Could Superman Work For My Charity?

I was recently at a friend’s party. I knew one person there – the hostess, who had invited me – and so I was duly forced to mingle with people I didn’t know. With everyone I met, I found myself asking the same familiar questions: “What’s your name?”, “Who do you know here?”, and the inevitable “What do you do?”. I soon realised I was in the presence of many a lawyer, civil servant and actuary. And of course the questions were returned. When asked what I did, I said I worked for a charity. To those who pressed me for more information, I said my job, in a nutshell, was to encourage young people to engage in volunteering. The responses were varied. Some people’s eyes glazed over completely. Others gave comments full of admiration, as though I was the only person with any charitable tendencies in the world. Some thought I was wasting my time, at least until they found out I was actually paid for my work! But when a couple of people asked me why I did what I did, the answer was simple – I’m passionate about the cause.

Charity professionals have the best time!

Charity professionals have the best time!

I doubt very much that I am alone in this situation. In my work I meet a wide variety of charity professionals and I’ve never come across someone for whom their job is just a means to pay the bills. And I don’t ever want to be in a position of taking a job that I have no interest in. My desire to do some good in the world is something that gets me out of bed in the morning, and the feeling that I might have actually moved a step closer to achieving that contributes to my not going home miserable in the evening. And I do find myself enthusing at length about the various projects I’m running, sometimes to the great annoyance of my friends. For charity professionals, commitment to the cause they are serving, whatever it is, seems synonymous with the job. My colleague Debbie Usiskin, who runs JVN’s supported volunteering project which places people with learning disabilities in volunteering roles, has worked in the voluntary sector for 23 years. She says, “I passionately believe that every person should contribute to the society around them, and I’m conscious that some people need some extra help in order to do that. I believe that society is a better place when everybody living in it is involved in some aspect of it.” It seems that Debbie’s job enables her to act to sustain her “passionate belief” very well.

If I had to choose a phrase to best describe this, I would use job fulfilment. My job makes me feel fulfilled, not just in terms of having enough money, but also spiritually. I wouldn’t really consider myself a particularly spiritual person, but the job does lend a sense of accomplishment and purpose to my life. And the passion I have also helps me to do my job well. Because of my moral principle that volunteering is a good thing and providing young people with meaningful volunteering opportunities is also good, I genuinely want to do it well. If I didn’t hold this moral principle, I wouldn’t have the drive to do well, and there’s little other evidence to suggest I would bother to do well. But it’s important still to be aware of what I’m passionate about. It’s one thing being passionate about helping people to volunteer, but I can’t afford to be too attached to my way of doing it. Stubbornness can be very counterproductive, and misguided passion can jeopardise the cause. To be genuinely passionate about a cause, it must be from an objective viewpoint, and one must seek the best way – not necessarily the individually preferred way – to further it.

However, charity professionals are not the only type of charity workers. Volunteers also form an important part of the charity

Volunteering the ultimate job?

Volunteering the ultimate job?

workforce. So why do people volunteer? Again, I could ask myself. I am a Cub Scout leader (an unpaid job) and help plan and run weekly meetings and bi-annual camps. I’ve been doing this for about nine years now. There’s no doubt I enjoy it – the challenges too – but I also have grown attached to the whole idea, and I have a vested interest now in ensuring the group’s survival and continued provision of a quality service. This notion of growing attached is important. Initially I started off volunteering nine years ago because it was a proviso for completing my Duke of Edinburgh Award. I had to do something in order to gain the Award and boost my CV. It just so happened that my six months of volunteering were enjoyable, so much so that I asked to stay on. Part of my job is now to find volunteer placements for Duke of Edinburgh Award participants, and one of the less fulfilling parts of my job is, due to the scarcity of regular opportunities available for younger people, having to place people in volunteering roles they have no or very little interest in.

Leaving this aside for the moment, there are a substantial number of people who actually want to do good. The thousands of people registered on the JVN website, looking for that perfect volunteering opportunity, are testament to that. I believe in my heart everyone has a desire to volunteer, even if they do not have the time to do so or if they haven’t found the right opportunity. But a desire to do good is not necessarily enough. Knowing what needs to be done is not the same as knowing how to do it. I said before we must be willing to learn the best way of doing something and not become set in our ways. This goes as much for volunteers as it does for professionals. In an article on the BBC website entitled Is Gap Year Volunteering A Bad Thing?, Daniela Papi makes this point well:

“I know from my own experience that our [gap year volunteer travellers’] desire to help is sincere – but I now also know that good intentions are not enough… when we go abroad, we sometimes forget that we have to learn before we can serve. It’s like we think we are all Clark Kent… we enter a magical phone booth and – ta-dah – we take off to a far-away country and somehow our Superman suit, or our volunteer T-shirt, gives us all the power and knowledge we need to save the world.”

Just because we do good work doesn't mean we're all Superman

Just because we do good work doesn’t mean we’re all Superman

Volunteering cannot be treated as an easy option. It requires passion and know-how; interest and skill. Passion and the desire to do good is important for charity professionals and imperative for volunteers – at least those who are volunteering for altruistic reasons. For those who are simply volunteering to improve their CV or for other self-interested reasons,  passion may not have much to do with it even thought the skills will still be necessary – but doing something one is not interested in for a notable period of time is incredibly demoralising and may inhibit one’s ability to fulfil the requirements of the role. The point, however, is that the skills to do a good job are just as important, if not more important, than the desire and the passion to further the cause it serves. Charities have to run a good service in order to survive, particularly in today’s climate, and those who work for them – professionals and volunteers – are not immune from dismissal if they perform poorly. I should have replied to those at the party that I do what I do because I want to help, and I know how to help. To borrow Daniela Papi’s analogy, donning the cape and proclaiming our desire to save the planet is all very well, but we can’t ever disguise the fact we don’t know how to. Ignorance is our Lex Luther, and failure to acknowledge it is our kryptonite – no matter how passionate we are and how honourable are out intentions, it can still prove deadly.

Do you have what it takes to be a good volunteer? Visit the JVN website to find the opportunity that’s right for you.

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Categories: Volunteering, Volunteering Perspectives

Author:Mike

Hi, I'm Mike, JVN's Youth Co-ordinator and blogger. I'll be blogging about all sorts of issues affecting the volunteering community, with a particular focus on how recent developments might affect the UK Jewish community's volunteers. I'm always interested to read the comments you make. If you have something you want to see in the JVN blog, e-mail me at mike@jvn.org.uk and I'll be happy to talk. And if you're inspired by any of my blogs to volunteer, log on to www.jvn.org.uk and register to find your perfect volunteering opportunity.

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