What this crisis is showing us:there are a lot of willing volunteers in the Netherlands

“As soon as something happens, you can see the energy flow!” Lucas Meijs is a professor of Strategic Philanthropy and Volunteering at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University Rotterdam.  “I conduct research on volunteer management. How do you connect demand and supply? There is a great deal of latent energy for volunteering. When refugees arrive in the Netherlands, volunteers raise their hands. When a coronavirus crisis arrives, a lot of us raise our hands.”

So does it take a disaster to get us involved?

“Fifty percent of all Dutch people already engage in some form of volunteering. The question that always needs answering is: how do you convert this volunteering energy into proper volunteering? Volunteering energy is basically the raw material – it must be organised in order to be genuinely useful. With this coronavirus pandemic we are seeing that people are offering their services of their own accord – many people are willing to lend a helping hand. But we’re also seeing that it’s not that easy to connect demand and supply. Practical issues are preventing us from doing what we want to do. So we’re gradually arriving at the conclusion that we’re going to have to set some demands.”

What are the issues?

“People are slow to ask for help. People are afraid to ask a stranger: ‘I’m sick and can’t leave my home, so could you please buy some groceries for me? You’ll find the key under the doormat!’ They need a reliable organisation acting as an intermediary to do so.”

“The question that always needs answering is: how do you convert these volunteering energy into proper volunteering?”

People offer and ask for help in neighbourhood WhatsApp groups or WhatsApp groups run by parents whose children attend the same primary school. Why are those initiatives successful?

“A WhatsApp group is an organisation in its own right. The people know each other and know where everyone lives. We are less likely to sign up for a website and post a comment that says: ‘If you’re reading this, please come and help me.’ It’s important that there is some form of organisation. We must understand the legal structure and who is responsible. It helps if we’ve known the other person for a while. In addition, initiatives such as Gewoonmensendiemensenwillenhelpen.nl (which translates as ‘Justabunchofpeoplewhowishtohelpout.nl’ – ed.) run into geographical issues: people living in Amsterdam can’t provide you with much practical help if you yourself live in Leeuwarden.”

So are you saying that we shouldn’t bother?

“No, we definitely should volunteer. It makes me really happy that so many people are willing to help out. It’s wonderfully prosocial behaviour. The site NL voor elkaar (‘The Netherlands for Each Other’ – ed.) (www.nlvoorelkaar.nl), which was co-founded by one of our alumni, has now established coronavirus help as well. They noticed that ‘Netherlands for each other’ wasn’t working because of the distance aspect, but things such as ‘Rosmalen for each other’ do work. People are more inclined to trust helpers from their own city. After all, they are ‘neighbours’. They know it’s a cyclable distance. We’ve found that small initiatives, small websites and WhatsApp groups tend to work better than trying to come up with some nationwide arrangement. Landlords who refrain from charging rent for one month, this person on the street that you just lent a helping hand… It doesn’t always have to be a huge project. Just try to keep an eye out for what the other needs.”

Where does this willingness to volunteer come from? Is it a latent energy that is always there?

“To some extent it’s like Rutger Bregman (a Dutch historian and author, best known for his book Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World – ed.) said: we like to do things well. Dutch people do a lot of volunteering, anyway. Some fifty percent of people have volunteered in the last year, and the percentage of people who have volunteered in the last five years might be as high as eighty. People who are completely unwilling to do any kind of volunteering are a minority. If anything happens, such as this coronavirus outbreak, the eighty percent will raise their hands. It’s a side effect of the religious compartmentalisation of our society back in the old days. This meant that we had to organise a lot ourselves, so we did. We are involved in governance, support and organisational work in many fields.”

“Practical issues are preventing us from doing what we want to do.”

How do we ensure that people keep engaging in this wonderfully prosocial behaviour once this crisis is over?

“Two months from now, many of the people who are currently helping others by buying groceries or handing out face masks will be tending bar at their sports clubs or acting as guards in museums again. Parents with children in primary schools will normally read stories for the kids; now they help each other. People will ask me in a few months: did all that energy ebb away? But it won’t. It’s just that people will be doing different kinds of volunteering. Many people – and volunteers – are currently at home feeling bored. They’re glad when they’re given something to do.”

At the end of last year you wrote a letter to the Volkskrant’s editor about volunteers working for the Eurovision Song Contest organising committee. That letter resulted in questions being asked in the Dutch House of Representatives. You asked why volunteers weren’t allowed to submit expense claims for their train tickets. Now the contest has been called off. Are the volunteers disappointed?

“The Eurovision Song Contest was the very opposite of what we’re currently seeing in this coronavirus outbreak: it had the most stringent volunteer management you can imagine. People who wanted to be involved had to be available for a week and were told they wouldn’t be able to claim any expenses, no reimbursement of travelling expenses incurred outside Rotterdam. Basically, volunteering is a market like any other. It just has a different concept of remuneration. We pay people money because we are inconveniencing them. There are certain things people will only do if they get paid to do them. Clearly, there were a lot of people for whom being involved in Eurovision was enough of a reward. The Eurovision organising committee was lucky in that it was able to set so many requirements for its volunteers.

Will these people offer their services again? There is a hypothesis that volunteers who have had a bad experience will think ‘That’s enough volunteering from me for now’. In this case, there hasn’t been a bad experience. We just have a weird and unique situation on our hands that caused the event to be cancelled. I can’t imagine people will say: ‘Screw this, I’m out.’”