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Volunteers were the heroes of the London tube strike: London Zoo could do better

I was very impressed by the work of volunteers during the tube strike in London yesterday.

I set off on my morning commute expecting chaos. But at both Victoria and Earl’s Court stations, there were plenty of cheery, easy-to-find, orange vest-clad Transport for London volunteers advising travellers how to reach their destinations.

I didn’t have to wait long to speak to one, and neither did the other commuters, none of whom seemed stressed. Perhaps the strike triggered good old-fashioned British stoicism. But the volunteers definitely played their part in keeping what could have been a reputational disaster for TFL under control.

But volunteers don’t always work wonders for the reputations of companies and charities. A few weeks ago, I went to the London Zoo’s Zoo Lates event, at which hundreds of people spent the evening drinking Pimm’s, eating burgers and wandering around the animal enclosures – a brilliant fundraising event for the zoo.

As my friend and I strolled through the monkey enclosure, we noticed an over-zealous volunteer marshalling the crowds.

“Stand back from that tree!” she shouted at one couple. “It’s the monkey’s space!” Another group of visitors was told off for spending too long looking at some baby monkeys.

The response was interesting. “Ignore her,” one visitor said. “She’s only a volunteer and she’s getting hung up on her own power.”

The zoo volunteer was obviously not working the wonders for the zoo’s reputation that the Tube volunteers were working for TFL’s. My instinctive reaction was that it came down to volunteer management – shouldn’t organisations vet their volunteers properly before they let them speak directly to the public on their behalf?

But perhaps that would undermine the point of volunteering. Volunteers aren’t one-size-fits-all and they can’t be vetted and controlled in the way paid staff can. They enjoy making their own mark, and if they weren’t enjoying it they wouldn’t do it.

So perhaps charities – and other organisations that use volunteers – need to accept that alongside a reputational bonus, hiring volunteers involves a big reputational risk.

  • Charlie Smith

    I dont think the people you saw yesterday in the orange were volunteers in the conventional sense – they were strike breaking TfL staff who had been called in by the management and probably been paid extra or given other incentives by TfL management

  • Charlie Smith

    Its arguable that in the case of teh zoo they should have used employed staff for this role as it is a routine management role – volunteers should be used to add something extra not as a means of saving money on conventional staff.

  • sam S

    Ms Wiggins your naivete is astounding – do you not have any idea of how the world works?

    As others have said far from being heroes the oh so helpful TfL staff yesterday are actually scab labour willing to undermine their fellow workers’ efforts. Management/ Boris have obviously given them a payoff to do it.

    We must guard against this in the voluntary sector too – all to often in the past the cost advantage we as charities have is gained because workers are on worse conditions that conventional public sector staff.

  • Kaye Wiggins

    Thanks for the comments. I should point out that I deliberately avoided casting any aspersions as to who the volunteers were and why they were doing it, and I steered clear of the politics of trade unionism and the rights and wrongs of the strike.

    The point I was making was that the orange-bibbed helpers were presented to the public as volunteers, and as such they did a very good job of protecting and enhancing TFL’s reputation. In contrast to this, the person London Zoo presented to the public as a volunteer failed to do so.