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Speaking for charity

‘How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world.’ When Shakespeare first penned those lines in the Merchant of Venice, he had something. Centuries later, the sentiment still holds true. Good deeds restore our faith in human nature. They are the icing on the cake. The froth on a beer. The latte art on an espresso. And ranking high up on the list of good deeds is volunteering. Those who can, do; those who can do more, volunteer.

I discovered recently that Hungary has a National Volunteer Centre (ÖKA) and a Volunteer Centre Network. I had the good fortune to meet with Executive Director, András F. Tóth, and to learn about the work being done to create a pro bono culture within Hungarian business society. Corporate volunteer strategies are on their way to becoming very much part of doing business in Hungary. Good news.

I grew up in a society were volunteerism was part of the norm. If you didn’t have it on your CV, you wouldn’t get a job. Everyone was involved in some voluntary capacity in one of the myriad organisations set up for the betterment of society. It was just something you did almost without thought.

No night out was complete without someone launching into the litany: ‘I’m shaving my head or growing a mustache or dancing for 24 hours [insert as appropriate] in aid of X charity – will you sponsor me?’ And if it wasn’t sponsorship lines, it was raffle tickets, or charity concerts, or cake sales. People dug deep into their pockets and supported the cause.

GOTGfinalIn Budapest, since 2010, the Gift of the Gab has been providing an opportunity for people to both volunteer and contribute. From September every year, each month (skipping December) five speakers would give a five-minute prepared speech on a topic of their choice. Scored by a panel of randomly selected judges, topics ran the gamut from answering the age-old – What’s the difference between a duck? – to the virtues of arranged marriages. In the second half, speakers had to choose a topic suggested by the audience. These ranged from the bizarre – why is bird poop black-and-white – to the more banal – paving stones or peas or curtains. The winner from each of the five qualifying rounds went forward to the final in March.

Next week, on Thursday, 12th March, at New Orleans on District VI’s Lovag utca, the 2015 final will determine the winner of this, the last in the series. Five hopefuls, having made it through the qualifiers, will take to the stage as 200 or so ticketed attendees do their bit to support the Irish Hungarian Business Circle’s Give a Little charity campaign. It promises to be a great night.

Over the course of the five seasons, more than 110 speakers have taken part and given their time to raise funds for Topház Speciális Otthon in Göd. Thousands more have donated at the door and come out to support them. The volunteer judges, photographers, sponsors, and helpers, have worked hard to make it all happen on the night. And together, their work has benefited some two hundred or more clients at the orphanage, while the generous fans and supporters have been entertained.

It’s been great to see how it has all evolved and I look forward to the big final in September that will pit the five title-holders against each other to determine who in Budapest has the Gift of the Gab. In the meantime, let me borrow again from Shakespeare: I can no other answer make, but, thanks, and thanks. 

First published in the Budapest Times 6 March 2015

Give a little – get a lot

Let the investment bankers amongst you weep! Last week, in Malta, I put €10 in the collection plate – it was a special collection for environmental refugees. Not ten minutes later, walking up the street after mass, I spotted €20 in the corner of a step, nestling amidst the remnants of Satuday night’s partying. What a return, eh? You give, you get, someone said, when I told them of my good fortune. And that got me thinking…

Way back when, before the industrial revolution, before money became our god, and urbanisation made strangers of us all, volunteering was second nature. We gave – we gave of our time, our skills, our energy. We shared – we shared our food, our homes, our experiences.  Clothes were passed on, tools were borrowed, and lives were intertwined. Whole communities survived with the helping hands of neighbours. Harvests were brought in, homes were built, roads were repaired, children were minded, the sick were cared for – we looked out for each other.

Volunteerism stakes a place

In 1920, shortly after WWI, a group of Austrian, English, French, German, and Swiss volunteers – some of whom had fought on opposite sides in the War – began to rebuild a village near Verdun.  And thus the first modern volunteer movement was born: the French Service Civil International (SCI). Many more followed and soon volunteering was once again playing a significant part in contemporary life. Organisations like the US Peace Corps, or Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) offered great opportunities for going abroad to ‘help out’. In Ireland, growing up, we talked of ‘going on the missions’ – not in a religious context – but to help out in Africa. There were bake sales and book sales, poker classics and whist drives, table quizzes and raffles, with all proceeds going to someone’s sister or brother, uncle or aunt, who was out on the missions, volunteering.

Those who stayed at home were involved in youth clubs and Scout groups. They volunteered at the hospice and the hospital, the children’s home and the old folk’s home. They coached football, taught adult literacy, got involved in home-help scheme and respite programmes.  The community pulled together and worked as one. We may not have been as well off materially, but in other, far more important ways, we were rich beyond measure.

Commercialism creeps in

One night, as we were all sleeping the sleep of the just, commercialism crept in. Suddenly those 12-month voluntary posts overseas were reserved for professionals – for doctors, nurses, nutritionists, engineers and the like. The rest of us, although willing to serve our time for the betterment of mankind and, if truth be told, for the betterment of ourselves, were asked to pay for the experience. Up front. Now, don’t get me wrong: I have no problem at all with paying my way to get to wherever, but to pay to stay there and volunteer? There is something not quite right with that picture.

At home, governments began to regulate every ounce of community spirit out of us. With restrictive health and safety regulations, background checks, and a leporine multiplication of forms to be filled to hold any position in a voluntary capacity, suddenly volunteering simply wasn’t worth the effort. But hey, all was not lost. We had money. We could help out by donating cold hard cash instead of our time, skills, and experience. Not quite the same admittedly, but if we had a conscience to salve, then cash was the balm to hand.

But gradually, once again, this avenue, too, became the stomping ground of the professionals – this time, the professional money-makers: those who could afford to shell out big bucks for charity dinners; who could afford to bid extravagantly at charity auctions; who had the wherewithal to be charitable.

But what of the rest of us? Where do we fit?

Pessimism postponed

Much an all as I enjoy living in Budapest, I miss that sense of community. That sense of knowing I’m contributing to making my city a better place. That sense of giving. That sense of belonging that only really comes when you’re actively contributing to where you live. So if your Hungarian is as abysmal as mine, and you’re not in a position to pull up a chair to the charity fundraising table, what options are there to volunteer, to help out? The British Women’s Association requires you to have a British passport. The North American Women’s Association is for women from North America. The International Women’s Association, well you have to be female. But there’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon: the Irish Hungarian Business Circle (IHBC) is working to reignite that community spirit here in Budapest by supporting people in their fund-raising activities, not matter how small, and by identifiying opportunities for all of us to donate our time and skills to community-based projects rather than just our money.

A healthy social life is found only when, in the mirror of each soul, the whole community finds its reflection, and when in the whole community, the virtue of each one is living.

Rudolf Steiner, Austrian philosopher and scientist

First published in the Budapest Times 13 September 2010