically, there’s a tendency to devalue the work volunteers do, simply because the cost is the individual’s time and effort, not the organisation’s outlay.
To be clear, though volunteers have my greatest respect, I’m not advocating volunteering as a model for work. In my view, work should be adequately remunerated. I’m aware of the argument that many organisations can only survive with voluntary labour, but I’m not always convinced about the direction of cause and effect in that context, particularly in relation to public services.
But I wonder how many managers genuinely understand and value the commitment voluntary workers bring to organisations. I know of plenty of organisations that treat volunteers like a second tier, second class workforce - primarily because they can get away with it.
It’ll be interesting to see after the Covid 19 crisis, and the army of NHS volunteers it has generated, if we've changed the way we value employees and volunteers as a society. Will we continue to appreciate the value of all those 'low-skilled' occupations (which turned out to be so much more vital to a functioning society after all) and our public services workers, whether paid or unpaid, when the Thursday evening applause has faded away?