OPINION: Volunteering can be a voyage of self-discovery

OPINION: Volunteering can be a voyage of self-discovery

Leonie Lewis
Leonie Lewis

By Leonie Lewis, Director, Jewish Volunteering Network

Reflecting on National Volunteers Week, which took place last week, I thought I’d share my experience of volunteering for Harrow Mencap.

It began two-and-half-years ago when I was recruited by the fundraising manager. As I put some coins into his tin, he asked if I could help collect money by giving a couple of hours a month standing outside a local supermarket. I was flattered to be asked and, having no volunteering experience in the non-Jewish world, agreed instantly.

My decision wasn’t entirely altruistic. I also wanted to see how recruiting, managing and supporting volunteers compared to how it was done in the Jewish community.

I was given a badge and a poster explaining the charity’s work. I was forbidden to shake my tin or call out to attract attention. That was it – induction over, I later made it my business to visit the charity’s office and website.

Volunteer collecting is about making one’s presence felt. But it’s not that easy. Supermarket collecting is challenging, as some periods are busier than others. On Friday mornings and Thursday evenings, when I gave my time, people shop with purpose and intent.

Also, you  can’t go to a big store these days without being hassled by a collector or a magazine seller. So, however simple the volunteering role, if you want people to put money in your tin or engage in conversation, you need to make your presence felt, and certain times are better than others.

I soon realised I seemed to collect a bit more than the average taking of around £30 for two hours, so early on I became a competitive collector. I recognised my role at JVN gave me a special opportunity to invite the Jewish community to support Harrow Mencap.

I set up meetings at day centres and encouraged synagogues in Harrow to support us. More importantly, I used chutzpah when collecting!

Disregarding the no-calling-out rule, I would wish people I suspected were Jewish Shabbat Shalom. I also whistled Ma-Oz Tzur and Jingle Bells in December, or songs with money in their titles – anything to catch attention.

I also had catchphrases: “Any coppers in your coats or pennies in your pockets?” and so on. Thus I discovered that, in order to be a successful collector, this sort of volunteering isn’t suited to shy and retiring types. Standing silently with a tin will not get people to give.

Plus, there are always abusive people to deal with. “Why should I give charity?” “I don’t have a pound to spare on myself!” “I already give!”

The list goes on. Comments were often unfriendly and I was asked frequently to show my credentials and explain what I was doing.

After a year, I could recognise the types of people who would or wouldn’t put something in the tin, those who seemingly didn’t see me or said they had already given. But generally they were nice and most gave something.

I could now probably write a study on the demographic of who gives and how much, but I won’t comment here for risk of being sued! I will, however, say all the Jews who know me were generous and senior citizens usually gave more frequently.

Barry Cryer and Danny Finkelstein are frequent donors but most interesting is the retired senior psychiatric nurse at Broadmoor, who always gives a £10 note!

It isn’t only about the money. I have learnt about Harrow Mencap and am proud of my relationships with several collectors with special needs; they are far more assertive about getting people to give. It’s their charity and they say we need the money – who can argue?

I have learnt a little about volunteering. It’s about giving time in myriad small ways; about doing something professionally; knowing that a contribution is valued.

And I have learnt about myself – competitive, a keen observer and easily persuaded!

  • To find out more, contact the Jewish Volunteering Network on 020 8203 6427 or go online to www.jvn.org.uk.
  • For more on Harrow Mencap visit www.harrowmencap.org.uk 
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