How can arts companies, low on budget and short on time, refuse the offer of free labour? Cathryn Peach tells how her company welcomes volunteers but tries to give them something back.

Photo of festival volunteer
A volunteer at the Just So Festival

You don’t have to delve far into the arts sector to know that volunteering has become a controversial topic. Volunteer and intern have become words to besmirch the moral status of many arts companies. But volunteers are the lifeblood for us at Wild Rumpus. For their abundance of skill, radiant enthusiasm (when many staff start to feel the lag of weeks of late nights) and sheer number of available hands. They give us a fresh perspective on how to do things, reconnect us to the reasons why we find the arts so inspiring, and remind us of all the invigorating talent that is being developed across the UK.

But paying for travel? Reimbursing expenses? It just isn’t possible. We just keep ourselves afloat with our three full-time and one part-time members of staff, all with very heavy workloads. We are set to put on four large-scale events this year, alongside large roles in two consortiums and a national campaign.

I make sure our volunteers are appropriately placed in roles, will meet people with relevant connections and get the kind of responsibility they want

I can hear the choruses. Scale back your plans! Adjust your finances! It doesn’t justify free labour! Scaling back causes a catch 22 situation – fewer numbers equals fewer ticket sales, and fewer ticket sales equals less income. What about increasing our ticket prices? Well, this leads us to our audience – we might talk about pricing working-class volunteers out of the game, but the same can be said for our audience.

At Wild Rumpus this guided us to look at how best we could support, develop and inspire our volunteers. Could we enable their time with us to be as low-cost as possible for all parties, and yet of the highest benefit? What were volunteers really looking to gain from their time with us? We went into the areas they were working and learning in to advocate for positive volunteering roles, break down stereotypes of the arts, advise regarding career paths and discuss the obstacles to volunteer work. In order to tackle financial hurdles we began working in collaboration. With universities, so that travel expenses were covered by placement programmes, and with private sponsors – organic fruit and veg company Abel and Cole generously supplied food in 2014 for all our volunteers.

What we found out from our conversations was that our volunteers wanted three things: community, skills and career development

Community meant people that could inspire them, push them and who they could be friends with. So we took time to build them into the fabric of the festival. This takes a depth of relationship, carefully creating a pastoral structure before volunteers arrive with us, and embedding it straightaway. Being around when they are having their morning cups of tea, beside them when they are sewing bunting or putting out fire lanes and maintaining it over social media, newsletters and personal conversations long after they leave our gates.

They also wanted to develop skills. We now hold annual weekends in our woods for a host of volunteers, with training workshops and making and building sessions. They also get the chance to talk closely with those who have extensive experience of the arts. This is repeated on site for those unable to access the weekend.

Career development is a hugely motivating factor so I make sure our volunteers are appropriately placed in roles, will meet people with relevant connections and get the kind of responsibility they want. Afterwards we take pains to link our volunteers with companies. They have gone on to work on theatre and film sets, on city centre parade pieces, with ground-breaking organisations and in productions roles internationally. Through support from Arts Council England we have also developed an incubator space, named The Forge, which is a woodland studio space to support the transition between voluntary work into professional freelancing. It offers free electricity, internet and studio space alongside commissions and surgeries.

There is a difference between volunteering and being unpaid for professional work, the latter being something we are keen to tackle. Equity’s latest campaign Professionally Made Professionally Made does a great job of supporting chronically underpaid professionals. It is important though to highlight the intrinsic difference between the two. The arts sector needs to work hard to adjust its attitude towards artists, volunteers and staff, by creating a platform for the great and the good that volunteering does, rather than magnifying its evils. Let’s begin discussions around how we make volunteering accessible and successful for all, both for the volunteer and the arts company.

Cathryn Peach is Creative Producer of Wild Rumpus.

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Photo of Cathryn Peach