Winston Churchill once said, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” With the prevalence of increasingly frenetic and consumer-driven lifestyles, most of us have become too caught up in focusing on ourselves. While self-love is important, not everyone is fortunate enough to engage in such pursuits. Charity is one of the best ways we can exercise our ability to create change in order to better support those who are in need of it.
One of the most common aspects of charity work is volunteering, but it isn’t something that only students and retirees participate in. Senior executives and other working professionals also contribute to the makeup of this varied landscape. For Tess Mackean, a career start in fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) marketing failed to provide the specific kind of fulfilment she sought in life, which is why the now-CEO of non-profit member organisation TalentTrust spends her time working with other NPOs in Singapore to help grow their capacity and strengthen their operations. We managed to catch a quick work with her on just how charity became such a huge part of her life.
1. What is it about volunteering that appeals to you?
Volunteering always leaves me feeling inspired and re-energised. Every single time I’ve volunteered, I’ve met some of the most incredible people and I’m consistently humbled, not only by the passion and commitment of the people who run non-profit organisations but also by the community spirit of fellow volunteers. Everybody comes together to pool resources, ideas and brainpower to achieve a communal goal. It’s an incredible way to connect and learn with other people whilst giving back to those who need it most.
2. Describe your first “ah-ha” moment in charity work.
When I was in my 20s I found myself working in FMCG brand marketing. It was an incredibly tough job and I was putting in long hours and feeling incredibly stressed. One day, it hit me that for all my hard work (if I was very lucky), a woman in Canada might buy a new lipstick. It just wasn’t enough for me. I made the move to work for a charity whose focus was education. Sitting in my first Town Hall meeting, I was so moved and motivated learning about the impact our work was having on vulnerable young kids. It was like, “Ok, wow, this work is going to enrich my own life just as much as the people we’re helping.” It’s like a form of symbiosis.
3. One of your most recent projects is with Daughters of Tomorrow – what has that been like?
Daughters of Tomorrow (DOT) is an incredible charity run by a visionary Chief Executive, Carrie Tan. We put together a team of highly experienced business volunteers to help mentor Carrie and find new ways to reach ambitious goals over the course of a year. You only need to see how much press Carrie has had this past couple of months to see how well she’s done. Our volunteers were routinely inspired by how much she achieves with a tiny percentage of the resources that they all enjoy through their employers. We’re so excited to follow DOT’s journey over the next couple of years.
4. A lot of people feel that charity is just about donating money to a cause. Any advice on how the average person on the street would be able to go the extra mile?
I think that when a lot of people think about “doing more than just donating”, their thoughts naturally turn to volunteering. What they may not know is how many different ways there are to volunteer. Nowadays, it’s not only about painting a building or reading to kids. Non-profit organisations have to achieve so much with so little, and often an hour or two of business advice can be invaluable. We call this Skills-Based Volunteering and it’s becoming more and more popular as time-poor business people want to make more impact with their limited volunteering hours.
5. Where does the biggest shortage currently lie in the volunteer work field?
Fortunately, I don’t think there’s a massive shortage of volunteers at the moment. Corporate Social Responsibility is on the rise and businesses are increasingly offering employees time-off to volunteer. What I do think is missing is people doing different types of volunteering. As well as Skills-Based-Volunteering, there’s also Service-Based Volunteering where you would offer, for example, a couple of hours a week to render a particular service to a charity such as helping to run a youth sports day. The main take away though, is just to pick the one that works best for you and make sure you are truly committed. It’s really tough for a charity who are counting on volunteer support to be let down at the last minute.
6. Time (or lack thereof) is often cited as the largest constraint when it comes to giving back. How can the busy individual aspire to make a difference still?
We hear this a lot at TalentTrust and we sympathise. People’s lives are jam-packed nowadays. It seems like it’s getting harder and harder to achieve a true work-life balance when we’re all so constantly connected. Understandably, volunteering often gets pushed to the bottom of the priority list until that niggling guilt finally rears its head. The thing that we don’t talk about enough is how much of a difference you can make in as little as a couple of hours a month. Great volunteering programmes that are well run and structured make it easier than ever to get involved.
Take TalentTrust, for example. Our volunteers tell us where their skills lie, and we go out and match them with the a non-profit specifically looking for help in that area. Once we have a match, our project managers kick in and handle the set-up. They schedule all of the meetings, set the agendas and then attend the meetings to facilitate the discussion while capturing the minutes and actions. They even follow up with the charity to ensure they’re supported until the next meeting. This means that an individual can show up, give their best advice and then sit back until the next meeting, knowing that their time was well used.
7. What is your most cherished memory in giving back to others?
I think it’s anytime that I’ve taken the time to truly understand what someone needed. When I was growing up in the UK, seeing homeless people in my home town was a really common sight. A lot of them belonged to a magazine-selling scheme which left them with a small profit. The problem was that I only ever needed to buy one magazine which meant that I had to walk past the other vendors and feel really guilty about not helping.
On one particularly cold evening, I got chatting with one of the vendors and explained how I already had the magazine but asked if there was anything else I could do. He mentioned how cold his hands got at night so the next day I went out and bought multiple pairs of gloves. That evening I gave a pair to every vendor I saw that wanted them. I had so many brilliant conversations with some inspiring people, learning about their stories and how they came to be on the street. They were grateful that someone had taken the time to think about something extra that they might have needed.
At the end of the day, I think that’s the blueprint for great volunteering. I’ve heard some horror stories about charities routinely white-washing a building ready for the next team of corporate volunteers to come and re-paint for the hundredth time. Sometimes we have to ask ourselves a hard question: are we truly helping charities or are we just satisfying our own needs? So, my advice for anybody who wants a volunteering experience to cherish would be to just ask the charity what they truly need. Do that, and everyone wins.