When volunteering is not such a sweet experience

When volunteering is not such a sweet experience

Two lessons to prevent a bad after taste


“Give happy, live happy”, as the theme of the National Volunteer Week 2015 suggests, may not always happen. Altruist acts can and do go wrong as the following anecdotes show. However, we can avoid those bad after tastes. 

Baking for a cause

There she was; my mum in her early twenties, kindly volunteering to bake a cake for my dad’s choir fundraising party. Being her first cake ever, she decided to follow one of those delicious-looking chocolate cake recipes, spread the batter in the tray and put it in the oven, meant to be preheated to 180oC.

When she realised that the old gas oven (that was the 60s, you know?) had turned off, she hurriedly tried to turn it on manually with a match. Bang! a flame spat out of the oven all over her juvenile face. She got mild burns that healed overtime but her eyelashes and eyebrows were forever gone.

The cake was delicious, her then boyfriend said, grateful before such a selfless gesture. As you can imagine, it was not such a sweet experience for my mum though. Wasn’t this supposed to be a “give happy, live happy” experience? Why did it go so wrong?


Strong arms, sensitive heart 

There he was, Mr. Miranda, the Operations Manager of a company I worked for, kindly volunteering for the first time in one of our one-day corporate volunteering events called “Building Smiles”. This time around it was at a nursing home for kids with severe mental disability.

He couldn’t attend the training session we normally organised for our volunteers prior to the events. We didn’t worry though; a 1.80 m height, strong, hard-working man in his late 40s couldn’t have any trouble with cleaning and doing basic improvements in the nursing facilities. He would surely enjoy the after party with the beneficiaries.

The feedback surveys showed a nearly 100% satisfying experience from our volunteers and the charity’s management. However, in the company’s annual managers´ summit, while having a very casual chat with Mr Miranda, he confessed to me that he would be unlikely to participate in another “Building smiles” event again, given that he didn’t sleep well for the next two nights after that because of the emotional impact that playing with the extremely disabled kids had on him. “It was such a heart-breaking experience”, he said. Wasn’t it supposed to be a “give happy, live happy” occasion? Why did it go so wrong?


Two lessons to take away 

People say, volunteering is an act of generosity that changes your life forever. And it certainly was for my mum, who doesn’t have eyelashes nor eyebrows since then, although it got her a great husband, my wonderful dad. And so it was for Mr Miranda who ended up with a broken heart even though he gave tons of happiness and improved facilities to the kids.

There are no bad experiences when you learn from them so here there are a couple of lessons we can take away to avoid sweet volunteering experiences leaving us with a bad after taste.


Lesson 1

It may happen that after years of successfully running our employee volunteering programs, we become complacent and believe that we have everything under control, or that the activities are so easy to do that nothing can fail badly. Well, even very simple volunteering activities can have little accidents.

  • To avoid that, always provide technical training for your colleagues before your volunteering events and get your company’s OH&S team involved in both, the training and the events. Write in collaboration with them a risk management plan, and every time possible have rehearsals or drills in order to identify and prevent those things that could happen.
  • If training sessions before the events are not possible because the employees are spread across different branches or just lack of time, have at least one “senior” volunteer supervising your volunteer teams during the event. You never know when you will need someone to turn the old oven on for them.


Lesson 2

Perhaps because we, CSR&S people, have experienced volunteering first hand several times, or because our company has had these programs for so long, we may underestimate the emotional impact that some of those activities may have on some people. Especially when it is their first time volunteering or they hadn’t received training for it.

Yes, some buddies may be more emotional than others, but that doesn’t make them less strong, quite the opposite. They could turn to be good allies in improving employee engagement in our volunteering programs, they might just need a bit more of our attention and a special twist in how we execute our corporate volunteering communications.

  • We can help our volunteer coordinators by inviting past volunteers into the training sessions to share their experiences from all angles.
  • In those sessions, show videos or pictures of the beneficiary organisations and the people they will be spending time with and let them gouge if they are emotionally ready to live the experience.
  • Be very open and give volunteers the chance to pull out in case they think this is not their cuppa tea. If one day they feel like it’s time to give it a go, they will let you know. However, don’t discourage their willingness to contribute to society via your corporate programs or elsewhere.


After all, sour or sweet?

Just in case you were wondering; my mum’s cake was a success in the fundraising event and my dad married her soon after that (He’d better, don’t you think?). And Mr Miranda recovered his sleep and later became my best volunteering champion in the Operations department.


Have you had any sour volunteering anecdote? How do you make sure that your corporate volunteering programs are all sweet experiences? Share your thoughts!

Share this post: