THE WORK OF VOLUNTEERS IN THE ORGANISATION OF CHARITY.
(first published in Macmillan’s Magazine, October, 1872)
IT is clear to those who are watching the work closely, and
must even be apparent to those less conversant with the subject, that a great
and growing conviction is abroad that our charitable efforts need concentrating,
systematising, and uniting. There are many signs that this conviction is bearing
practical fruit. All the thirty Poor-Law districts into which London is divided
are now provided with committees for organising charitable relief. The formation
of these committees has led gentlemen specially interested in the subject to
come forward in various parts of London as candidates for the office of
Guardians; several such candidates have been elected in St. George’s,
Kensington, Marylebone, and other parishes. Nor is the movement confined to
London. Charity Organisation Societies, or others of a kindred nature, have been
established in most of the large towns of England and Scotland. Conversation,
newspapers, conferences, all bear witness how very generally it is now
recognised that something ought to be done to improve our system of charitable
relief some co-operation secured between Poor-Law and charity, and some
efficient means adopted to render alms less pauperising than they have hitherto
been. It is becoming clear to the public that there is a right and a wrong, a
wise and an unwise charity. Those who have the interests of the poor at heart
are learning, more and more, to consult experienced people before taking any
direct steps towards trying to help those who apply to them for aid; those who
wish to give money are beginning to entrust it to enlightened committees,
instead of endeavouring to distribute it themselves.
It becomes almost needless now to enlarge on the evils of “overlapping,”—that is, of various charitable agencies covering the same ground whilst ignorant of each other’s proceedings; or to dwell on the cruelty of the utter want of system which has hitherto prevailed—to point to poor families assisted by three or four agencies at times when they needed help least, and others neglected by all at times when they needed it most. It would not be difficult to give examples of these evils, and to show that they are inseparable from the condition of large towns wherever nothing is done to secure unity of action amongst those who are trying to assist the poor.
Much has been done. The evils of overlapping, on the one hand, and of neglect on the other, are being swept away wherever organisation committees, with their machinery for thorough investigation, and relief societies with their power to assist, are in existence. By means of this system of inquiry into the merits of cases a great degree of uniformity in dealing with them is secured; no relief is given without due consideration, no poor person who chooses to apply can fail to have a hearing for his or her case, and similar needs will meet with a similar response. All this is no small gain. But now a new danger seems to be arising; a danger lest, rushing from one extreme to another, we should leave to committees, with their systems of rules, the whole work of charity, and deprive this great organising movement of all aid from what I may call the personal element. The value of this element seems to me to be inestimable. Charity owes all its graciousness to the sense of its coming from a real friend. We want to bring the rich and poor, the educated and uneducated, more and more into direct communication. We want to enlist the thought, knowledge, sympathy, foresight, and gentleness of the educated in the service of the poor, and must beware of raising up barriers of committees between those who should meet face to face. There is beyond all doubt in almost every town a great amount of volunteer work to be had, which, were it organised and concentrated, would achieve infinitely more than its best efforts can now accomplish. There is always, however, a difficulty in calculating to any great extent on volunteer work, inasmuch as it is apt to be disconnected, desultory, and untrained.
It is true that where an energetic body of visitors is gathered together under able and vigilant guidance—where their districts are small, their visits frequent, their written records simple and complete, and gaps in their ranks quickly filled up, so that their work is not intermittent—they form a powerful agency for good. Such societies are usually the first to see the importance of putting themselves into communication with other charitable bodies; and when they do this, little improvement in the machinery is requisite. But it is also sadly true that the work of a number of earnest and devoted volunteers is thrown away because their districts are too large, their duties indefinite, and their work unconnected with that of others labouring according to a definite plan.
Several things, then, appear to me to be evident :—(1) that if the poor are to be raised to a permanently better condition, they must be dealt with as individuals and by individuals; (2) that for this hundreds of workers are necessary; and (3) that this multitude of helpers is to be found amongst volunteers—whose aid, as we arrange things at present, is to a great extent lost. The problem to be solved, therefore, is how to collect our volunteers into a harmonious whole—the action of each being free, yet systematised; and how thus to administer relief through the united agency of corporate bodies and private individuals; how, in fact, to secure all the personal intercourse and friendliness, all the real sympathy, all the graciousness of individual effort, without losing the advantage of having relief voted by a central committee, and according to definite principles. The way in which this problem has been dealt with in one small district of London will be seen in the following pages. Every district will, no doubt, have to deal with the question in a somewhat different way, which must be determined by its special circumstances; but the sub-joined sketch of a plan now in operation is given because it is always easier to see how a scheme will work when it comes before us as an actual fact, with a definite place and history, than when its bare principles only are laid down.
The working of the plan is not yet by any means perfect. There are many flaws still to be remedied, many breaks still to be filled up. It might, perhaps, have been better to delay writing about it till the working was made more complete, had it not been that the plan has been successful so far, and that it promises to be increasingly so. Besides, this seems the time when an account of a practical scheme for using individual work in conjunction with that of committees may be of real value. The need of some such scheme is felt with regard to the Poor-Law. The Poor-Law authorities have lately called the attention of Boards of Guardians to the success of the Elberfeld system, which depends on the careful and systematic inquiries of a large number of volunteer visitors. The Macclesfield Board of Guardians has already invited volunteers to aid it under the name of Assistant-Guardians. The same want is felt with regard to charity. On all sides we hear of people willing to give their time if only they could be sure of doing good. They are dissatisfied, they say, with district visiting, which creates so much discontent and poverty, and does so little lasting good; they want to know of some way in which their efforts may fit in with more organised work.
In the district in which the following plan has been tried, the poorer inhabitants have for years been accustomed to make their applications for relief daily, between nine and ten o’clock, at a house situated in the centre of the parish. The mode of administering relief has been changed, but the house is still used for the reception of applications. The names are taken down, and one of the blank forms used by the Charity Organisation Society* (*N.B.—To save confusion, the District Committee of the Charity Organisation Society is throughout this paper spoken of as the Charity Organisation Society. This seemed the simplest way to distinguish it from the Relief Committee.) is filled up with the account given by the applicant of himself and his circumstances. The form will then contain a statement of the names and ages, occupation, and earnings of every member of the applicant’s family, his present and his previous address, the parish relief he receives (if any), the name of the club or benefit society to which he belongs (if there be such), the particular help he asks for, and the ground of the application. The form is immediately for warded to the Charity Organisation Society, who thoroughly investigate the information it contains by means of a paid officer. It is returned with its statements either verified or contradicted, and now shows, in addition to what it contained before, the report of the relieving officer, that of the minister of any denomination with which the applicant is connected, and his character as given by his previous landlord and other references. On the day ~vhen the application is first made, and the Charity Organisation Society apprised of it, a postcard or other message is sent to the visitor of the street or court where the applicant resides. This informs her of the application, and also that she is expected to send in on the ensuing Friday any information regarding the case which she may already have, or may learn from a visit paid during the week. She at the same time gives her advice as to the best way of dealing with the application. The Relief Committee (of the constitution of which we will speak presently) meets every Friday evening. They have before them not only the valuable information of the Charity Organisation Society, gathered, sifted, and examined by their paid officer and representative committee, but also the detailed account of a volunteer, who brings to bear on the case a fresher and more personal sympathy than a paid agent ordinarily possesses, who has much more patience to listen to, and probably more patience to elicit the little facts on which so much may depend. Anyone will appreciate the value of this who has had experience of the difficulty of obtaining the evidence of uneducated people, women more especially; they are nervously confused, they cannot understand what are the real points of the case, nor state them clearly; often the most important fact of all comes out apparently quite by accident in the middle of a long sentence after the terror of being questioned has worn off. Thus the reports sent in, even by young or inexperienced visitors, bring forward facts which might never have come to the knowledge of the committee, while the reports of more practised visitors are of still greater value, and not unfrequently suggest far more efficient ways of helping poor families than could have been otherwise devised.
The applicant himself comes before the committee. He can thus explain his prospects, clear up any apparent discrepancy of statement, talk over any new plan proposed by visitor or committee, and receive, without delay, the answer to his application.
Whatever grant is sanctioned, however, or whatever plan of action is suggested, the visitor is entrusted with the management of it, so that where money is given it reaches those helped through a kind friend; and where some plan is recommended, it is tried under the friendly and watchful eyes of one who, owing to the advantages of education, should be wiser in many ways than the applicant. Her power, at any rate, is of a different kind, and may fill in his deficiencies.
The province of the Charity Organisation Society is that of investigation only; while the province of the Relief Committee, before whom all the collected information is placed, and before whom the applicant appears, is that of final decision or relief. It dispenses the funds of the district, receiving money from people of all denominations, and administering help to all denominations without distinction. It is composed of two clergymen, one doctor, one schoolmaster, three tradesmen. In order to secure the attendance of men occupied during the day, this committee meets in the evening. One lady, the referee of the Charity Organisation, always attends as a medium of communication between the visitors, committee, and Charity Organisation Society. Any visitors can attend who wish, but in general they find it more convenient to report by letter. Unless the referee has much time, one paid worker is needed to carry out the work well. In the district just described the former almoner is employed, who has great knowledge of the people. She attends the committee, and her information is found to be most valuable. It is a great advantage to have someone always on the spot. She receives applications, and at once sends notice of them to the visitors and Charity Organisation Society. She communicates to the visitors the decision of the committee, pays them money which is voted for applicants living in their districts, and keeps the accounts. In cases of emergency she visits, but her main object ought always to be to bring the visitors in well to their work.
Such is an outline of the plan adopted as regards its main features. Dry and formal as it may appear in print, I think that anyone who reflects will see how the most intimate, loving, friendly way of reaching the poor through the efforts of kind visitors (each of whom visits chiefly amongst those she knows best) has been secured, whilst any danger. of confusion has been avoided, and the chance of overlapping has been reduced to a minimum.
A few specimens of the kind of cases which may come before the Parish Committee, and of the mode in which they would be dealt with, are here subjoined.
An old woman enters the room. She gives an anxious, nervous glance at the members of the committee. who are sitting round the table. She is asked to take a seat and to answer the questions, which are as kindly put to her as possible. Soon, however, she becomes hopelessly confused, and in her long rambling tale contradicts herself over and over again. It seems to be impossible to discover any reason for her actions —why she lives in so dear a room, why she persistently hides some facts. But reference is made to a note sent by the lady-visitor to the committee. She, in a quiet, friendly talk, has found out all the old woman’s tale. The committee are thus able to understand why she clings to the room she has lived in for so long, though the rent is high; why she works to keep a lodger, when she might live as cheaply alone; why she refuses to tell the names of those’ who help her. All is cleared up; and since her relations seem to be doing their duty, and the parish making the largest allowance which the Guardians think it right to give outside the workhouse, a pension of two shillings a week is granted her for three months. The visitor will pay this pension, and in her weekly visit the friendship will grow. She, unconsciously, perhaps, will supervise the home, and at the end of three months, when the old woman will appear again to have her pension renewed, she will be able to tell of a life which has become quieter and happier.
Or perhaps a younger woman applies. She will tell how illness and misfortune have reduced herself and her husband to poverty. He has at length gone into the workhouse infirmary, where possibly he may linger on for months or years, and she has come to ask for help for herself. The committee see that the only result of a gift would be to destroy her power of self-help, and to tempt her to lean on the uncertain aid of others, while if they helped her adequately the tax on their own funds would be large, and she would be kept in idleness and prevented from fitting herself for future work. She pleads for a little temporary employment, but they tell her that as she has no children to need her care, she had better at once take a place as domestic servant. She says she is not strong enough for hard work. They elicit, however, that she is a good needle-woman, and therefore advise her to seek a place as young lady’s-maid, or wardrobe-keeper in a school. Her reply is, “Thank you, but I’d rather muddle on.” The committee is no doubt right; its decision will help her to face her future, and to see that it is best now, while she is not old, to find an occupation by which she can permanently support herself. Yet she cannot see it at present in this light, it comes to her too suddenly. In spite of the gentle considerateness of the members of the committee, it must be hard for her to face her fate, receive, as it were, the verdict, “No more home,” from a company of people she never saw before. The decision must seem stern. But that night a letter will be despatched to the lady who has charge of the district where she lives, telling her the committee’s decision; the visitor will gently talk to her, advise her, perhaps find a situation for her; when she has resolved to take one, the visitor will herself write to the committee asking for a grant for an advertisement or for clothes.
Others apply to whom the committee recommend a course which seems hard. A little sick child must be sent away into the country. The father of a family must go to a Convalescent Hospital. The large and expensive room must be given up by the old couple whose wages are falling lower and lower. The kitchen, the dampness of which is sapping the children’s strength, must be left; the idle son must be made to work. The advice of the committee is generally refused, but they need not despair. They know that in a day or two the visitor will call—she will tell the mother how kind are those who care for sick children, and will gradually persuade her to send her little one out of the hot, close air which is killing it. She will tell the man how much better it would be to get thoroughly strong than to work on in his weak state; she will stir him up by thoughts of the bright grounds which surround the Convalescent Hospital; and soon she will come to the committee for the offered letter. Going day by day she will break down the apathy and carelessness which has allowed a high rent or an unhealthy situation so long to cripple the strength of the family. She will tell of better and cheaper rooms, she will appeal to both love and prudence, and by kind words to-day, and by stern refusals to-morrow, give help till they so far help themselves as to move. She will go to visit those who are bitterly resenting the decision of the committee not to help so long as the strong son remains idle, or children are kept away from school. She will speak gently and simply of the blessedness of duties; she will tell of the kindness which has seen so far that it would make the idle industrious, the careless careful, the ignorant wise. Perhaps she will find and talk to the truants, or the idler, and them she will induce to go with some of their playmates to school; him she will stir up to apply for the work of which the committee told him. Thus the visitor in her visits will persuade and rouse the people to the action that the committee saw to be good, but were powerless to enforce.
Then there are those who suffer poverty quietly and shrink from making any appeal. These the visitor finds out and sends to the committee for their advice and help. Spirited and hardworking women, high-class working men whose illness has been so long that the club money has ceased, will thus be brought to the notice of the committee, who will go patiently into each case. The woman will probably be offered some work; and though she has a hard life at home, children to care for, and occasional mangling to do, she will make an effort to accept the offer; some means of cure or some quiet work will be proposed to the sick man, or it may be thought well to grant him a regular sum weekly for a time. In all the cases the knowledge of the committee will be brought to bear on the poverty of the striving family that the visitor has discovered.
The visitor, however, may not always appear to advocate assistance; sometimes she comes to discourage it. People will apply whose tale seems good. A man wants work; a girl wants clothes to go to a place. At first it appears as if they would make good use of help. The visitor’s report soon gives another aspect to the case. She will tell how on such a date the man had lost his work through drink, or how the help so often received had been misused; it is clear to the committee now that such a man can only learn by being left to himself, and though he cringingly begs for work, it is refused. The visitor will also tell how the girl has been frequently helped to clothes of which she had made no good use; how situation after situation had been carelessly lost, how weak parents and idle companions had always been ready to back her up in bad ways. The committee are thus able to see that now she must be taught to earn her clothes gradually. So only will she learn her responsibilities and reap the natural reward of labour.
It will be seen from the foregoing illustrations that the endeavour of the committee and of those at work under them is to give help that shall be adequate, and, as far as possible, permanently beneficial. They feel themselves bound, even though the applicant be deserving, to refuse aid which would be a mere temporary stop-gap and confer no lasting benefit, and their aim is in every case to rouse the spirit of independence and self-help.
It will also have been observed how very valuable an element in the working of the scheme the visitor forms; that she is not only a channel through which useful information reaches the committee, but is, in almost every instance, their actual agent in carrying out the plans of help adopted. I must, however, say something further as to the importance of the appointment of some lady or gentleman acting as Referee; that is, as a centre for all the volunteers working as visitors. For if volunteer work is to form a useful part of our scheme of dealing with the people, we must accept those as workers whose work is necessarily intermittent. This must be done in order that we may secure a sufficient number of workers, and not waste, but gather in and use all the overflowing sympathy which is such a blessing to giver and receiver. With our volunteers, home claims must and should come first; and it is precisely those Whose claims are deepest, and whose family life is the noblest, who have the most precious influence in the homes of the poor. But if the work is to be valuable, we must find some way to bind together broken scraps of time, and thus give it continuity in spite of changes and breaks. One great means of doing this is to have a living centre. This should be secured in the referee.
The referee in the district here described was appointed in the first instance by the District Committee of the Charity Organisation Society; she was subsequently asked to attend the Relief Committee, and has since been recognised by the Guardians and the Sub-committee of the School Board as the representative of all the visitors throughout the district: the Guardians kindly send to her, after their weekly meeting, notes of every decision arrived at as to applications for relief; these are immediately passed on by her to the visitor of the particular court where the applicant resides. The School Board has withdrawn its paid agent, and entrusted to her and the staff of visitors acting in concert with her the working of the compulsory clauses of the Education Act. She thus acts as a connecting link between all the various agencies at work in the parish.
It is evident that a catastrophe would ensue if public bodies, such as the Guardians or School Board, attempted to deal directly with such a crude, changeful, and untrained body as our volunteers necessarily form; but, communicating with them through the referee, they can use their aid and find it valuable.
The existence of a referee is a help to the visitors in various ways. She receives applications from all volunteers, introduces them to the clergy and others who need workers, or enrols them as visitors under the Charity Organisation Society in unvisited courts, if such there be. She has nothing to do with their work, so far as it is denominational, but takes note of it so far as it deals with visible help. She introduces temporary or permanent substitutes when visitors are absent from town, or ill, or unable from any other cause to continue their work; so that the threads of it are never broken. She is able to give, in a much more detailed and personal way than any corporate body could do, information as to sources of relief societies available for special cases, as to what visitors of other denominations are doing, and what help the Poor-Law will give. For example: “Can anything be done about Mrs. H——?” a new visitor will ask; “her room is fearfully dirty, and she is so infirm now that she cannot keep it clean. She would be better off in the workhouse.” “I will communicate with the Guardians, and no doubt the relieving officer will visit and report,” the referee will answer. Or another volunteer will ask, “Can you tell me exactly what the law is now as to compulsory attendance at school? There are several bad cases of neglect in my court—what should I do about them?” Or another: “No. 7 in — Street is in a most unhealthy state; can nothing be done?” “Yes, certainly,” the referee will say; “if the drains are really, as you think, not trapped, the landlord can be compelled to do it. Write to the Inspector of Nuisances, and ask him to look into it. He is always most attentive to a request of this kind.” Sometimes the suggestion will come from the referee. “Would you,” she will say to some of the ladies, “make a list of the unvaccinated children in your streets, and tell the mothers how and when most easily to get the neglect remedied? They only want a little spurring up.” Such is the work the ladies find, and the kind of help the referee can give.
Another most important means of securing unity of action is afforded by the written records which the committee make it a point that the visitors should keep—and should keep according to one fixed and definite plan. Each court has its own separate district book; each applicant has his separate page, where the detail regarding him and his family can be found at once. The reports of the relieving officer, of the clergyman, and of any references the applicant may have given, are all found in a condensed form on this same page. An entry is made of every kind of material help given, summed up in a money column each month; and the visitor is also expected to record every month the principal events which have happened in the family. One line only is allowed for this. This rule is made because MS. records become useless if they are voluminous; the chief events only are required, and must be carefully selected. The book is sent in once a month to the referee.
The privacy of the poor is not infringed by the use of these records, since the books remain exclusively in the hands of the visitor and referee, and it rests with the visitor to report to the committee only that which she deems essential to the right decision of a case. And, moreover, nothing of a private nature—nothing which could imply a breach of confidence— ought ever to be entered in the books at all.
The advantages of thus keeping district books are. very great. It is of course not unusual for those who visit amongst the poor to keep written records of one kind or another. But if they are kept in various forms, and the information is not tabulated so as to be readily comprehended by fellow-workers, half their value is lost. To be available for general use, it is all-important that the books throughout a parish should be uniform, and the information contained in them com/ilete and condensed. They should be arranged so as to bring to a focus all the information obtained through the Charity Organisation Society. Now it too often happens that they contain only notes of such facts as have come under the visitor’s personal observation, and are kept by each visitor according to a different plan.
The work itself is an always growing one, as the system does not stop at mere relief, but uses its machinery to carry out every plan of helpfulness that can be devised. The visitors find that the work opens out as they themselves increase in power. Then the question arises how the pressing, useful things, which so urgently need doing, can possibly be got through. “I see more to do in my district the longer I work there,” one lady said to the referee, not long ago; “the more I learn, the more the work increases. I see numberless helpful things that I could do if only I had time. May I divide my district? I don’t know which part of it I can make up my mind to give up; there are people I should grieve to lose sight of in every part of it, yet I can not manage all that I now see ought to be done.” “Do not divide your district,” the referee replied; “the Committees, Guardians, and School Board, and I myself cannot easily treat with still smaller divisions than that into separate courts or streets. Let me introduce you to one of the younger volunteers, whom you may associate with you in the work. She is too young to visit alone, or to judge what is wise in difficult cases, but she will write your monthly reports, will be a friendly messenger to pay pensions, will call to ask if children are at school and report to the School Board, will collect savings and keep accounts of them, will write about admissions to Convalescent Homes or Industrial Schools, will give notice of classes and entertainments, and register the window plants before our flower shows. In short, she will form a friendly link between you and the people, will save your time, and be herself trained to take the lead hereafter. Mr. R., too, offers help in the evening, if you want him to establish that Co-operative Store, to keep some life in the Working Men’s Club, or to collect savings in the court on a Saturday night; and Mrs. S. offers help in money for special cases of want which the committee can hardly take up, or for some of our excursions to the country this summer. In fact, if you will associate other workers with you, instead of still further subdividing the district, it will be much the best.”
And so the work grows, and the various help gets more and more woven into one whole.
Much has been written of late on the subject of Sister-hoods and of “Homes,” where those who wish to devote themselves to the service of the poor can live together, consecrating their whole life to the work. I must here express my conviction that we want very much more the influence that emanates not from “a Home,” but from “homes.” One looks with reverence on the devotion of those who, leaving domestic life, are ready to sacrifice all in the cause of the poor, and give up time, health, and strength in the effort to diminish the great mass of sin and sorrow that is in the world. I have seen faces shining like St. Stephen’s with sight of heaven beyond the pain and sin. I have seen shoulders bent as St. Christopher’s might have been—better in angels’ sight than upright ones. I have seen hair turned gray by sorrow shared with others. And before such one bends with reverence. But I am sure we ought to desire to have as workers joyful, strong, many-sided natures; and the poor, tenderly as they may cling to those who, as it were, cast in their lots amongst them, are better for the bright visits of those who are strong, happy, and sympathetic.
“Send me,” said one day a poor woman, who did not even know the visitor’s name, “the lady with the sweet smile and the bright golden hair.”
The work amongst the poor is, in short, better done by those who do less of it, or rather, who gain strength and brightness in other ways. I hope for a return of the old fellowship between rich and poor; to a solemn sense of relationship; to quiet life side by side; to men and women coming out from bright, good, simple homes, to see, teach, and learn from the poor; returning to gather fresh strength from home warmth and love, and seeing in their own homes something of the spirit which should pervade all.
I believe that educated people would come forward if once they saw how they could be really useful, and without neglecting nearer claims. Let us reflect that hundreds of workers are wanted; that if they are to preserve their vigour they must not be overworked; and that each of us who might help, and holds back, not only leaves work undone, but injures, to a certain extent, the work of others. Let each of us not attempt too much, but take some one little bit of work, and, doing it simply, thoroughly, and lovingly, wait patiently for the gradual spread of good, and leave to professional workers to deal for the present with the great mass of evil around.
To recapitulate, then, let me say that I think the operations of the Charity Organisation Society have been wholly beneficial so far, but that it will have to secure more extended personal influence between rich and poor if it is to be permanently successful. As a society it is doing its work; it is contending for justice and order; it has urged us not to corrupt our fellow-citizens; it has instituted inquiries in support of truth; it has responsible officers; it is an upholder of method, and it will help us to be swift, just, and sure in our gifts. But it can never be a more living educational body than the law is. The society can never be a vital, loving, living force; it can never wake up enthusiasm, nor gently lead wanderers, nor stir by unexpected mercy, nor strengthen by repeated words of guidance. The ground once cleared by it, the work remains for individuals to carry on.
[N.B.—This article is reprinted, as the plan described in it appears equally desirable now, and worked well for some years. It is not, however, in operation now.]