Volunteering, French style

I’ve had a professional life working in Public Service – employers included the Probation Service and local authorities.  So there’s nothing you can tell me about politically correct, right-on in-service training.  Some of it was good – very good – some of it was bad, and some was even horrid, but over the years, there was plenty of it.

Well, I retired.  I came to France, and put that part of my life behind me.  I assumed.  Wrongly.  I’ve written before about Découverte Terres Lointaines, and now I’m a co-President.  So I thought I should join the other co-president, Sylvia, and do my bit by attending a training evening in Foix for people involved in working with volunteers.

Billed erroneously as a ‘Round Table’ it turned out to be a series of presentations to more then 100 of us packed into a hot room too small to accommodate us.  Sample subject: ‘ Financial relationships between voluntary organisations and statutory bodies’.  Between the heat, the poor sound system and the generally ungripping nature of the subject matter, and stuck in the back row unable to see much, I soon lost interest, and fell to musing instead about how I’ve perceived the differences between volunteering in France and in England.

Back in the UK, most towns of any consequence have a Council for Voluntary Organisations which is an umbrella organisation offering all kinds of support to huge numbers of charitable organisations: advice, support for those with life changing conditions and diseases or other difficulties, concerned with trees, animals, people, volunteering indoors, outdoors, by day and by night.  Would-be volunteers are offered help in matching their skills and enthusiasms with organisations who would welcome their time and effort, whether they want to roll their sleeves up and get stuck in, lend a listening ear, or take further training to enhance their skills for the voluntary sector.

Here in this part of France – and I understand things are very different in the north – there seem to be few opportunities for the would-be volunteer outside sporting and similar physical pursuits for young people.  ‘Secours Populaire’, ‘Secours Catholique’ , ‘Emmaus’, Croix Rouge  and ‘Restos du Coeur’ all offer much-needed practical help to the very poor and those at the margins of society: but despite my best efforts, I’ve not found other volunteering opportunities.  This is in part because there is a strong belief that the state should provide those essential back-up services which the UK largely relies on the voluntary sector for.  There’s a strong belief too that if you offer those services, you should expect to be paid.  There’s a lot in this of course.

But my experience of the voluntary sector in England is that it’s no longer about Lord  and Lady Bountiful doing their bit for those less fortunate than themselves, if it ever was.  It’s a two-way street in which the volunteer receives as well as gives: fellowship, new skills, new confidence, a sense of worth, even a chance to polish the CV.  Judging by the scrum at the meeting in Foix last night, perhaps this is happening in France too.

4 thoughts on “Volunteering, French style”

  1. Interesting post, Margaret. I think traditionally people here have done their volunteering bit via very local associations – though I read very recently in La Depeche that many assos are folding because they simply can’t find enough people willing to take active roles. But (so far at least) I’ve found the approach here very different from that in England – I too worked a lot with volunteers over the years, and it felt to me as though the whole ‘volunteering’ scene there was becoming more and more professionalised, with expectations on a par with those doing often an identical job in a paid role ….. for example, as a counselling supervisor I had supervisees who were voluntary counsellors whose role was no different AT ALL from my (paid) co-workers – and sometimes they were actually much more experienced therapists! Can’t see that happening here, for all the reasons you’ve cited. And to be honest for me that’s not a bad thing; I was beginning to feel that in England the balance was – well, becoming unbalanced (not a popular view, I know – I seem to be known for those :-))

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    1. No, I do agree with much of what you say. I never voted for Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. But again looking at personal experience, I know professional paid mediators who learnt their basic skills and enthusiasm as volunteer mediators: and I owe many of my own paid professional skills to things I learnt as a volunteer. That, I think, is what’s enriching.

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  2. Interesting thoughts Margaret, I hope you find something you will like soon, you are right about getting back as much as you give and all the fun of volunteering.

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    1. I was thinking of you and ‘Open Country’ as I wrote it. That works so well for all parties from your account. I know you work REALLY hard, but all the participants seem to get so much back. x

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