Drawn to the energy of kids. Wanted: Volunteers all year round
The number of people willing to give their time usually spikes during the festive season and charities in Singapore have learnt to re-channel the goodwill into other avenues
DEC 10, 2017, 5:00 AM SGT
The Christmas season typically coincides with the jingle of more cash donations to charities and a spike in volunteers keen to spread some festive joy. But how do charities deal with a feast-or-famine scenario when it comes to volunteer interest, which dips drastically during the rest of the year?
In December last year, donations made on Giving.sg, an online portal for donors and volunteers for charities, was almost seven times the average amount of donations for other months in 2016, according to the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre.
Mr Andy Sim, the centre’s director of digital innovation, says: “The number of volunteers in December 2016 was 44 per cent more than the average number of volunteers for other months last year.”
Besides “feel-good vibes” prompting people to think about giving back to the community, other factors for the rise in this seasonal volunteerism include tax rebates on donations and more charities launching year-end donation drives, says Mr Sim.
“Charities can leverage on the festive season to recruit more volunteers and amp up their fund-raising efforts,” he says.
While lauding this festive generosity, some charitable organisations prefer if they had more volunteers during other times of the year. They sometimes face a delicate situation in having to turn down Christmas volunteers they are unable to cope with.
Some are concerned that their charges may be partied out if they have too many celebrations and outings, which companies, students or other volunteers offer to host during this time of the year.
“We don’t want our children to be overwhelmed with parties every week,” says Dr Janice Lee, general manager of Infant Jesus Homes and Children’s Centres, whose services include a student care centre for about 40 children from disadvantaged family backgrounds. The charity usually accepts only one out of five offers to host Christmas parties.
Sometimes, organisations ask if up to 80 of their staff can visit the children, but the charity restricts the numbers to about 12, says Dr Lee.
The organisation deals with the seasonal spike in volunteerism by “rechannelling” this goodwill for upcoming months, she says.
If volunteers who approach her charity offer to buy toys for Christmas presents, she and her staff may ask them instead for donations in kind for the following year, such as vouchers for items that needy families may lack, such as school shoes, groceries and assessment books.
Her organisation gets funding for its programmes from sources such as the Government and Caritas Singapore, the social and community arm of the Catholic Church in Singapore.
As their schedule for the year-end school holidays is usually finalised by October, they may be unable to accommodate volunteers who offer to host outings or events at the last minute, so she asks instead that they consider helping out during the next long school holiday in June, which has fewer volunteers.
At Morning Star Community Services, which runs after-school care centres and provides counselling and other services, programme manager Imelda Diamse-Lee says ad-hoc volunteerism, which includes those who volunteer only at the charity’s annual Christmas celebration for the children under its care, can lead to a longer-term commitment.
“Such ad-hoc events can be a good platform for volunteers to find out whether they like interacting with the kids,” she says.
Some companies run volunteer projects for staff throughout the year. Technology company IBM disburses grants for the social service sector and its staff volunteer for projects that “help address national issues” and span an extended period of time, says Ms Gina Ho, who is in charge of IBM’s Corporate Citizenship initiative.
In fast-greying Singapore, IBM has worked with partners to create an online portal to match the needs of employers with senior job seekers, which is expected to launch early next year, says Ms Ho.
It is also involved in a project granting wishes to underprivileged families this Christmas season.
Companies are becoming more open to suggestions of sustained giving, say charitable organisations.
Fei Yue Community Services’ assistant director Tan Su San says she is seeing a “mindset shift” among some companies that partner her organisation, which offers a range of services supporting children, low-income families and the elderly, for between three months and one year.
Many vulnerable people, such as those with intellectual challenges, “need friends and companionship on a more regular basis”, says Ms Tan.
IT professional Tony Zhu, 56, says volunteers help make Christmas a special time at the Singapore Cheshire Home for the disabled, where he lives.
“Without volunteers, it would be difficult for us to celebrate Christmas. They help to decorate the home and facilitate outings to see the Orchard Road lights” says Mr Zhu, who uses a wheelchair.
“I helped to fix the sound system recently. I want our Christmas celebration to go smoothly too.”
DRAWN TO THE ENERGY OF KIDS
Mr Pius Lee, 34, used to volunteer only during Christmas.
Since 2014, through the introduction of a friend, the research engineer has been helping out at Morning Star Community Services for the festive season.
He planned and managed games such as Nerf gun sessions and football matches for an annual Christmas celebration for the children attending the charitable organisation’s student care and other services.
Mr Lee, who is Catholic and single, gradually felt uneasy about being an “ad-hoc” volunteer. “I felt uncomfortable about whether I was committed enough or just thinking of my own convenience and volunteering to feel good about myself. I felt God was calling me to be more generous with my time and talents.” He now volunteers twice a week.
Drawn to the energy of the children he interacted with during his Christmas stints, he started volunteering once a week early this year at Morning Star’s CareNights programme, which provides care for children from low-income families from 6 to 10pm on weekdays. From late last year, he has been helping weekly at an outreach programme, where he befriends homeless people.
A homeless person told him how he received a lot of volunteer attention during Christmas and almost none the rest of the year, which Mr Lee felt was disconcerting. “Regular time spent bonding with them and accompanying them in their times of trial helps grow the relationship, whether it’s with a homeless person or a child,” he says.
Working with kids has also helped him be more patient, he adds, while spending time with the homeless has taught him how “to live with simplicity”.