A working holiday in a hospice in Romania? Sounds tough or ‘noble’ or both. Perhaps it is, but if the hosting agency gets the organisational arrangements right it can feel neither…and mine gold for all concerned. Reflections and eight good practice tips suggested here towards the end of the European Year of Volunteering.
Suddenly a lovely warm sunbeam burst into the hospice’s day room where all the children for the summer club are gathered around a puppet show. Wheelchair jostled with chair in the informal circle as the 20 or so children and young people strain to catch every second of the unfolding fairy tale before their eyes. The two proficient actors play their many parts as narrators and as puppeteers with gusto. Safe in their hands, I at least, and perhaps one or two of the other members of the team of volunteers from Romania as well as Britain & Ireland can withdraw a little mentally and reflect on the experience of volunteering in a hospice in the stunning city of Brasov, in the heart of Romania’s Transylvania.
Getting volunteering right
There is a strategic risk to using volunteers. Their cheap price can have a high cost if you don’t get things right. I recall my mother’s experience in her local branch of a large national UK charity’s second-hand clothes shop, for example. She became worn down by the bitchiness and self-serving attitudes of some of the other volunteers and decided the emotional price was not worth it. The organisation didn’t manage the situation effectively be that in terms of meetings, induction, training, support or, probably most crucially, simple recognition.
It may be something of a cliché, but volunteers are your future ambassadors. Get it right and you have loyal alumni for life – and sometimes beyond life if future legacy donations by past volunteers are taken into consideration. But what does getting it right look like? I think my experience in Romania was very close to what ‘great’ looks like in this area. Here are eight of the headlines that struck me:
1. Choose the volunteer project well:
A volunteering project needs to be discrete with a defined purpose, sets of roles and, if it’s not a continuous function, a clear sense of start and finish. It also needs to be clear where volunteers end, as it were, and where the work of paid staff begins. Our project was a week long holiday club for young patients of a hospice and it was ‘packaged’ well as a specific project in which volunteers supported professional healthcare staff.
2. Select the right people:
You need a formal selection process and you need to make sure the people have the skills and, more importantly, the right disposition for the project. Ideally, you need to meet them and, if it’s a team project, they need to meet each other. In principle this was in place in our case, although some of the elements were not possible to deliver in practice. As it happens, we were a pretty great bunch who got on and had the right attitude.
3. Engage them before the programme starts:
We were required to raise a specific sum of money but more importantly, someone in the office regularly sent us emails and was available on the phone to help us prepare, raise money, deal with police checks, etc. This had the effect of engaging us in a process that facilitated self-preparation.
4. Provide induction to bond the team:
Our programme was very generous in welcoming us as a group, settling us in our accommodation, taking us to various places locally, so we could not only orientate ourselves to our new environment, but also get to know each other. While not having the label ‘team building’ that was the effect.
5. Plan the details of the project with the volunteers:
Once we’d got to know our surroundings, including the hospice itself, we planned the detail of our work and started to make things to prepare, using the materials that were there and which we had each brought. What did we make? I was on tepee construction duty, so you can guess the holiday club’s theme was the Wild West!
6. Review progress of the project as you go along:
After each day of the club, we held a debrief meeting to absorb our experiences, to reflect on what had worked well and to consider any challenges. For example, we considered at one meeting questions of how inclusive we were being of all the young people. We used these meetings to prepare for the next day. On one occasion at least some of the club’s participants joined in spontaneously and gave clear feedback of a most instructive nature.
7. Make sure the volunteers feel valued and recognised:
Simple smiles and thank-yous cover most of this, but there are certain things that can make a real difference. Using the review meetings to thank people, having the director make an appearance (he popped in daily) and providing low cost things like a photo of the team at the end, along with a volunteer trip out, made all the difference and cost little.
8. Cultivate your volunteer alumni with loving rigour:
If you’ve done all these things, you have mined gold, because you probably have a great group of committed people who take away fond memories and hold a warm space in their hearts for the charity and all it does. This is a relationship that can be cultivated into the longer term for future volunteering, giving talks, fundraising, spreading the word informally, etc.
Do volunteers make a difference?
So, what did we bring? In some ways, we brought nothing that the enthusiastic Romanian volunteers couldn’t bring. Less in fact, because they at least speak the language and understand the culture. And there’s a risk too that in not quite getting it, in understanding where the kids are coming from culturally, we could commit that most cardinal of errors in a health setting: do harm. While we probably didn’t get it right culturally quite often, I think we did add something positive and any insensitivities that we inadvertently demonstrated were spotted by our local colleagues. For a start, we added colour and a different style to things; we enabled some of the young people to practice their already impressive English; there was something of a cultural exchange and the very fact of foreigners coming to be with these young people from so far away lent a kind of importance to the club. Oh, and volunteers have been supporting the holiday clubs (and other activities) for a few years now, so it’s kind of expected.
So, when you get it right the currency is gold. Not real gold perhaps but emotional gold, the gold of joy. How do you know? You know because you see shining eyes; you know because the parents thank you so warmly; you know because the staff- who are there next week when you’re not – seem really pleased with the holiday that has been provided for their patients; you know because you are sad when it’s over; and you know because, even as you read a draft of this blog some weeks later to your daughter (who was also a volunteer with you) your jaw trembles slightly at the remembered emotion of it all.
Real life dramas and real life heroes
The story our puppet masters were telling was coming to a crescendo: the baddies were cruel and ugly, the goodies beautiful and strong; the humour was infectious even with poor/non-existent Romanian and the tragedies affecting in their primal depth. Heroes and villains, beauties and beasts, caught in the fundamental dramas of human life. Learning in all this? I don’t know whether in spite of their wheelchairs and body-gripping conditions or because of them, but I suddenly realised how many of the young people in the audience of this drama were the true heroes. Beautiful too in a range of ways that magazines like Hello and Cosmo would not easily recognise. Yet, their victories remained largely unsung. Perhaps this little on-stage drama gave some expression to their heroism without labelling it as such.
I turned and noticed ‘Ioan’, an 18 year old from a large and loving family. His condition didn’t’ allow him to move much in this wheelchair now and his paralysis would likely deteriorate. He sat apart, not really approving of the theatre, but not failing to be drawn in nonetheless. Occasionally, a wry smile crept across his face. I wondered what he was thinking and how I might reach him a little better. I wondered too about his direct and piercing question to me earlier: ‘What is the real purpose of your life?’
In the world of ‘big society’ in the UK and the European Year of Volunteering, there is more and more focus on the chronic need for care and support in so many settings, in Europe and beyond. There are real things a volunteer can bring that complement what staff bring. But organisations have to prepare well, get the logistics right and know that they are building three-way lasting relationships of love between their clients, their volunteers and themselves that more than repay in emotional and, often, real gold. Having opportunities to find such gold may help answer ‘Ioan’s’ bold but essential question.
1. Do you agree the factors listed are the key ones for effective volunteer engagement? What else?
2. If you engage volunteers, how do your programmes measure up?
3. What’s your experience of designing things so you start with volunteers and end with committed ambassadors?