Loving and giving: try volunteer work

As 2022 begins, after nearly two years of isolation and restrictions of various kinds, people are desperate to reach out and connect. Giving time, energy and attention to something that makes the world a better place is rewarding for ourselves and the “recipients” – but it also comes loaded with ethical pitfalls and muddy motivations. If we’re all to begin 2022 with a full plate of activities and a clean conscience, I want to consider the best way of approaching volunteering.

I began doing outreach work in prisons, arts charities, detention centres and asylum seekers’ resource centres in 2012 and my fifth book, Asylum and Exile: Hidden Voices, was an account of some of that work. It bothers me that in the seven years since it came out, the trials and privations of the many people I worked with have only grown worse. The debate has become more toxic and provisions are ever more meagre. Recently I contributed to Refugee Tales: Volume IV, a collection of refugee testimonies included in The Walk festival, when Little Amal walked across Europe.

In a caring society that supports everyone who needs it, there should never have to be a need for a “third sector” that is constantly working to fundraise and consciousness-raise, reach out to the needy, provide vital services and rely on the kindness and motivation of strangers to improve conditions and provide essential help.

The last couple of years have exacerbated injustices and equalities that were already there, while political messaging around refugees and forced migration has grown ever more bitter over the last decade. I’m constantly contacted by people who are appalled by the hostility and divisiveness – or even the plain ignorance – they see parroted in so many public debates. They tell me they just want to help, however they can.

First, let me say that this type of work is truly rewarding. I work with people on acting, performing, visual documenting and journalism skills, but these disciplines are really just a way into the human experience of meeting experienced and fascinating strangers from all over the world and all walks of life, of being in a room together, working together, communicating and usually laughing and joking the hours away.

The reward comes not from witnessing results but from being in the moment, forming a group and feeling the liveliness move from one person to another; noticing people really listen to each other, support each other, respectfully critique each other and work together. You don’t need to produce something to achieve something, you can all just be concentrating, doing an activity, once or twice a week.

However, potential volunteers don’t always arrive with clear hearts and in the last decade I’ve seen plenty of fakers come and go. Those who are scintillated by being inside a prison and gain some kind of frisson from telling everyone else about it; those who inveigle their way into the trust of traumatised and desperate people to “get their story” and produce artworks inspired by them to help their own careers; those who appear as meek and mild helpers but grow petulant when they don’t become stars or power-holders within the enterprise they’re volunteering at; those who patronise and stereotype; the entitled ones who say they want to help others, but only on a Tuesday between 3.10pm and 4.30pm, and who then cancel or change their availability (or don’t show up) according to how they feel.

For people who want to start 2022 by matching their good intentions with genuinely beneficial actions, I’ve come up with some general principles of volunteering that will make a tangible difference. It’s not useful to think of oneself simply as a socially aware person who’s willing to just do anything for anyone – any charity, any cause, it doesn’t matter, as long as it helps. It’s much more constructive to research and approach some initiatives, large or small, whose work you have learned about and are interested in, whose services are clearly streamlined and whose locations are convenient for you. Once you’ve chosen some, contact them and offer specific skills that you yourself have developed to excellence. Don’t give the person answering the phone or email the extra work of coming up with stuff for you to do or suggesting solutions by saying you’ll do “whatever you need”. It’s arrogant, not humble, to suggest that.

Charities and social equality initiatives of all kinds tend to have similar needs and similar weak points. Be led by your education, training, natural proficiency and professional experience, rather than any romantic notions or saintly visions of yourself randomly doing good for grateful recipients. Charities are desperate for committed, quality people who can provide reliable legal advice, medical or general health advice, physical therapy of any kind, admin and secretarial work, accountancy and financial advice, form-filling assistance and bureaucratic knowledge. If you are not qualified or experienced at working with young at-risk children, don’t. If you aren’t qualified or experienced as a professional trauma therapist or grief counsellor, don’t. Volunteering is not an opportunity for you to try out fantasy versions of yourself.

Instead of thinking of yourself as a volunteer who drops in for a couple of hours a week to help out, think of it more as pro bono work with surgery hours and a set timescale of six months or a year. In your own head you are donating time for free away from your real life, but everyone you deal with within the project will regard you as a professional who works there. Be as professional as you would be in your “real job” in terms of timekeeping, consistency, behaviour and responsibility.

Finally … if you are an excellent cook of nutritious, savoury food, then local community services will love you forever. You may be giving people their one proper meal of the day, you’ll be able to train others and there’s no better place than a kitchen to foster cooperation, conviviality and community.