The Ups and Downs of Volunteering
Although volunteering can be incredibly rewarding, it's not without its pitfalls - which people need to be aware of when
investing their time, money and soul into trying to improve the lives of strangers, warns Billie Jordan, a passionate
volunteer who has been awarded a Queens Medal for her voluntary work.
"We are taught giving to others selflessly is a noble act; and it is. As they say, volunteers don't get paid because
they are worthless, it's because what they do is priceless. However volunteering isn't all lollipops and rainbows; in
fact, if not managed carefully, it can be soul destroying. When you give unconditionally to anyone, with no expectation
of reciprocation or gratitude, it can set the scene for boundaries to be crossed and expectations on the part of the
receiver of charity to be higher than what is actually realistic," says Jordan.
As a country, we rate second on the World Giving Index
after the United States with 1.2 million Kiwis volunteering every year at home and abroad.
"It's a statistic we can be very proud of. However, bullying, abuse and harassment of volunteers in NZ is becoming a
real problem," says Jordan.
Volunteer New Zealand
are currently running a survey
to record the volume and intensity of the bullying, conflict, abuse and incivility experienced by volunteers from the
people who have been receiving their free help.
"I have talked with many volunteers all over the country who, like me, have found themselves on the receiving end of
rudeness, harassment, bullying, abuse and hostility by the people they are giving freely to. This is especially evident
if you, due to their unpleasant behaviour, withdraw from helping them. One woman I know had to pack up her kids and move
towns and then the country to avoid persecution and harassment from people who she had been helping - after telling them
she was going to stop giving them charity.
"Like 1.2 million other Kiwi volunteers, I have my own back-story for why I have thrown myself into doing thousands of
hours of voluntary work. After being in the Christchurch earthquake on 22nd February 2011 my focus in life changed and I
wanted to do something meaningful with my second chance at life, help other people in any way I could and also honour
the people who lost their lives on that dreadful dark day by making a difference to others.
"Every volunteer I have ever met, don't do acts of kindness for gratitude or payment, they do it to make a difference to
others. As charitable people, we have empathy, compassion and value others. But with those personality traits, come
risks. Volunteers can often fall into a trap of providing so much help to others their mental and physical health
suffers. Unless they have very clear boundaries set in place before they start volunteering, receivers of their
voluntary help can be incredibly demanding and sometimes hostile if they don't get what they want from the volunteer.
"I remember being so run down from voluntary work I got pneumonia but refused to go to hospital because I was in the
middle of raising money for a group of people. The people I was fundraising for weren't concerned about my health but
instead would ring me up to make more demands from me. They were worried I would drop the ball if I was sick and not
continue to provide the same level of voluntary service to them they had come to expect. On another occasion I had
worked for weeks to get free new outfits for a large group of people, including $120 pairs of sneakers. Only one of them
said thanks; but I was used to that so didn't even question it at the time.
"Unwittingly I, like many other volunteers, had become a doormat. I had allowed my generosity of spirit to overtake my
actions and never reviewed whether the people I was trying to help really deserved what I was giving them. It never
occurred to me to stop and question the time, money and effort I was putting in to please others. I just wanted them to
feel valued and never did it for thanks. But I learnt, if you don't have boundaries and keep things in check, some
people will exploit your kindness and take every last ounce of energy you have if it's there for the taking.
Unfortunately, as a volunteer, some people will see your generosity, not as a strength, but as a weakness to be
"One woman I decided to stop giving free dance lessons to after three and a half years has spent more than two years
harassing me for taking away something she felt lifted her social status and that I was obliged to provide her for free
regardless of how unpleasant she was towards me and others. She even enrolled her daughters (a high school teacher and
an artist) into cyber bullying me, other students in my free classes, and wrote harassing emails to my employers.
"Unfortunately people like her do exist and if you do a lot of volunteering it's only a matter of time before you come
across them. She clearly has some emotional problems to become so obsessed with these forms of retaliation. It's not a
healthy, rational or sane reaction, but in volunteering you can find yourself a target of people who deal with their own
pain by causing pain to others.
"Aged in her late 60's, this woman also has what is called, 'grey immunity' - so is not held to account for her hostile
actions towards volunteers because of her age. Grey immunity is really just reverse ageism.
"Some people presume older adults are more grateful than teenagers or millennials when on the receiving end of acts of
kindness. This is not the case, it's actually be the other way around," says Jordan.
A recent study
into narcissism by the University of Auckland shows people with the highest sense of entitlement in New Zealand are not
millennials or teenagers, it's actually women aged 65 and over.
"As an aged persons advocate, I want equality for senior citizens so they don't suffer from unfair prejudice or be
considered to have no value in society. But in order for equality to be achieved, senior citizens also have to be
accountable, just like everyone else in society, and volunteers shouldn't be expected to tolerate harassment from people
just because they are old. Reverse ageism is just another form of prejudice.
"Unfortunately, if you open up your heart to helping anyone, you're exposing yourself to great risk so need to take
precautionary measures. Before volunteering, be very clear on what you will and will not provide so you don't fall into
the same trap I have," says Jordan.
Tips for Surviving Volunteerism
Be Selective - don't open your doors to anyone who walks in. Quantify their needs and expectations and don't be afraid to turn them
away if they display unsocial behaviours or psychiatric problems which you can't manage. Remember, it's not the mountain
that will wear you out, it's the grain of sand in your shoe.
Have Boundaries and Set Limitations - what will you provide, how much time will you spend helping them, what are your limits? Communicate these limitations
to the people receiving your charity. When necessary tell the people you are helping the time and energy you're putting
into them behind the scenes and remind them you don't have to do what you are doing for them. If you don't do this when
it is needed it can lead to some people taking your help for granted, demanding a great deal from you and treating you
poorly as if the privilege of helping them is all yours.
Be Mindful of Your Own Needs - no-one else can do this for you and some people will take from you until you drop from exhaustion.
Manage Behaviour - have a code of conduct in place for the people you are helping so everyone knows what you expect in terms of their
Get Support - if you're volunteering alone, get support from others and ask them to help you set limitations and boundaries (as
often volunteers are so kind hearted they can't see when their generosity is being exploited or that they don't have to
be all things to all people).
"If you can manage the risks and be mindful of boundaries and limitations, volunteering can be a wonderful, life
changing gift. To be able to enter the lives of strangers, give to them unconditionally and show them others do care
about them, and they are worthy of nurturing just because they exist, is a huge privilege. You can show people they
don't have to earn or work for their value in society, they have it unconditionally.
"Also, knowing that you are making a positive contribution to the lives of people in your community can give you a sense
of wholeness and purpose. Just be aware of the challenges and remember, if you don't take care of yourself first, you
can't be of much help to others," says Jordan.
Billie Jordan has been awarded a Queens Medal for her voluntary work, was the NEXT magazine New Zealand Woman of the
Year in 2016, the winner of the Local Hero category in the 2015 New Zealander of the Year awards, won an International
Rotary Paul Harris award in 2014 and a Community Service award in 2013.
World Giving Index
Volunteer New Zealand
Volunteer New Zealand Survey Monkey
Narcissism in New Zealand - Study by University of Auckland