Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Volunteering in Singapore – Start Here!

When I first got to Singapore, I hadn’t the faintest what I wanted to do. Plucked out from the UK, following my partner, it was move now think later. When I left London I was at a career crossroads, and wasn’t sure what the next step would be, or even if I would be able to make that next step in Singapore.

For me, one of the first things I did when I arrived in Singapore was put some feelers out about volunteering opportunities. Having spent a number of years working in the not-for-profit sector, this wasn’t as daunting a task for me as it can be for others.

For some people, the idea of volunteering has never crossed their minds or might sound too much of a cliché. For others it can all be a bit overwhelming - they don’t know what to do or where to start.

Well now I’ll share my personal experience with you in the hope that it might light a flame inside you, or perhaps nudge you along to the next stage if you’re already pondering on the idea of volunteering but haven’t yet taken action.

As my regular readers will know, I am a volunteer with Action for AIDS Singapore (AfA), and feel honoured to be. I chose the cause because I admire the work they do in Singapore against all odds, plus it is a cause that is personally close to my heart for a number of reasons.

For me, being a volunteer in Singapore with AfA has turned out to been integral in shaping my Singapore experience to date and here’s some reasons why. It:
-       gave me the opportunity to put my knowledge, skills and spare time to good use and ensured I didn’t have a scary big gap on my CV while I worked out what I wanted to do.
-       gave me a sense of purpose at a time when everything felt very surreal and unstructured.
-       helped me get to know the real Singapore, including issues which exist but may not necessarily be talked about.
-       enabled me to meet a diverse, interesting and special group of people – in my case mainly locals  -for which I feel very lucky.
-       got me involved in so many great projects and took me in so many new directions I could never have imagined any of this would have happened had I not been volunteering.
-       led to a job offer in the end! Not with the AfA itself but a company who I had found to support them with pro-bono work.

And here are some pics to illustrate some of these points...

Being surprised at the AfA offices with a birthday cake and sing song when I thought I was coming in for a spot of faked crisis management...

With volunteers at Le Flea Boutique, the fundraising fashion sale of which I’m Co-Founder and Organizer. For more information on this see the Facebook page here. This has been probably one of the  most enjoyable things I've done plus it raised over $3,000 at the inaugural event.

With fellow volunteer Jin Ng at an AfA volunteer BBQ down at the East Coast. Yes he's so delighted to be in my company that he looks like he sat on something unexpected! ;)


 So where do you start?

While there is growing interest and support for volunteering in Singapore, personally speaking it can feel relatively undeveloped compared to what I've been used to at times.  There are a few organisations who are quite proactive in seeking new volunteers but it doesn’t stop there. There are many others who are doing wonderful work that are simply too under-resourced to proactively recruit volunteers outside of their current supporter base. And these gems won’t be the ones that you necessarily hear about first off.

So yes can look at SG Cares, the volunteering portal of the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre. But if there’s something you are passionate about – be it women’s issues, migrant workers’ rights, the arts and heritage, health, disadvantaged children and the list goes on, I would strongly recommend spending some time finding out about organisations doing work in the field you want to be involved in or are passionate about and getting in touch with them.

If you haven’t got a clue then let your mind wonder and perhaps be inspired by the list of organisations in the social sector as mentioned in the Wiki and Concern.sg listing at the end of this article. See where it takes you because this is your chance to be involved in something that perhaps every day life has denied you until now.

Some other words of advice:

-       Don’t be disheartened if you don’t hear back from the organisations you have contacted for some time. Most organisations don’t have a volunteer co-ordinator and are overloaded with a barrage of day to day work. And there’s nothing wrong with you following up if you really want this.
-       Think about the skills and knowledge you can offer, and think outside the box on this one. You might feel that you have nothing to contribute but it’s amazing how useful an extra helping hand at say, a fundraising event can be. And with time you may be able to cross over into other fields.
-       Find an organisation not only whose mission you support, but whose personality speaks to you. Ultimately, do you click with the organisation’s character (because each really does have its own) and also the staff you’ll be supporting?
-       Be honest and realistic about your commitment level and once you say you will commit, then be ready to commit.
-       Make sure it’s something you enjoy (however you interpret your own sense of enjoyment or fulfilment) , because if you’re not going to enjoy it and feel fulfilled in doing, and you’re doing it for free, the chances are you won’t be very good at committing to it.
-       While charities can accommodate one off volunteering opportunities, they have to invest a lot of time and energy just for that one time. And time is money. Charities gain the best value out of volunteers who can commit to regular interactions, and commitments can vary by activity and organisation. These regular interactions are the ones that are the most fulfilling.

My last word of wisdom is that don’t expect things to necessarily slot into place instantly with the organisation you volunteer with. You’re not going to change the world in a flash. It’s a relationship therefore you need to need to get to know each other.

I’ve been volunteering with AfA pretty much since I got to here and from my experience I can honestly say the longer your relationship is, the better it gets. As your understanding and trust of each other develops – and I mean that at both at an organisation and individual level – you learn how you can best contribute, have a voice, make an impact and support the organisation’s mission and be a valuable volunteer. But best of all you will be making a positive contribution to your new home and community on an ongoing basis.

Lastly, to all those out there who are already volunteering, you are doing a fantastic thing. Let's hope there can be more of us with time! 

Useful links:

Action for AIDS Singapore http://www.afa.org.sg/
The National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre: http://www.nvpc.org.sg/
List of voluntary welfare/social sector organizations in Singapore: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_voluntary_welfare_organisations_in_Singapore


Merlin Stone said...

A great guide to how to help - hope it motivates thousands to do it

Ms Demeanour said...

I hope so too! :) Would love to know if others found this helpful...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this. I've just arrived in SG and used to work for a not-for-profit back in the UK. I've been wondering about volunteering and what the sector is like, and your post has really inspired me to go out and find something. So thank you!

Ms Demeanour said...

Hi Claire, nice to e-meet you! So glad you found the blog post inspiring. Rare to find people from non-profit background here. What did you used to do? Feel free to drop me a line if you'd like to meet up for coffee some time! :)