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Social conscience or socialising

Helping out




Jefferson Airplane

Songwriters: Kantner, Paul / Balin, Marty


Look what’s happening out in the streets

Got a revolution got to revolution

Hey I’m dancing down the streets

Got a revolution got to revolution

Ain’t it amazing all the people I meet

Got a revolution

got to revolution

One generation got old

One generation got soul

This generation got no destination to hold

Pick up the cry

Hey now it’s time for you and me

Got a revolution got to revolution

Come on now we’re marching to the sea

got a revolution got to revolution

Who will take it from you

We will and who are we

We are volunteers of America


VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – My wife Yolanda first came to Canada on a visitor’s visa. We had come to care for my parents who, we had just discovered, had both contracted Alzheimer’s and were very quickly getting to the point where they could no longer care for themselves. Neither of them was the type who would thrive in a care home, and my mother particularly, simply denied, despite the obvious symptoms, that the disease had any effect on her at all. At any rate, for Yolanda who was born and raised in Indonesia, the idea of institutionalising one’s parents is and was unthinkable. We left JJ temporarily in the care of her parents while the wheels of adoption ground slowly, with us greasing them regularly with cash infusions from Canada while we took on the responsibility of reorganising my parents’ lives to reflect the reality of their disease. 

Given that shortly after our arrival my mother was also diagnosed with a terminal cancer, the job of caring for two elderly and very strong-willed people was extraordinarily taxing. Nevertheless, there was a fair amount of time when the actual presence of both of us was not necessary. Yolanda desperately wanted to become acclimated to the Canadian way of life in preparation for JJ’s eventual arrival, so she would have loved to have had a part time job for the experience. Unfortunately until her Permanent Residence status was granted, she was here on a tourist visa which precluded her being employed. But one of the things about Canada that really made an impact upon a Southeast Asian newcomer was the way community organisations filled needs that no other institutions could or would. So in the time that she could be spared from the cooking, cleaning, medicating, massaging, shopping, and just sitting with my elderly and dying parents, she volunteered at a local charity where she would improve her idiomatic English, push the agenda of the charity, and of course, help others. 

She flew back and forth to Indonesia to spend time with JJ and to ensure that the paper chase was continuing apace, but whenever she was here she divided her time between caring for my parents and volunteering at that charity. And when my parents mercifully passed away, and we went back to Southeast Asia, then finally returned with our little boy and settled in to begin the Canadian chapter of our lives, that charity offered Yolanda a paid position. Having a valid visa that permits her to work, and given that most of my work can be done from home, and the fact that we had spent well into the six figures in “gratuities” to corrupt officials in the last few years, she was happy to take the job. 

So, I do the cooking, cleaning and yard work, I take JJ to pre-school and swimming lessons and Yolanda works at the charity. I try to get as much writing done as I can, but my book is on hold – there is no way to find the hours needed for the sustained concentration such an endeavour demands – and I spend a lot of time with my four-year old. 

Now what Yolanda is discovering in her work at a charitable organisation is something I had discovered years ago, but had never really put into perspective. 

Most charities and NGOs have volunteers whose work is critical to the success of the organisation. I have volunteered on many occasions; Yolanda was a volunteer before she became a staff member at her organisation; we are both aware of the value of the contributions made by unpaid but dedicated volunteers. But all volunteers are not created equal. There are as many reasons to volunteer for a charity or NGO as there are volunteers. And for some organisations, if you are involved in management, you can spend as much time screening applications to volunteer as you do screening employment applications or carrying out any other human resource function. 

Among the motivations for volunteering to do charitable work, the wish to help others predominates. The work of the charity itself attracts those who, for whatever personal reasons they might have, feel an inclination to provide their time and skills to support the cause. But there are other reasons someone might choose to take an unpaid job. 

In some instances, as was occasionally the case when I was a director of a marine environmental organisation, the work itself was sufficiently exciting that it attracted those who wished to participate. There were occasions, such as the sinking of a decommissioned military vessel to form an artificial reef, when boaters were required to form a cordon around the demolition area and to observe and record the sinking, and then later for SCUBA divers to inspect and video the newly formed reef. We had plenty of volunteers. 

Some people volunteer because they are young, have some education, but wish to fill out their resume with some experience and perhaps earn a solid reference or letter of recommendation. Some volunteers are project specific and simply dedicated to the task. A city park spring clean- up, the search for a missing child, disaster relief; all these bring out one-shot volunteers who really care and are usually willing to work hard to get the job done. 

But where you run into trouble is when you have a group of elderly people who have actually paid attention to one of those idiot magazine articles with a title like “Five Ways to Stay Vital in Your Golden Years”. Anybody who has even a casual relationship with journalism knows that those kinds of articles are acts of desperation and usually assigned to whatever halfwit can use Google and has the bad luck to wander by the editor’s desk too close to deadline and not looking sufficiently overworked. “Eight Fat Burning Junk Foods”, “Six Unmistakeable Signs Your Significant Other is Cheating on You”, “Five Easy Steps to a Great Sex Life”. It’s hard to believe, but somebody out there not only reads that crap; there are people who believe what they read. And one of the results of people taking that crap seriously is that some elderly people believe that Way #3 to stay vital in your Golden years is for you and a friend to volunteer for a local charity. 

Fortunately Yolanda’s degree is in human resources, so she is able to weed out the readers of those articles and keep her volunteer pool populated by people who genuinely want to help and who expect to work. Very little can be as undermining and even fatal to a charity or NGO as a volunteer base of people who are there as an alternative to forming a book club or a weekly bridge game. 

All too many volunteers who fall into this category have an exaggerated sense of just how much is owed to them for the sacrifice they believe they’re making; too many of them seem to believe that as volunteers they don’t need to put any effort into their assigned tasks unless the spirit moves them; some even take it upon themselves to patronise and push the paid staff around. It takes a virtuoso exercise in diplomacy for a staffer to direct this kind of volunteer; it is nearly impossible if there is a group of these volunteers “working” together. These volunteers see their time spent at the charity to be primarily for the purpose of socialising, perhaps to remain vital in their golden years. Other, better chosen volunteers, see their function as to advance the purposes of the charity for which they have volunteered. Many of them complain that they find the gossip sessions, lack of focus on the tasks at hand, and disinterest in the aims of the organisation to be demoralising and counterproductive. Many staffers tasked with supervising volunteers end up leaving the organisation, citing problems including: the difficulty of directing the work of people who don’t feel any obligation as they are not being paid, and moreover have never worked for a living; the difficulties in rescheduling because those volunteers don’t show up as scheduled; the amount of time spent trying to get volunteers to understand the importance of the task at hand as opposed to the social aspect of the job. The contributions of these, the wrong kind of volunteers, should be rejected by any organisation that really intends to be around for the long haul. Volunteers should be screened with the same thoroughness with which a good HR person would select a candidate for a paid position. 

These bits and pieces of advice for NGOs and for charitable organisations are of increasing importance as we see the political right flexing its muscles and persuading governments to abandon citizens who are in need. More and more people are reliant for some basic necessities of life upon charities and upon NGOs; these organisations are not frivolous, nor are they unneeded. They are not just needed but they are also needful; they are needful of all the volunteer help they can get. So while this essay is a piece of advice for HR people in those organisations, it is also a plea to those who are considering volunteering.

As deadline looms and I am the hardest assed editor I know, I’ll assign myself the following piece of quasi journalism:


Five Lousy Reasons to Volunteer


1)      Because it gets you out of the house and you get to meet new people

2)      Because it increases your self-esteem

3)      Because you’re bored

4)      Because there’s no gardening to do during the winter

5)      Because the bridge club kicked you out for gossiping too much


If anybody feels like fleshing that list out a little and submitting it to an editor, I can almost guarantee its publication somewhere.



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