The British Empire Medal is a bit of an insult
Volunteer recognition. It is a tricky thing to get right.
As I wrote last month, well intentioned long service awards for volunteering increasingly risk alienating those who can only give time in shorter bursts.
Woe betide anyone who actually listens to volunteers when they say they don’t want any recognition for what they do. Fail to at least thank them and watch them leave in droves.
So it was a cautious welcome many volunteer managers gave the coalition government when, quite a while back now, they asked for more ‘regular’ people to be put forward for the honours system. Then the government shot themselves in the foot by announcing that these same volunteers would be recognised with the re-introduced British Empire Medal (BEM) not the usual, OBEs, MBEs and CBEs and the like.
The first round of these new BEMs were dished out in the Queen’s birthday honours earlier this month. While not wanting to take anything away from the achievements of those receiving the awards, I was personally disgusted at the move.
Why? Three reasons.
First, it creates a two tier honours system. The usual, well known honours seem to now be reserved for celebrities, civil servants, sector chief executives, politicians, sports people and the like. These people, who are in the public eye, get a well known honour presented to them by the Queen or another available royal.
Volunteers, however, get a BEM, an honour revived from obscurity after having been deemed outdated and irrelevant. Volunteers don’t get the award from a member of the royal family, though. I assume it comes in the post, probably accompanied by a Royal Mail ‘while you were out’ card. Clearly a fine way to say thank you to the millions who toil selflessly for their communities, arguably making more of a contribution to our society than a handful of celebs and sports stars.
Second, along with a two tier system comes two tier media coverage. Instead of more coverage of the real heroes of our society, we get more dedicated to the ‘names’ who win top tier gongs. It even happened in Third Sector, with the main news article featuring the chief executives – senior managers’ ‘names’ from the sector who got gongs, with but a passing mention to the hard working and undervalued volunteers.
Third, as usual when it comes to valuing volunteers, the sector has been almost entirely silent on the creation of this two tier system. There have been no protests to government of their sidelining of the very same volunteers they so wanted to champion. Instead, sector leaders have kept their heads down and just accepted the changes with apparently ne’er a thought to the volunteers without whom most sector organisations would cease to function. One wonders if it would have been the same if the highest honour a paid manager was likely to get was a BEM.
As I said at the start, volunteer recognition is a tricky thing to get right.
The coalition government have, in my view, managed to demonstrate very well that it is an all to easy thing to get totally wrong.