Maheswary Emmanuel, a lawyer, is in the cubicle of an office with two law students when a woman walks in, visibly distressed. She needs a shoulder to cry on, but as much as they sympathise with her, this isn’t the place for it.
Emmanuel and her team have precious little time to advise the client on her legal rights and remedies, as well as to ensure that she is clear about her decision should she opt to pursue a legal recourse. And with 15 cases to hear in just three hours, there’s hardly any time for commiserating with clients.
Two nights a month. Three hours a night. An average of 15 cases per session.
And the 60-year-old lawyer does all this for free.
This is her way of volunteering – by giving her time and skills at a pro bono legal clinic at the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO) through the Singapore Association of Women Lawyers (SAWL).
Last week, we dealt with new findings about volunteerism in Singapore. Here we zero in on the efforts of such volunteers as Emmanuel, whose contributions are part of an emerging trend in volunteerism called skills-based volunteering.
What skills-based volunteerism is
For many of us, the act of donating means giving money and the occasional physical work. However, others like Emmanuel have managed to channel their skills and passion into a more creative form of volunteer work that gives them purpose.
Her journey as a skills-based volunteer started after she was introduced to the association in 1991. Noting that their main mission was to “make the law accessible to the public”, Emmanuel observed that SAWL was “the pioneer and only such organisation providing such legal clinics to the community at large” back then.
Providing such a service as a volunteer for more than 25 years hasn’t dampened her enthusiasm and drive as she told The Pride: “There is great satisfaction derived in interacting with like-minded individuals who desire to solve the problems of the community, and the fact that we have also enlightened them as to their legal rights and remedies.”
Together, the volunteer lawyers help people from lower income groups who have little knowledge of how the law works.
While they do not provide legal representation or appear for a litigant in court, they provide general legal advice on different areas, with emphasis on family law such as the grounds for divorce, rights to maintenance, custody of children and division of matrimonial assets.
Comprising corporate professionals like Emmanuel and students, the SCWO volunteers leverage on their specialised skills and talent to aid the beneficiaries.
Besides the pro bono legal clinic, art therapist volunteers also conduct therapy sessions for residents of Star Shelter (a service which provides safe temporary refuge for women and children who are victims of family violence).
A spokesperson for SCWO described skills-based volunteering (SBV) as “a huge asset to the beneficiaries” because they benefit directly from these professionals by learning new skills which they can adopt and use to improve their general livelihood.
For residents of Star Shelter in particular, this is important because it is difficult for them to gain access to such professional services on their own for free, said the SCWO spokesperson.
One in three interested in SBV
According to the 2014 Individual Giving Survey (IGS) conducted by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC), one in three Singaporeans are interested in skills-based volunteering which indicates an interest in this brand of volunteerism.
Echoing similar sentiments, 30-year-old Ms Angeline Yong of the Singapore Red Cross said: “Skills-based volunteering has become more prevalent in Singapore over the last five years. At the Singapore Red Cross, we are seeing more individuals and corporate groups volunteering their skills, usually in areas related to their professional life, to support our staff and beneficiaries.”
The head of membership and volunteer development cited The Body Shop as one of their corporate volunteer partners who starting out by feeding the residents and decorating the dormitories of the Red Cross Home for the Disabled, and is now organising wellness sessions to pamper the nurses of the home.
Starting their own initiatives
And just when we think that’s all there is to SBV, there are individuals who have taken it one step further by starting their own initiatives.
Take Ms Li Woon Churdboonchart, one of the founders of The Volunteer Switchboard, as an example. With 20 years of volunteering experience shared among them, 39-year-old Churdboonchart and her friends saw a need to improve the quality of volunteer events.
“Some events were not well organised so they did not achieve the objectives intended. Sometimes, expectations were not properly managed so we didn’t know what we were going to do nor what to expect next. There was also too much downtime and volunteers were idle with nothing to do, which was a waste of their time,” she recalled.
Deciding to pool their expertise, The Volunteer Switchboard was created to design bite-sized and purposeful volunteer programmes. As professionals in banking operations and IT sales, the founders used their expertise to aid in the running of the organisation, especially in areas such as project management, operations management, technology and branding.
As The Volunteer Switchboard celebrates its fourth birthday this year, Churdboonchart is proud of how far their collective skills have taken them. An example would be the application of their data management skills when the organisation started. By using a volunteer management tool, they were able to better understand what the volunteers want, as well as collate critical data of the beneficiaries to better improve interaction and engagement with them.
She remarked: “Sustainability is definitely a benefit as VSB is operated by a bunch of volunteers with full-time jobs and we are still going strong!”
Using talents, skills and abilities to make an impact
Commenting on the impact SBV has on an organisation and its beneficiaries, Darrel Lim, head of the strategic partnership team at NVPC, said: “Using the talents, skills and abilities we already have to help others isn’t difficult for us, but this can result in a huge impact to others. This can be professional skills but also non-professional skills and personal passions such as photography, cooking or art, which makes it meaningful and fun.
“We can help in ways that are enjoyable and fruitful which not only benefit others, but also help further develop our own competencies.”
On that note, Emmanuel has some parting advice for volunteers, especially those in the fields of education, medicine and legal.
“It would not do to be outdated,” she cautioned. “Some responsibility falls on a volunteer to constantly update their skills and knowledge to be effective to the beneficiaries. Half-baked knowledge is a dangerous thing.”