What if & Maybe

Business Advisory - Start-ups, Scale-Ups, SMEs

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Making corporate volunteering easier, measurable and effective

My first memory related to volunteering comes from my early childhood. I wasn’t a volunteer myself by that time, but I remember going along with my mom to visit an orphanage when I was around 7 or 8. She volunteered to be the “foster mom” of an orphan girl that should be a couple of years older than me. This “adoption” system consisted of my mom being the one that would come by the orphanage a couple of times a month and play with her, tell her stories, and just spend some time with her. It wasn’t indeed an adoption – in a sense that the kid becomes your lawful son or daughter -, but something that could give a name and a face to someone that really cared for you as an orphan. On our way to the orphanage, I remember going with my mom to a toy shop. We bought a beautiful doll, properly gift-wrapped and ready to be given out to someone.

The orphanage had a big front garden with trimmed grass, a couple of angel-shaped fountains and beautiful flowers along the way in. Huge mango trees provided the place some shadow, relieving a bit of the warmth from the scorching sun of Rio de Janeiro. Right across a couple of doors were the kids, in a group of maybe 30 or 40, consisting only of girls, all of them using similar clothes. Most of them black, short-haired, wearing flowered dresses and Havaianas. The orphanage was run by nuns, one of which promptly approaches my mom as we enter the open space where the kids play. To my surprise, my mom hands the gift-wrapped doll to the nun, who takes the box away, saying that she would tell Maria* that we had arrived. I remember asking my mom why she didn’t hand the gift to the girl, when she answers me what would stick with me forever:

Here no one actually owns anything. Everything belongs to everyone. The nun will place that gift in the toy box and everyone will play with the new doll.

I remember feeling a mix of surprise and desperation wondering how would it be possible to live without my toy cars and my bicycle. Not exactly living without them, but without them being mine.

Maria comes almost in slow motion, with joint hands behind her back, shy, but happy to see my mom. We talk for some time, she shows my mom some of her schoolwork, and we play around a bit. I don’t remember much more of this day from this point, and I also don’t remember the story of the little girl in details. But I do remember the emptiness and loneliness in her eyes. And I remember being grateful for having both parents and a home to live.

Almost three decades from this date, and after thousands of volunteering hours, I’m now a volunteer myself at an elderly’s place. This place is the home for elderlies with some cognitive impairment, either from age itself or not. My role is basically to spend part of the day with them, providing them some companion and making their days less lonely. We talk, go for walks, play games, and I read for them, which makes them laugh from my broken Dutch. Most of them do have close relatives, but who chose to have them at places with specialized care, which they need indeed.

I don’t know precisely which sort of impairment each one of them has, and it doesn’t really make any difference, as long as I realize what each one of them needs. For some of them, age has struck hard on both body and mind. Some of them are physically strong, but the mind is failing. For some others, their lucid mind is imprisoned in a weakened body. 

Roy has severe memory impairment. He shows constant distress in starting a sentence and not being able to finish it because he forgot what he was supposed to say halfway. We play memory game in an attempt to slow down the progression of the illness, and he flips the very same pair of cards on every turn. And in every turn, he shows strong disappointment for not getting the pair of cards right.

Anna is on wheelchairs and barely moves her body. Apart from her arms and head, all her body rests on a wheelchair as if body and chair were one. She speaks really low and it’s hard to understand what she says, but every single sentence has a smile as a period. Despite the situation, she’s capable of making jokes and from time to time saying that “she’s the boss and no one can against her.”

During my first days at this place, all of them were eager to show me their rooms, their hobbies and talk a little about their life. Except for the ones with Down Syndrome. Most of them took a little longer to get close to me, which is expected from people with Down. Interestingly, almost all of them have idols: Bart is a fan of Frans Bauer, with lots of posters spread out on the walls of his room and a high pile of CDs and DVDs. Fritz is fascinated by Harley Davidson. A large Harley Davidson badge hangs on his room’s door and he wears shirts, jackets, and caps with that very same symbol. Peter likes ties and has a huge collection of them, although he never uses them. Gerrit likes to write. It’s been already a couple of times we go together to a stationery shop to buy him a notebook and a couple of pens. Last week when we went to buy a new one, I asked him what he had written in the first notebook we bought. He tells me he had written lots of letters for Sinterklaas. Simone loves building puzzles. I give her some tips during the building of a 50-piece Disney Cars cartoon themed puzzle. She's so excited about it that she says: "this is so nice. You should come here everyday." She mentions that her sister, Susan, is good at building puzzles. That she loves it and builds 1000-piece puzzles at her home. We keep on playing as we talk. And from time to time, she asks me: “Do you know who is good at puzzles? My sister Susan. She’s really good at it and builds 1000-piece puzzles at her home. She lives in Den Haag.” And she tells me with the same excitement as if she had never told me that before.

"this is so nice. You should come here everyday."

For all these years, I always thought that I was doing good to others and that my compensation was having smiles, tears of joy, and lots of “thank you” back. I thought I was just following the “do to others what you would expect someone do to you” life mantra my parents taught me. But in fact, volunteering has done well to me also. It’s given me opportunities to learn, to see life through different lenses, and to acknowledge and value the life I have. During good times, it helped me to acknowledge how fortunate I am and how can I share this fortune with others. During hard times, it’s helped me see that, regardless of how bad is the situation you are in, there are always people in situations harder than yours. It’s helped me find purpose and meaning during times that they were not so ready-made and clearly perceivable in my life.

However good volunteering may do to those who volunteer, assistance institutions suffer from chronic lack of volunteers. Through all these years, there was not one single institution for which I volunteered that didn’t lack the manpower to deliver their services. Either from having just a few people offering volunteer services or because of high volunteer turnover, assistance institutions always need more volunteers than what they manage to get.

On the other side, volunteering has proven to bring numerous psychological benefits to those who volunteer and who find meaningful volunteering work, including an increase in motivation at work and productivity boost. In an article from the Academy of Management Journal, Jessica Rodell (2013), amongst many other interesting findings, states that

“results suggest that volunteering was associated with both volunteer and job meaningfulness, and that the pull of meaningful volunteer work was even stronger when employees had less meaning in their jobs. The results further revealed the benefits of volunteering for employers. Volunteering was related to job absorption but not job interference, and it was therefore associated with better job performance.”

Adam Grant, in his book Give and Take - Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, outlines several characteristics of the Giver profile, including volunteering drive, which unfolds in numerous benefits in the life of those who volunteer, from higher motivation at work to even longer lives.

Companies feel the pressure to go beyond their economic drive and contribute to a better society. Both clients and employees weigh in companies' sustainability drive by the time they decide to buy from or work for them. Alignment of personal and corporate values has never been so strong and deal-breaking as now.

So, if from one side we have assistance institutions that lack volunteers, and in the other, we have people and companies who would benefit from giving out volunteering hours, why not bring them together? Why not using technology and consolidated business models and tools to do good? That's when the idea of Ooddee came up.

Ooddee's goal is to make it easy for institutions, companies, and corporate volunteers to find each other. As easy as booking a room through Airbnb. Ooddee (from GoodDeeds) will enable companies to offer their employees the benefit of volunteering during paid hours (or whatever corporate volunteering terms companies may find interesting), and assistance institutions to offer the volunteer vacancies they have. Companies benefit from improved employee productivity and motivation; volunteers benefit from higher motivation and meaningfulness in their lives; people in need benefit from having care and attention from qualified volunteers. Everyone wins.

Ooddee is currently under testing phase, so your input and opinion mean a lot. Your first good deed of the day may be spending just 5 minutes to answer this questionnaire: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/3PSWHP9

With your help, we’ll be able to shape down Ooddee to become a tool for change in a world that needs good to be openly and widely done. If you want to know more about Ooddee, please check http://www.blueape.nl/ooddee. You're always welcome to reach out to me through hi@blueape.nl

* None of the characters' names are their real names.

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