Discouraging Volunteers

Libraries are always in need of more money, and volunteers who get together to raise funds on their behalf are known as Friends of the Library. In my town, the Friends have raised more than $120,000 for our libraries during the last 25 years.

There are Friends organizations across Canada and the US, but they are mostly unconnected. Each has its own approach to fundraisingbooksale. Our two big annual events are a puzzle sale in the early spring and a quiz night in the fall. Those aside, we have ongoing book sales and a range of other activities to raise money. Almost all our events are held in the main library itself.

The funds we raise go to buy furniture and equipment, special books and other needs, and our libraries (we serve three) have always been appreciative.

Until last year. Then, at the urging of their insurer, our library system informed us our members must submit to police background checks and fingerprinting or we would not be covered in the event of an accident or lawsuit. In other words, if a member of the public hurt his or her back while picking up a puzzle, we would be liable. Likewise, if someone swallowed a pencil during Quiz Night.

Now, my first reaction to this was, Who would think of doing such a thing? Who would be so churlish as to sue one or all of a group of well-meaning volunteers? But that’s not the right reaction these days. Such people do exist and our members, many of whom are retired, were unamused at the prospect of being put at risk by their voluntarism.

The library subsequently removed its demand for background checks and fingerprinting—but also said it couldn’t afford to insure us. Casting about for a way out of this dilemma (while thinking black thoughts about those who bite the hand that feeds them) we hit on a solution: we could become a society and purchase our own insurance. This would cost about $500 annually, money that would otherwise have gone to the library.

It would also require time and effort on the part of our executive committee. There are legal implications and obligations to becoming a society, and questions to be answered before we can make a decision, and so we have had to cancel our normal summer fund-raisers until these matters can be resolved.

Which brings me to my question: Why would anyone want to discourage free help? It’s hard tvolunteero find a downside to people volunteering their time and energy free of charge to help the organization of their choice. It’s good for the organization, good for the volunteers and good for society. Volunteers help keep down costs and enable entities to spend money elsewhere.

When society makes it hard for people to volunteer their time, we all lose. It’s immaterial who puts up the impediments: unions or management, insurers or government bureaucrats. By discouraging the natural and healthy impulse to donate our time and energy to good causes, they are robbing our communities and our society.

As to our Friends organization, I’m sure we’ll figure out something to do. But we’ve already had to expend time and energy on these completely unproductive side issues just so that we can go back to doing what we wanted to do in the first place: raise money to help out the library.

Whose Land Is It, Anyway?

A few years ago, I needed a filler job to pay the bills, so I hired on at a local customer service call centre. I was assigned to a contract for Highly Personal printers. My job was to help people who phoned in with problems or questions about their printers.

One day I took a call from a woman in the Bronx, Vera by name. Vera was Jewish, she told me, and wrote and produced a newsletter for Kurds.

The Middle East
I’ve always had a soft spot for the Kurds. They were never given any land of their own, back in the early 20th century when Europeans were dividing up the Middle East. The Kurds were pushed from pillar to post, but they never stopped trying for a peaceful settlement with Iraq, or Iran or Turkey or Syria, or whomever. And Vera wrote a newsletter about this and about the people.

We had a good chat about the Kurds, and after we had put in Vera’s order for a replacement printer and were waiting for the confirmation and shipping details, I asked if I could ask her a question. Sure, she said (actually, “shuah”—she’s from the Bronx).

“So . . . what do you think about Israel, Vera? I mean, is that a good thing?” I’d never been able to decide if carving out a Jewish state in the Middle East was wise, even if it was eminently understandable in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

Vera was silent for a bit. “You know,” she said at last, “every square foot of land on earth was owned by someone else at one time or another.”

The confirmation for her printer shipment came through at that point, so we said goodbye soon after. But I’ve often reflected on that observation, and it resonates whenever I re-read one of my favorite books, John MacNab.

I revisit this novel every few years, usually in August, the time of year in which the story takes place. It’s a light read and highly entertaining. It isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I love it because it’s set in Scotland and because I’ve been stalking there, so I know how hard that pastime is.

The story was written by John Buchan of Thirty-Nine Steps fame. It is one of his lesser-known books, a delightful tale of three eminent gentlemen who decide to turn to poaching to relieve their boredom. To up the ante slightly, they inform the owners of the three estates chosen for their depredations that John MacNab will collect a stag or a salmon from the estate between certain specified dates, thus assuring themselves of a warm welcome.

In short, John MacNab is Buchan’s way of exploring land rights. One of the substories concerns the discovery of ancient Norse ruins on one of the estates, ruins indicating that a thousand years earlier the land was owned and occupied by one Harald Blacktooth. In another substory a young woman tells her young man that no one should have the right to just sit on their property collecting rents; that ownership must be justified, not once but regularly, so that no owner can take his property for granted.

Buchan was Governor General of Canada during the thirties, and I sometimes wonder what his views on Indian land rights might have been. This is a subject that may underpin a sequel to my new book Return to Kaitlin, so I’ve been researching the question over the past few weeks. More on the subject down the road.


Living Dangerously

“It’s against regulations.” The phrase is everywhere these days.

When four boxes of books arrived from my printer, the delivery driver backed his vehicle up to the garage but would not carry the books inside. “It’s against regulations,” he said.

I bent to lift a box while he stood flatfooted at the entrance to the garage and watched. It turns out regulations now forbid delivery operators, haulers and other shippers from carrying anything across the threshold.

Where you stand on this depends on your liking for government regulation. For my part, I’d much rather see the problem of on-the-job injury tackled company by company or even industry by industry. That way, we might see one sector or business leapfrog another with different techniques or solutions. Instead, we have a blanket rule imposed on all businesses. As far as I can see, this permits no latitude to the business and allows no room for individual judgement by the driver.

Exercising your judgement is part of what enables you to grow as an individual. Does it overstate the problem to suggest that excessive regulation stunts personal growth? I don’t think so. But these days flouting the regulations means you’re living dangerously, in more ways than one.