The Ups and Downs of Volunteering
The Ups and Downs of
Although volunteering can be incredibly rewarding, it's not without its pitfalls - which people need to be aware of when investing their time, money and soul into trying to improve the lives of strangers, warns Billie Jordan, a passionate volunteer who has been awarded a Queens Medal for her voluntary work.
"We are taught giving to others selflessly is a noble act; and it is. As they say, volunteers don't get paid because they are worthless, it's because what they do is priceless. However volunteering isn't all lollipops and rainbows; in fact, if not managed carefully, it can be soul destroying. When you give unconditionally to anyone, with no expectation of reciprocation or gratitude, it can set the scene for boundaries to be crossed and expectations on the part of the receiver of charity to be higher than what is actually realistic," says Jordan.
As a country, we rate second on the World Giving Index after the United States with 1.2 million Kiwis volunteering every year at home and abroad.
"It's a statistic we can be very proud of. However, bullying, abuse and harassment of volunteers in NZ is becoming a real problem," says Jordan.
Volunteer New Zealand are currently running a survey to record the volume and intensity of the bullying, conflict, abuse and incivility experienced by volunteers from the people who have been receiving their free help.
"I have talked with many volunteers all over the country who, like me, have found themselves on the receiving end of rudeness, harassment, bullying, abuse and hostility by the people they are giving freely to. This is especially evident if you, due to their unpleasant behaviour, withdraw from helping them. One woman I know had to pack up her kids and move towns and then the country to avoid persecution and harassment from people who she had been helping - after telling them she was going to stop giving them charity.
"Like 1.2 million other Kiwi volunteers, I have my own back-story for why I have thrown myself into doing thousands of hours of voluntary work. After being in the Christchurch earthquake on 22nd February 2011 my focus in life changed and I wanted to do something meaningful with my second chance at life, help other people in any way I could and also honour the people who lost their lives on that dreadful dark day by making a difference to others.
"Every volunteer I have ever met, don't do acts of kindness for gratitude or payment, they do it to make a difference to others. As charitable people, we have empathy, compassion and value others. But with those personality traits, come risks. Volunteers can often fall into a trap of providing so much help to others their mental and physical health suffers. Unless they have very clear boundaries set in place before they start volunteering, receivers of their voluntary help can be incredibly demanding and sometimes hostile if they don't get what they want from the volunteer.
"I remember being so run down from voluntary work I got pneumonia but refused to go to hospital because I was in the middle of raising money for a group of people. The people I was fundraising for weren't concerned about my health but instead would ring me up to make more demands from me. They were worried I would drop the ball if I was sick and not continue to provide the same level of voluntary service to them they had come to expect. On another occasion I had worked for weeks to get free new outfits for a large group of people, including $120 pairs of sneakers. Only one of them said thanks; but I was used to that so didn't even question it at the time.
"Unwittingly I, like many other volunteers, had become a doormat. I had allowed my generosity of spirit to overtake my actions and never reviewed whether the people I was trying to help really deserved what I was giving them. It never occurred to me to stop and question the time, money and effort I was putting in to please others. I just wanted them to feel valued and never did it for thanks. But I learnt, if you don't have boundaries and keep things in check, some people will exploit your kindness and take every last ounce of energy you have if it's there for the taking. Unfortunately, as a volunteer, some people will see your generosity, not as a strength, but as a weakness to be exploited.
"One woman I decided to stop giving free dance lessons to after three and a half years has spent more than two years harassing me for taking away something she felt lifted her social status and that I was obliged to provide her for free regardless of how unpleasant she was towards me and others. She even enrolled her daughters (a high school teacher and an artist) into cyber bullying me, other students in my free classes, and wrote harassing emails to my employers.
"Unfortunately people like her do exist and if you do a
lot of volunteering it's only a matter of time before you
come across them. She clearly has some emotional problems to
become so obsessed with these forms of retaliation. It's not
a healthy, rational or sane reaction, but in volunteering
you can find yourself a target of people who deal with their
own pain by causing pain to others.
"Aged in her late 60's, this woman also has what is called, 'grey immunity' - so is not held to account for her hostile actions towards volunteers because of her age. Grey immunity is really just reverse ageism.
"Some people presume older adults are more grateful than teenagers or millennials when on the receiving end of acts of kindness. This is not the case, it's actually be the other way around," says Jordan.
A recent study into narcissism by the University of Auckland shows people with the highest sense of entitlement in New Zealand are not millennials or teenagers, it's actually women aged 65 and over.
"As an aged persons advocate, I want equality for senior citizens so they don't suffer from unfair prejudice or be considered to have no value in society. But in order for equality to be achieved, senior citizens also have to be accountable, just like everyone else in society, and volunteers shouldn't be expected to tolerate harassment from people just because they are old. Reverse ageism is just another form of prejudice.
"Unfortunately, if you open up your heart to helping anyone, you're exposing yourself to great risk so need to take precautionary measures. Before volunteering, be very clear on what you will and will not provide so you don't fall into the same trap I have," says Jordan.
Tips for Surviving Volunteerism
Be Selective - don't open your doors to anyone who walks in. Quantify their needs and expectations and don't be afraid to turn them away if they display unsocial behaviours or psychiatric problems which you can't manage. Remember, it's not the mountain that will wear you out, it's the grain of sand in your shoe.
Have Boundaries and Set Limitations - what will you provide, how much time will you spend helping them, what are your limits? Communicate these limitations to the people receiving your charity. When necessary tell the people you are helping the time and energy you're putting into them behind the scenes and remind them you don't have to do what you are doing for them. If you don't do this when it is needed it can lead to some people taking your help for granted, demanding a great deal from you and treating you poorly as if the privilege of helping them is all yours.
Be Mindful of Your Own Needs - no-one else can do this for you and some people will take from you until you drop from exhaustion.
Manage Behaviour - have a code of conduct in place for the people you are helping so everyone knows what you expect in terms of their behaviour.
Get Support - if you're volunteering alone, get support from others and ask them to help you set limitations and boundaries (as often volunteers are so kind hearted they can't see when their generosity is being exploited or that they don't have to be all things to all people).
"If you can manage the risks and be mindful of boundaries and limitations, volunteering can be a wonderful, life changing gift. To be able to enter the lives of strangers, give to them unconditionally and show them others do care about them, and they are worthy of nurturing just because they exist, is a huge privilege. You can show people they don't have to earn or work for their value in society, they have it unconditionally.
"Also, knowing that you are making a positive contribution to the lives of people in your community can give you a sense of wholeness and purpose. Just be aware of the challenges and remember, if you don't take care of yourself first, you can't be of much help to others," says Jordan.
Billie Jordan has been awarded a Queens Medal for her
voluntary work, was the NEXT magazine New Zealand Woman of
the Year in 2016, the winner of the Local Hero category in
the 2015 New Zealander of the Year awards, won an
International Rotary Paul Harris award in 2014 and a
Community Service award in 2013.
Volunteer New Zealand
Volunteer New Zealand Survey
Narcissism in New Zealand - Study by
University of Auckland