Do You Practice What You Preach?

A few days ago I was invited by Pro Vobis to give an inspirational speech to volunteer managers and other professionals working with volunteers. I chose to give a very personal speech. I felt very vulnerable during that speech, but recently I have learned that there is power to vulnerability and people prefer to connect with those who show and are honest about their weaknesses. Here is what I shared. 

It was a rainy summer day in Brussels and I was madly in love. It was painful because I was in love with a man who could not be mine. I mean, he could be mine, but not ONLY mine.

I was sad and my sadness made me see a lot of things that in the past I had chosen not to see. Like all those women begging in the streets with small children. Did you notice that those children sleep all the time? Well a friend mentioned to me that they sleep because they are on drugs. Trafficked children, drugged to sleep so that trafficked women, not necessarily their mothers, make money for the traffickers. I felt outraged! But also a very selfish and guilty relief, thinking that there are other tragedies in life, even bigger than mine. Putting things into a universal perspective always helps…

Back to Bucharest, after a few days. Lovely summer day and the same sadness in my heart. This guy was totally amazing, but I knew it could not work. I had just missed my subway train. The only other person on the platform was a thin girl with a small sleeping baby. She looked sad and exhausted and I felt sorry for her. When other people arrived, the girl started to beg for money. I felt outraged again! This was not a foreign country. This was my country, my city, my metro station, my life! I wanted to do something. To call the police and God in person if needed!

But first, I took the time to observe the girl for a while. And I realized she was very scared. And ashamed. She was never looking at the people around her. She was different. So I started to talk with her. I wanted to know if the baby was on drugs. The baby woke up and she kissed her lovingly. Now I was the one ashamed. She told me that she only begs when they are very hungry. A second child, a boy, needed more than breast milk. A few trains went by. I was late but I had learned a lot of things. I gave her my phone number and the same day I told the story on my blog.

We met again after a while. I offered food and she could not eat because she had teeth pain. I asked if she wanted the two babies. She said that with the first child she was not aware that sex can lead to pregnancy. She was only 14 and nobody had explained these things to her. The second time she wanted to have an abortion but she did not have the 40 EUR to pay for it.

I continued to blog about her. A few friends offered to help, so we took her to a dentist and to a gynecologist to stop the unwanted babies. At some point I visited her and her leaving conditions appalled me. She asked if we could help them build a one-room home and I asked my friends. This is what they said.

I have learned a lot from this experience. I worked for NGOs for my whole life. I started to volunteer when I was 14 and for a while I was a volunteers manager. In three years in that job I think I selected, trained and supervised more than 300 volunteers. I saw human suffering in a lot of forms. I was paid (and still am) to see human suffering and find ways to address it. And still I was oblivious to the following facts:

  1. I did not know that I could do so much good myself, as a person, not as an employee. And I did not know that doing good as a person is so easy. I practically didn’t do anything. I just talked and wrote about something that happened to me. I could have used the same time and energy to talk about how I bought a pair of shoes.
  1. I did not know that I can inspire so many people by sharing my feelings and thoughts. Now we have a Facebook group with more than 100 people who offer their help.
  1. I did not know that people are SO eager to help. Many people are reluctant to support NGO causes because they have all sorts of misconceptions about our work. With this action I could reach them and engage them in a dialogue about why it is important that they also support my NGO causes. I turned skeptical people into supporters and activists;
  1. I was not aware that I knew so little about the social field. This experience was the best hands-on crash course on social inclusion, when I thought I already knew so much, because as I said I had been an NGO worker for my whole life, with a PhD in international development. But being personally involved is so different that just hearing or reading about how bad the things are for the poor.
  1. I did not know that I could gain so much credibility. I had been working for my whole life as an NGO worker, but now, because I was personally investing in a cause, people started to look differently at me. To see me as an ‘expert’, to invite me to give speeches like today, to ask for my opinion about things, to want to interview me, to listen to what I have to say. This was such good publicity for my NGO work.

Why do I share this story with you?

Because you all work with volunteers in a way or another. Meaning those people who give time, effort and talent to a need. You know the science… A recent review of 40 studies shows that volunteering is associated with reduced rates of depression, with an intensification of the positive emotions which lead to happiness, with better self-esteem and, in general, better health. It has been demonstrated that volunteers actually live longer than non-volunteers. You of course know this and talk about this with your volunteers and prospective volunteers.

But here is a question: do you, do YOU personally take the time to build your own volunteer or giving practice? Not something you are paid for, because you work for an NGO. But something that gives YOU joy and it is perfectly aligned with your dreams for a better world, no matter what the dreams of your NGO are. And if you do so, do you take the time to talk about it so that you inspire others?

I started to ask this question to colleagues in the NGO sector. And many say that, just like me, they used to have a personal cause when they entered the NGO world, but now, when they are employees, they do not have the time any longer and they build a better world anyway through the work of their NGOs.

Based on my recent experience I think this is excellent, but I wonder: is it enough? Aren’t we missing something important? Aren’t we missing the joy because we have ‘professionalized’ our compassion? Can we go back and de-professionalize a bit so that we are inspired and live longer like the ‘regular’ volunteers?

While building the house for this teenage mother, I took a donor counselling course. Yes, there are courses that teach you how to advise donors. I had no idea about that, but Americans invented courses for pretty much everything in this world. When I started the course, I had no idea where it would lead. I suspect I was totally misled by the title and thought it was a regular fundraising course. Not only I loved it, but amazingly I also found clients afterwards! I was totally shocked. People who see me because they want to give and do not know where to start, because they want to make sure that their giving is aligned with their dreams for a better world and because they want to make sure that what they give has the maximum impact.

Here is one of the exercises that my clients and I start with and that I am happy to share with you. It may seem a little bit silly, but… why don’t you just trust me? You need a pen and paper for this exercise. Here it is how it goes:

  1. First you find a quiet place, where you will not be disturbed for a while. Take a few deep breaths and focus on your breathing for a few minutes.
  2. Then take the paper and write down a few of your personal values. Words like ‘honesty’, ‘freedom’, ‘joy’, ‘beauty’. Create your own list.
  3. Now take a second piece of paper and write down the causes that are closest to your heart. It can be something about vulnerable children, about abandoned old people, about animal rights, about preventing terrorism. Create your own list. If you want to go deeper, I can share with you a ‘Compassion Test’ that I created.
  4. Now look at those two papers. Do they tell you a story? Are they expressed in your employed life? Can you do something else or something more about that? Would that make you happy?
  5. If you want, you can write your thoughts down. In the following weeks and months let your heart open to those thoughts. You may be in for a few surprises…

If I could build a house, with practically no money and no skills, who knows what YOU can do…

Finally, thank you for your time. I will leave you now with this quote: ‘Love is never lost. If not reciprocated, it will flow into bigger hearts’.




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