x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Many who want to volunteer find few opportunities

Though we are a nation of do-gooders, non-governmental charities can struggle with fundraising regulations and educating people on the obligations of volunteering.

Shahid Zubair hands out water to laborers at a construction site this week. During summer it is incredibly important to stay hydrated, especially if one works outside. Lee Hoagland / The National
Shahid Zubair hands out water to laborers at a construction site this week. During summer it is incredibly important to stay hydrated, especially if one works outside. Lee Hoagland / The National

Though we are a nation of do-gooders, non-governmental charities can struggle with fundraising regulations and educating people on the obligations of volunteering.

When Abu Dhabi residents Jerry Mercer and Helen Perna heard about the first-ever volunteer fair at Al Hosn University last month, they rushed down to take a look. Both had been avid volunteers in their native United States but had struggled to find similar opportunities in the UAE.

"Last year, I met a teacher and said I would be delighted to volunteer at her school," says the 66-year-old Perna. "I took her name and called her, and she asked me to wait a couple of weeks but nothing ever came of it."

"Coming from the States, we are not used to that," says the 60-year-old Mercer. "I volunteered in a lot of schools and with various other organisations back home. But I've been in the UAE for a year now and I would really like to start giving something back."

Rania Al-Ani encountered similar problems. An international relations student at the American University of Sharjah, the 22-year-old Al-Ani contacted a number of UAE charities to offer her services as a volunteer and, in most cases, didn't hear anything back from them. The only organisation that did reply was the Dubai-based Gulf for Good (G4G) and Al-Ani is now spending the summer interning in its offices.

"I struggled to find a good organisation to volunteer with. I emailed a number of charities and no one really replied," she says. "Which is why I have so much respect for G4G. If people are offering to help out for free, surely you should email them back? I suppose they are really busy but it is easy, if you get a response like that, to be put off."

It turns out that we are a nation of do-gooders. The UAE is home to a number of government-run charity organisations, such as the Emirates Foundation for Youth Development's Takatof, which has a whopping 26,000 registered volunteers, 95 per cent of whom are Emirati. Over the course of Ramadan, this army of philanthropists will be renovating homes, refurbishing mosques and distributing aid to poor families across the Emirates and will also will be helping out at iftars for the elderly, orphans, hospital patients and people with special needs.

But there are also a number of non-governmental organisations doing their bit in the UAE, and they too have little difficulty finding volunteers to support their causes.

Volunteer in Dubai, which acts as a conduit between volunteers and charitable causes, currently has 25,000 volunteers on its database and its events are regularly over-subscribed. Abu Dhabi Cause Connect, which links the community with worthy causes in the capital, launched in September and already has 1,000 followers on Facebook. Brian Wilkie, MBE and founder of G4G, which organises sponsored challenges that raise funds for children's charities around the world, says it is not difficult to find volunteers, or people willing to take part in G4G's challenges, which range from climbing Kilimanjaro to cycling across the Emirates.

It is notable that the last three years have been the most successful in G4G's history, and while the economic slowdown did see many companies slash their corporate social responsibility (CSR) budgets considerably, it did not dampen the average person's desire to help. If anything, it made people more conscious of how lucky they are, says Wilkie, and more eager to give back to those in less privileged positions.

The problem, then, is not that charitable organisations find it difficult to find volunteers, but that would-be philanthropists struggle to find organisations that will utilise their skills.

"The bottom line is that there are relatively few social issues here, so my role is to create volunteer opportunities, sometimes where there aren't any," says Lola Lopez, the founder of Volunteer in Dubai, which is soon to be rebranded as Volunteer in UAE. "I'm having to get very creative with our opportunities so that I can engage with the number of people that want to be involved."

One such example is the Pass the Glass campaign, where volunteers hand out cold cups of water to labourers in Dubai, along with health cards that highlight the symptoms of dehydration. "It's not actually about giving the guys a glass of water, because they have water on construction sites. It's definitely a little bit about educating them but if, nothing else, it's about letting these guys know that somebody sees them - that they are not invisible to us and we are not oblivious to their plight. To operate Pass the Glass I realistically only need 20 people. But the way I organise it, I am currently engaging about 120 volunteers. That's an example of Volunteer in Dubai trying to create more opportunities," Lopez says.

While the UAE has always had a culture of volunteerism - when Wilkie was first in Dubai in the 1970s and 80s, the expat community was often to be found rallying around some cause or another, he says - formalised volunteering is a relatively new phenomenon. And while finding volunteers may not be difficult, there are plenty of other challenges to overcome. For example, stringent regulations surrounding the issue of fundraising mean that many of the UAE's non-government-affiliated charity organisations struggle to raise the capital they need to support their day-to-day operations.

"This is a new country so there are still a lot of gaps with regulation. The charity sector is still evolving and the rules are still being firmed up. Fundraising is a problem area. There are very strong restrictions, which is understandable, but they could be approached more effectively," says Wilkie.

Both Wilkie and Lopez recognise the need to protect volunteers and charitable donors from unscrupulous organisations and recommend that people do their homework before committing time or money to any cause. "Transparency is really important. If you are a volunteer you should have a good idea of what is expected of you and how you will be benefiting the causes, and exactly what your time and money are going to be used for," says Wilkie.

Lopez also advises people against volunteering for large profit-making organisations, such as events companies and concert organisers, which are essentially taking advantage of a free workforce to boost their bottom line.

"It is not right to use volunteer manpower to increase profit margins. Volunteers have to stop doing it. They are being used as free labour," she says.

"What Volunteer in Dubai suggests is fair is that at least a token donation be made to a local charity in exchange for volunteers' time, something we are happy to help source and support."

Because organised volunteering is a relatively new phenomenon, charitable organisations are having to educate people about the realities and responsibilities involved. Making sure that people understand the need to take their commitment seriously is of paramount importance, says Lopez.

"We introduced a reliability rating for our volunteers because there are a lot of people that say they will come but don't turn up. About 42 per cent of newbies are likely not to show up. People think it's a happy-go-lucky environment where it's all about spreading the love and the joy, but the effects can be quite catastrophic when people don't turn up.

"It's very hard because you are constantly having to manage with an unpredictable workforce. That's why we introduced reliability ratings. We are trying make people responsible for their choices. I'm not trying to be militant, but we are trying to achieve something here and it's hard work. It's not a game. People rely on us."

While there are already plenty of people doing their bit for charitable causes in the UAE, there is always room for more. It is just a question of making sure that volunteers are connecting with the right organisations, which are able to effectively harness their skills. And the inherent flexibility of many - although not all - charities means that a commitment of even an hour a week is welcome.

"People can do an hour a week; they can do 10 hours a week, or come in every day. We'll take whatever is on offer," says Morag Cromey-Hawke, the executive director of the UAE branch of Operation Smile, a global charity that organises medical missions in hard-to-reach places around the world, where volunteer medical staff operate on children with cleft lips, cleft palates and other facial deformities.

While the organisation relies on volunteer doctors, plastic surgeons, anaesthetists and nurses to do its work, it is always happy to enlist the services of information and communication professionals, student interns, graphic designers and anyone else who is willing to man exhibition stands, hand out information, sell merchandise or pack gift bags.

Across the world, more and more people are recognising the value of giving up their free time for a worthy cause. "It's a worldwide trend," says Wilkie. "This is the first generation worldwide, I would say, that has been taught that everybody needs to give something back."

It's a message that seems to be striking a chord in the UAE. And with the existence of organisations such as Volunteer in Dubai and Cause Connect, which post a selection of volunteer opportunities on their websites and invite people to sign up for events of their choice, there are fewer and fewer excuses not to join the fray.

The fact that 85 per cent of Volunteer in Dubai's events take place on the weekend or in the evenings means that even those in full-time work can find something that will fit in with their schedules.

"The onus is on you," says Lopez. "There's no minimum requirement of 20 hours a month or anything. The only prerequisite we have is that you come with a positive attitude and a willingness to work, and that you don't let us down. Could we ask for any less?"

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