Good intentions are not enough

You can almost feel it on your skin. That mixture of excitement and nervousness that is emanated when a group of young people gather in one place with a particular goal in mind. Goal is a very generous word, because goals require planning and serious reflection, but most people in this room don’t really know what has brought them there, nor what it is that they really want to do. In their eyes; a mixture of innocence, naivety and a pinch of overconfidence. The first meeting for a group of volunteers.

Speak to them and you’ll hear quotes from Gandhi and Mother Teresa, about how they want to “be the change you want to see in the world” but do “small things with great love”. They have grand and noble ideas of how they are going to solve world problems and what impact they will have. Admittedly, they pose a dilemma for me. Should I tell them what voluntary work is really like, the hardships, the loneliness, the boredom it really entails? Or should I be quiet and encourage them to keep an open mind, to reach out when they are in distress and let them learn at their own expense?

This dilemma, I believe is not unique. Anyone who engages in voluntary work or manages teams of volunteers understands the difficulty that over enthusiastic yet underprepared volunteers present. These are the kind of volunteers who only turn up to events which put them in the limelight foregoing the “dirty work” that comes before and after. Volunteers who only work well if they are perfectly comfortable and always get their way. They are the volunteers who overcommit but then are more inconsistent than a rainy day in summer.

So what do we do with this room buzzing with energy? We accompany them. We mentor them, we help them readjust their expectations. We practice humility and we demand it from them. No one is above any task, nor are they below one. Above all we love them. Despite their naivety or perhaps because of it, these people have signed up to give their time and their energy. It is our duty as leaders to empower these young people and help them transition into the committed givers that our society desperately needs. We must guide them in the difficult yet rewarding journey of growth that is volunteering but above all let us abolish the foolish way of thinking that pervades voluntary circles and remind them that : Good intentions are not enough!

Andrew is the founder and coordinator of STEPS (Seeking Together to Enhance our Potential through Service). STEPS is an organisation that provides formation and training to volunteers. For further details visit

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