I was invited to write a byline for the New Straits Times on the topic of volunteering and donating to charity. This byline was published on Sunday, 22nd December 2019. You can find a link to it here: https://www.nst.com.my/lifestyle/sunday-vibes/2019/12/549916/tis-season-redefine-true-charity-and-volunteerism
SEASON OF GIVING
True charity and volunteerism begin with the desire for change, writes Wong Ee Lynn
‘Tis the season to fill the needs of others, as well as to simplify and declutter — mostly our hearts, but also our homes. But before you throw the junk lying around your house into a big bag to donate locally or overseas, pause and think for a moment about what you’re giving and why.
Every holiday season, requests pour in from members of the public who usually want to do one of three things:
1. They have spring-cleaned their homes and want to 'donate' their cast-off clothing and other items to charities;
2. They want to do a one-off festive meal, party, or programme with vulnerable or disadvantaged communities, usually with children living in children’s homes or shelters; or
3. They want to do a one-off 'volunteering' session or visit, often with children in tow, to teach their children to be 'grateful'.
Donating to charity and volunteering are meant to be life-enhancing experiences which give people the chance to improve the world in their own small way. You’re dedicating your time and resources to people that may have less than you, helping to build communities and strengthen bonds between people.
But should charity projects and volunteering sessions just be limited to donating your discards or turning up, doing the job, taking heart-warming photographs and going home? Are you doing more harm, in the pursuit of doing ‘good’?
DONATING YOUR THINGS
While you may feel ‘generous’ for giving away your extras, donating your discards may not be a charitable act at all. You’d be surprised to see the amount of scribbled-on and torn books, tattered and stained clothing, broken toys and ornaments, and broken appliances and gadgets received simply because people feel that poor and vulnerable communities "have nothing" and should therefore be grateful to get anything at all.
This is unfair to volunteers, who then have to waste their time, energy and fuel sorting through rubbish and transporting unsuitable items to the rubbish or recycling bin. We need to remind ourselves that the poor and minorities are not our landfill, and volunteers are not our rubbish pickup or waste sorting service.
We need to think not only about what we give and how we give it, but also why we give it. Just because it makes us feel better (and cleans out our houses at the same time), doesn’t mean it is what is needed or wanted by vulnerable communities.
Perhaps we should look a little deeper into our hearts and wallets when we claim, “I don’t have money to give to the poor, but I have a lot of stuff to give away”. Maybe this means examining how we spend and save, so we can prioritise giving regularly to worthy causes, and donating money and necessities instead of just our discards.
What you should do
Please go through the items you are giving away and ensure that they are all clean, usable, and functioning. Get items repaired before donating them. Redirect donations to the relevant charities: Wearable clothes can be sorted according to category (men's, women's, and children's) for relevant organisations, and faded, tattered, and stained clothes should go into the Kloth Cares fabric recycling bins (www.kloth.com.my).
If you are getting your children to help with the collection and donation process, ask them: "Imagine you are giving this to a friend. Would your friend be happy to receive this? Would YOU be happy to receive this?' Use this as a teachable moment to teach children what generosity and kindness really means.
FESTIVE MEALS AND PARTIES
When the festive seasons roll in, welfare homes and organisations receive many requests from well-wishers to conduct ‘parties’ and ‘visits’ for the residents or beneficiaries so that they could experience a little of the festive ‘joy’ that they purportedly lack.
Junk food pour in, as do toys and gifts. In the age of social media, many corporations and groups have opted to hold their celebrations in children’s homes, hospitals, or with homeless or other vulnerable communities.
While the intention to bring some joy to the needy is a noble one, one wonders whether these parties are done for the benefit of the donors or the recipients. It can appear to onlookers and beneficiaries that the donors are doing it to make themselves look good, and because throwing holiday parties for the needy is the “in” thing to do. Some beneficiaries may not share your excitement for a particular holiday, and it can even make the difference between the haves and the have-nots even more glaring and stark.
It is not only the adult recipients who feel embarrassed at being treated like ‘charity cases’. I remember volunteering at a children’s shelter years ago when the children told me we had to end lessons half an hour early so they could get ready for some visitors who had come to celebrate their child’s birthday at the shelter. While the younger children were understandably excited about this break in their daily routine, one of the older boys’ voice was dripping with sarcasm and resentment when he told me: “Yes, they are coming to show us how rich people party. To show us we have nothing, no mother and father.”
There is further the risk that these events and one-off ‘volunteering’ sessions provide strangers with access to vulnerable children who may be recovering from abuse and trauma. I remember an incident in which a child started crying during a colouring session with volunteers. The other children started shouting at the crying toddler to be quiet or the ‘big brothers and sisters’ will not visit again, and said it was probably the reason why the previous batch of ‘big brothers and sisters’ never returned for a visit. The reality is that the volunteers probably did not return because it was a one-off CSR project, but the children assumed that it was because they were ‘naughty’ and they were left blaming themselves and each other. What you should do
When planning festive meals, parties, and programmes, ask the organisation first if that is what they really want. Find out an organisation's needs, which usually extends to the rest of the year. An organisation might inform you that instead of a fast food meal or plastic toys for the children in their care, what they really need is a maths tutor.
Respect and understand the wishes of the organisations and beneficiaries, and take time to ask and listen. Instead of having 40 volunteers play games with children for just one day a year, you could arrange for volunteers to take turns tutoring children and helping them with homework for 40 weeks of the year.
You also need to check with the organisations first if the proposed programmes are acceptable. A friend once informed me that they failed to check with the administrators of a school for refugee children if the games they would be playing are appropriate for the children. The party organisers had ‘Pin The Tail On The Donkey’ lined up as one of the games, but the children were reluctant to play, and the administrators of the school had to quickly explain that blindfolding can bring back flashbacks of being arbitrarily blindfolded and taken away by the military. Faux pas such as this one could be avoided by checking with the organisation or administrators in advance.
There may be privacy and safety concerns which means that the beneficiaries are not okay with being photographed. And some of the children may have experienced abuse and have trust and attachment issues, so having people visit them once, play with them, and never return will feel too much like abandonment.
Come and volunteer with underprivileged communities only if you have something meaningful or important to contribute, if you have special skills to share (e.g. you can help repair and repaint their home), or if you are able to commit to regular volunteering and service. Seasonal parties and special meals for the underprivileged are not unequivocally a bad thing. It often provides a welcome break from routine and plain meals. But you need to also find out the actual needs of organisations and their beneficiaries, and find ways to keep the momentum going for the rest of the year to meet these needs the best you can.
ATTITUDE OF GRATITUDE?
Stop asking volunteers if you and your children can come "visit" the individuals who will be receiving your donations. Vulnerable communities are not your petting zoo. I’ve witnessed beneficiaries being forced to shake hands, receive hugs awkwardly, and pose for photos. It makes them feel even more powerless and self-conscious. Nobody likes to feel like they are charity cases or are there for other people to stare at.
There are also parents who want their children to see "poor people" firsthand so they can "be grateful for what they have" and see what might happen to them if they fail to work hard, study hard, or listen to one's parents. This is unacceptable because you are teaching your children to make assumptions about people who are already struggling. Not all who are poor are lazy or have done bad things. Many were disenfranchised and disadvantaged from the beginning and don't have the same opportunities you did. Truth be told, many people who are lazy, selfish, unscrupulous and unethical end up in positions of wealth and power anyway.
Visiting welfare homes and homeless communities to teach oneself or one’s children ‘gratitude’ is still essentially a selfish act — the focus is still on the giver, not on the recipients. Gratitude does not cultivate empathy. Gratitude makes the giver feel morally and materially superior, it does not make the recipient feel understood, heard, and seen.
What you should do
People who are grateful that their lives are not as hard as that of the recipients are rarely the same people who feel motivated to fight inequality and injustice. Instead of saying to yourself: “I am grateful I at least have a roof over my head and good food to eat”, ask yourself: “What are the systems that created this injustice and inequality in the first place? What am I doing to contribute to these systems? How can I help address these injustices? Which organisations and individuals are working on creating long-term solutions, and how can I help them?”
It’s time we stop feeling content with merely handing out a largesse of toys and food during the festive season, and instead aim to use our talents and resources to make the biggest possible positive difference to society.
Most of the volunteers and donors you see out there didn’t start off as full-time humanitarians or millionaire benefactors. They started small, and acquired more skills and experience and increased their capacity to give and to volunteer along the way. We should all aim to do the same - start by choosing the causes we are passionate about, and devote a certain amount of time and resources to it consistently. Doing good shouldn’t be just for a season.
It’s time we turn the ‘season of giving’ into a lifelong journey of becoming a truly compassionate, just, and socially responsible nation.
Wong Ee Lynn has over 20 years of experience volunteering for various causes, from environmental and animal protection to working with urban disadvantaged children and homeless communities.