Students typically take up volunteering for one of three reasons – they want to develop skills, meet people, or make an impact. These reasons map roughly on to three types of volunteer. Those who want to make an impact are the most interesting kind of volunteers.
While universities have always been about making an impact, only volunteering explicitly connects students to this mission. Education and research defer impact to a far-flung future, sitting in the realm of esoteric research or specialised consulting. Volunteering shifts the timeline forward, putting feet on the ground and hands in the soil. It helps students to feel as though their skills and ideas are both important and useful.
“A loose grip is required to make an impact on complex problems. It requires compassion, equanimity, patience, hope, and a willingness to sit in uncertainty. This attitude is less about you having an impact on the world, and more about allowing the world to have an impact on you.”Aden Date
Of course, there is a catch. Student volunteers quickly realise they have been hoodwinked. They came into volunteering concerned about climate change, and they find themselves planting trees. They wanted to help solve homelessness, and instead they are serving lukewarm curry to rough sleepers.
Volunteering’s optimistic promise is that social change is simply a matter of well-meaning people giving time and energy. Volunteering suggests that we can stand outside the world’s problems and apply force, have an impact – as simply a hammer drives a nail into wood.
I once took a number of students to volunteer with a remote Indigenous community. Complex moral dilemmas slowed every good intention down to wrenching indecision. By helping to cook, am I displacing the role of the parents? Is discipline a form of moralising? Should gratitude be thankless? The volunteers began to realise they were entangled with the very problems they wanted to solve.
Long after scouring the last dinner dishes, under the glow of the moon, exhausted bodies and minds would confess those words that I would hear many times throughout my career – “I don’t think I’m making an impact.”
This is the long con of volunteering: it is an introduction to not making an impact. The goal is to keep student volunteers around long enough to understand that you cannot stand outside the world and make an impact on it. We are a part of the world we seek to change. We are hammer and nail, maker and made.
After we spoke, several of the students went to the lake shore and joined a few of the Indigenous teenage boys hunting for yabbies in the bright moonlight. They watched and listened with the kind of exhausted equanimity we all feel after a long day. They admired the resilience of cultural practice and enduring connection to country. Long after their desire to make an impact had subsided, they found themselves open to being impacted.
A loose grip is required to make an impact on complex problems. It requires compassion, equanimity, patience, hope, and a willingness to sit in uncertainty. This attitude is less about you having an impact on the world, and more about allowing the world to have an impact on you.
Aden Date (GradCertSocImp ‘15) Aden Date is a freelance consultant working at the intersection of Arts, Media, and Social Impact. He also runs an improvised theatre company, Only the Human. You can find him at adendate.com