Skip to Main Content

The Case for Transparency

I want to look at what happens when a project receives funding, a project that has been entirely volunteer-led, where people have provided their considerable skills and expertise for free. That is the transition Edible Landscapes London (ELL) is going through right now. It's an issue that can cause such bad feeling that a project can fall apart or stumble along dysfunctionally. I've seen it happen a hundred times. So how can we prevent it?

all conspiracy theories breed beneath the rocks of obscurity

Eel larvaWherever something isn't clear or understood, people will automatically invent an explanation. This is helpful if you're the storyteller, creating a myth to explain the sudden eruption of a volcano. It's less helpful when it's your project and what's created is a conspiracy theory which feeds everyone's paranoia, fear and insecurity.

People have written dissertations on the problematic relationship between volunteers and paid workers. A pretty bad scenario for you, a new volunteer, is to wander into a project and not know who is another volunteer like you and who is getting paid to be there. Although you may be able to understand the logic of having a paid person to, say, manage a project, how annoying to find out later on that someone was getting paid for their time while you weren't. And why did they get the job anyway, surely you're just as capable? And was that post advertised or did they just get it because they were friends with so and so? And did they just get you to do something that was actually part of their job description? Are they treating you like slave labour to do all the grunt work? Are they preventing you from developing your skill set by getting you to do the watering and weeding?

As for the person getting paid, they may be fed up with 'unreliable volunteers' who turn up when they feel like it, take up loads of time being shown the ropes and then do their job badly. Even though they're getting paid, they may not be getting paid much but feel that most of the work is still landing on their shoulders – especially all the boring administrative stuff. They're putting in lots of time at home and that no one appreciates what they do. They may feel judged and unfairly treated, as if the volunteers are expecting them to deliver miracles.

Talk about a can of worms.

SquidThe obvious thing to do here is to be completely transparent – with job descriptions, with rates of pay, with the recruitment process, everything. It means the project manager (for want of a better title) must talk to everyone all the time, from the newest volunteer who is just forming an opinion about the project, to the volunteer who was there from the start whose motivations and expectations you might be making assumptions about. This is difficult to achieve in practice because of the way projects can rapidly evolve. I project manage ELL. One thing I've noticed is that because people are not massively chatty in our online discussion forum, I held the view that people were not particularly interested in the nitty gritty and that they just wanted to turn up and take part. This led me to make decisions without bothering to mention it. A sense that "no one cares so I'll just decide". Wrong. Especially when it comes to anything to do with money, even if it's not very much money.

If we think about the problems associated with 'normal' working environments they are often to do with lack of transparency – all of the issues to do with discontent, with pay inequalities – the real and perceived lack of fairness. Secrecy and confidentiality can disguise all sorts of shabby behaviour and it's a ripe old breeding ground for every conspiracy theory going. If we, as transitioners, are trying to do things differently we need to be prepared to be upfront about what we're earning and explicit about our processes. This isn't as simple as it sounds.

One recent conversation we've had at ELL is about the 'going rate' of pay for course tutors. Up until now tutors have donated their time but there is talk of tutors getting paid. So we might agree in theory that people should be paid fairly for the work they do, at the 'going rate'. Fair enough, but what if that means we'll have to charge so much for our training the very people we're trying to attract will be excluded? Would we have to put a cap on the number of people who can pay less or pay by volunteering, so we earn enough money? We might decide to keep the courses accessible by paying the tutors at a lower rate. But some people will feel that they'd rather volunteer their time than be paid a tokenistic amount. They might want the money raised to go back into the project. They might feel resentful if another tutor is 'taking money from the project' while they aren't. Other people on the project won't want to be forced to be overpaid (i.e. they have low rent or are supported financially by someone else) or they may not want the paperwork created by earning money – the tax implications. Yadi yadi ya!

Whatever we decide we are already telling course attendees what their fee is used for and we already publish our accounts. The conversations about money are open and ongoing...

Ice FishIn tandem with the conversations about paying the tutors who have been teaching on our informal courses up until now, is another one about recruiting tutors to deliver the training funded by the lottery. We want to deliver accredited training, creating courses that didn't exist before, working in partnership with the Permaculture association and local training bodies. This is very exciting. But how is it going to work with 'outside' 'professional' tutors coming in to deliver training – tutors on accredited training have to hold an appropriate qualification. How will the dynamic work? How will it feel for them and for us? What if the professional tutors are blatantly less good than our volunteer ones? Or the other way around?

As well as these new accredited courses, we will be running the two day 'Introduction to Permaculture' training several times. Because the tutor and student fees are subsidised by lottery money, we will effectively be undercutting the local courses that are currently offered by other groups in north London. However, we know pretty much all the people from these groups and are working with them, so this shouldn't be a problem. But I wonder if other organisations have had issues where one person's livelihood is undercut by some lottery or grant funded project which imports tutors?

I can't pretend that we know how to balance all these different factors or that we have answers to all these questions. We don't. We haven't. At this point, it's enough for us hold fast to our intentions of clarity and transparency, while keeping our project goals in sight. Like all the best juggling acts it's probably fun to watch but takes a helluva lot of practice!

Images: Eel larva by Mie Prefecture Fisheries Research Institute, Glass Squid by Peter Batson, Crocodile Ice Fish by Uwe Kils.


Kerry Lane's picture

Cans of worms

This is such an important topic. I have come across many similar situations and it really is so hard to handle. You at least sound like you are taking the right approach so best of luck in making it work! Communicate, communicate, communicate!