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There are hidden traps in helping others


TUMBY BAY - There are vast numbers of volunteers out there in the community. They are all doing good work and most will derive a lot of personal satisfaction from this.

Very few of them expect monetary recompense for what they do. Or even recognition.

These factors distinguish them from what we normally regard as the impulse that drives philanthropy.

Philanthropists are generally wealthy people who derive their satisfaction from sharing their wealth, but also reaping the accolades and recognition.

They tend to donate money to what they regard as good causes rather than put in actual work.

Philanthropy at its most cynical is carried out as a kind of personal boost to ego or as a way of attracting attention for commercial purposes.

Volunteers are a different breed altogether.

They see a need and decide to help out simply because the need exists.

Some people confine their concerns to donating to charities but others also jump in and help.

Governments rely heavily on these people. If you took the volunteers out of the equation in Australia many essential services would collapse.

You could make a case that volunteers are being exploited by the government and the organisations to whom they contribute their time and labour.

This exploitation is similar to the way low paid workers in the euphemistically termed ‘caring professions’ are exploited.

But it’s not only governments and organisations that exploit these people. Sometimes it is the individuals who are helped that engage in such practises.

By providing their expertise and labour freely in a spirit of generosity volunteers can inadvertently build up unreasonable expectations in the people they seek to help.

During the years when I helped organise the Crocodile Prize for Literature in Papua New Guinea, and particularly when I started to publish books under the Pukpuk Publications imprint, I encountered people who seemed to think I was there to serve them rather than help them.

This unfortunate circumstance manifested itself in what became quite unreasonable demands.

Writers who had every intention of selling and making a profit out of the books I had helped them publish were not backward in demanding extra work on layouts, editing and organising printing and shipping.

Thankfully it was only a few who acted this way and I just logged them as ungrateful buggers who I would decline to help in the future.

I was reminded of this the other day when I received am email from Daniel Kumbon, who has also been actively mentoring and helping writers in Papua New Guinea for many years.

Like me he has shelled out money in good faith only to be taken advantage of.

And, like me, he is very much aware and accepts that he will never recoup expenses of both time and money.

This biting the hand that feeds you is an unpleasant quirk of human nature that is hard to understand.

It must trouble those generous and unstinting volunteers who are subject to it.

The psychology of it works something like the psychology of lending people money.

Lend friends money and they will quietly resent you for it because it involves what they perceive as a demeaning experience.

Accepting a loan is like accepting charity. It carries a stigma that can sully even the closest friendships.

Even in a society like Papua New Guinea, where reciprocity is a strong part of social mores, there is still a stigma attached to accepting help.

One way of dealing with that stigma seems to be the inexplicable making of unreasonable demands on the person responsible for it.

The truth of the matter, however, is that if people like Daniel withdraw their efforts of mentoring literature in Papua New Guinea would probably crash.

It’s a terrible bind.

Daniel is not the only one of course. The late Francis Nii was a heroic and generous mentor of literature. As have been people like Jordan Dean, Michael Dom and many others.

You would think that it should behove the recipients of their unstinting largesse to show some respect and think carefully about what they demand but that doesn’t seem to happen.

Go figure.


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Richard Jones

I still work as a volunteer in my central Victorian city even as the mid-80s (in age) approach. I cover a local footy game for my local newspaper (the Bendigo Advertiser) most winter Saturdays because as we all know regional papers and radio are struggling.
Both with actual staff and actual revenue. The big advertisers prefer social media and, in any case, young folks in their late Teens and early 20s just don't read print news. So for me driving to outlying towns on Saturdays to write up a match presents no problem, but there's no petrol money these days.
Helping out at a regional community radio station on midweek winter days is another way I volunteer by presenting sports preview and round-up shows.

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