Parlez-Vous ‘Volunteer’?

…Although the title of this blog could, equally, be “Parlez-Vous ‘Police’?” Find out what happened when Project Coordinator Jennie Eaton supported the Lincolnshire Police 1000 volunteer challenge.

For those of us who are heavily engaged in the voluntary sector, dealing with volunteers day-to-day, the language we use – as for any native speaker – is instinctive: it’s inclusive, it’s positive, it makes clear the delineation between what is expected of volunteers and paid staff, and it serves to manage the expectations of both. Words are carefully chosen – ‘role’ not ‘job’, ‘expenses’ not ‘pay’, ‘agreement’ not ‘contract’…

However. The Police also speak their own language – and they admit that it can be ponderous, tending towards “I was proceeding on foot in a westerly direction…”, and relying heavily on TLAs (three letter acronyms). Quite how many acronyms are in common use is perhaps best demonstrated by the ‘Jargon Buster’ that we’ve included in the new Volunteer Handbook – all 16 pages of it.

Arguably the Police, compared to some other jobs, are a fairly homogenous group: there are minimum standards for numeracy, literacy, English, fitness – and all for good operational reasons. They acknowledge that diversity is one of the ways that a larger, more representative volunteer community will benefit the Force. But the tricky bit is embedding the needs of this more diverse group into the practice of the larger, homogenous group. Volunteers may not have strong English skills, or a disability requiring alternative formats of documents, or learning support needs making long words, jargon and acronyms daunting.

Sadly, there is no ‘Police-Volunteer/ Volunteer-Police’ option on Google Translate, so the process of learning to speak each other’s language has been something of a learning curve. We started at the beginning: role profiles. Previously the recruitment process for volunteers mirrored that of paid staff, with ‘job descriptions’ that made what, in reality, could be interesting volunteer roles sound like prospective volunteers needed at the very least a degree in Business Studies, and ideally several years’ experience as a senior manager in the public sector. Although I’ve frequently felt like a bossy French teacher when discussing language with the police team (in the early days of the project, I was getting through red pens at a rate of knots as I rewrote drafted documents) it makes me smile now when I hear the team correcting other departments when they start talking about ‘jobs’.

Leaflets, press releases, training materials, communication at public meetings – all had to be shaped to the needs of the audience, using language that is approachable, understandable, inclusive and in plain English. And we’re getting there. I might still wield the red pen from time to time, but I think we’re moving towards mutual understanding.

Vive la revolution!

Jennie Eaton, Project Coordinator

This blog was originally written in 2013 as part of the Lincolnshire Police 1000 Volunteers Project and was shared through the NCVO network.