It is not easy doing good. Creative People who work on innovative solutions when faced with bureaucracy, rejection or simply lack of support can easily burn out and suffer from depression.
I have been working with marginalized and post disaster communities for more than 8 years now, and today, I see more young people working on social projects or starting social enterprises. This is very encouraging, however, I have also seen many others burn out from time to time. Doing good is not as easy as you may think, and I too at times feel down.
I have volunteered for various organizations and been to many major disasters in the past 15 years. The work is inspiring and addictive. When I volunteer at disaster areas, I feel that my work is very meaningful, and I do feel that many benefited from my presence. However, at times, when I see a problem and I am not empowered to solve it due to bureaucracy, I feel disappointed especially if the bureaucracy and inaction actually causes harm.
Bureaucracies of large organizations cause these organizations to be unable to handle changes on the field, and even when I complained, it was largely ignored. I co-founded Relief 2.0 in 2011 and we went to Japan after the Tsunami and carried out the process of “running the last mile of disaster relief” where we provide what is not provided on the field and do the tasks which are not performed.
When the organizations deliver donated clothes but no one use them, Relief 2.0 members engage the kids in the shelters to sort clothes which makes it easier for the survivors to find what they need. Relief 2.0 also engages volunteers to redistribute food among the shelters.
Post disaster, Relief 2.0 works on getting the communities to help one another to rebuild their economy. Relief Business to Business (Relief B2B) is the practice where we interview shopowners of the damaged stores asking 4 simple questions; “What happened during the disaster?”, “What did you lose?”, “How much do you need?”, and “What are you going to use the money for?” We will record this in a video to bring to the next town and gather business owners to come and give interest bearing loans instead of donations to help the affected business restart. This process of getting the communities to support one another has proved useful and we get students in the local universities to carry out what we started.
The motto that we work with is “Never Help; Engage, Enable, Empower and Connect.” We try to get the locals and the community to solve their problems and work with them to come out with sustainable solutions, or connect them to the help they needs to get it done.
Finding working solutions and solving problems is satisfying; however, there are also many frustrations that I face. From time to time, communications will stall and my contacts will simply stop communicating. When you work on projects, the locals in that country will miss the timeline or simple stop working without giving any feedback.
This problem is not just for developing countries, but my experience in Singapore is also very similar. Working with the recipients of the support may be frustrating as they sometimes do not turn up for free trainings, and simply not come to work when you hire them and no reasons are given. In some cases, they are just not professional, but sometimes, there are a lot of other pressing issues that the marginalized communities face which they either assume you know, or they are too ashamed to share.
I’ve once worked with a farmer which I funded to support him for farming, and when I found that all the vegetable seedlings died even when the weather was good, I got frustrated with him for avoiding me, but later found out that he contracted dengue fever and was sick for weeks and too ashamed to contact me for losing everything.
In some cases, the communities you want to create are not as enthusiastic as you. I want to create an entrepreneurship eco-system for kids in Singapore, and I’ve started Dreamity Entrepreneurship bootcamp. Many parents are interested, but studies always come first and everything else is secondary. The kid’s business will be halted for exams and homework, and in most cases, a long pause usually means that the business will be discontinued.
For many social projects, finding funding is very hard. The government may have schemes, but your project has to fit exactly into their scheme before they consider funding, and application takes a long time. Corporates and business may be interested to be sponsors, but many want to know how the project will benefit them.
I’ve worked on several projects where funding and free venue was agreed, and a month before the event, everything was cancelled without giving any valid reasons. Sometimes, volunteers will have all sorts of excuses for not showing up, or bring their drama to the projects.
In the field of social innovation, the financial gains usually is relatively low and the frustration is high as few people see the work as a low priority – and these people include the recipients of the support. Some people over commit themselves. They give not only time and effort, they take on financial burdent to get things done. When things do not work out, these people burn out.
For me, I see this as a learning journey. I learn about different cultures, behaviors and people. I look at different solutions and share them between communities. I see myself more as a facilitator and a catalyst for change, and encourage the marginalized communities to want to change from within. I am not their savior, and without me, these marginalized communities still continue to exist. Although I may face a lot of rejections and failures, I put in my best effort but not take more responsibility that I can commit. I know that if I do have progress, many will benefit, and if I fail, I can still start over.
-- Robin Low
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