22 October 2016
A file picture shows volunteers making rice dumplings along with elderly people in Hong Kong. Photo: RoadShow
A file picture shows volunteers making rice dumplings along with elderly people in Hong Kong. Photo: RoadShow

Volunteer work: Should people stick to their area of expertise?

Voluntary services have to become professional amid rising demand for social volunteering. And volunteers are expected to have professional knowledge and skills.

I’m always asked by friends as to whether they should volunteer using their own professional knowledge and skills or if they should learn new skills from voluntary services to serve the society.

To provide an answer, let me start by giving an example.

Lawyers usually provide free-of-charge legal services as volunteers, utilizing the professional skills they have. However, if they are asked to do carpentry work, like making a table, during a voluntary service, it will be a very difficult “case” for them, forcing them to spend days in fruitless efforts.

By contrast, a professional carpenter would perhaps need just a day to make that item.

Let’s assume that a lawyer makes HK$5,000 per hour, and a carpenter earns HK$200 per hour. If the lawyer spends five days on the work, putting in six hours per day, the work will come at a cost of HK$150,000.

But the carpenter’s cost, assuming that he completes the table in six hours in a single day, would be only HK$1,200.

Given this situation, it seems far more sensible for lawyers to provide volunteer legal services instead of learning how to become a carpenter. A lawyer could donate the cost difference to those in need. People should use their professional knowledge and skills to help the community and achieve maximum economic returns.

One is justified in asking these questions: Should volunteers only participate in jobs that can maximize the economic benefit? And if one doesn’t follow this rule, will it be considered foolish?

Looking at the situation today, it’s fairly obvious that many professionals are actively involved in various volunteer jobs that are not relevant to their professional skills.

For example, lawyers might visit nursing homes or organize activities for teenagers. We shouldn’t judge such activities only from the economic perspective.

In fact, volunteers are motivated by social recognition. They can help others and contribute to society, as well as obtain joy and fulfillment from being a volunteer. Some volunteers also hope to gain new knowledge and skills or explore new interests for themselves.

As the old Chinese saying goes, “it is better to travel ten thousand miles than to read ten thousand books.” Volunteering is a wonderful experience. People will get to know the needs of different people and perhaps become more considerate and thoughtful.

Also, volunteers can improve their social and communication skills, and gain a sense of responsibility and self-discipline as they organize community activities. They can obtain various invisible benefits that can’t be bought with their services.

In that sense, organizations should take into account the needs and experiences of volunteers, and provide diversified services and training for them.

For volunteers, recognition from those they help, as well as from their organizations, will be the best reward. The recognition will make them more passionate about such activities in the future.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 15.

Translation by Julie Zhu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Partner of Pang & Associates; Vice-president of the Law Society of Hong Kong

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