The Bureaucracy of Doing Good: Aid in Knot
I would like to believe that we live in a world where altruism and charity are held in high regard, and where countless foundations strive to make a difference. But sometimes that noble mission to help seems to be overshadowed by a web of rules, protocols, and bureaucracy.
What begins as a clear intention to support others can turn into a difficult-to-navigate labyrinth where the essence of real help gets lost. How did we get to this point, and is it possible to recover the simplicity of helping our neighbor?
Listening to a podcast the other day, I stumbled across the website ‘Aalsmeer for each other‘. A heartwarming platform where local residents can ask for help. Immediately I wanted to contribute, so I signed up to accompany elderly people on a duo-bike, provide dinner for less socially active people, accommodate young people with home problems after school, and run errands for a less mobile elderly person.
It was four weeks ago when I signed up and I’ve only been able to arrange groceries twice. This is really not because of the need for help, because it is great and sometimes urgent. It seems to be due to a system that has been made unnecessarily complicated. Is this system perhaps the reason why the need for volunteers remains so high?
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Cycling with elderly people on a pillion bike
There are elderly people living at home with mild dementia who can be looked after during the day at the local community center. This gives their partner some breathing space as it takes the necessary daytime care out of their hands.
The elderly people with dementia are kept busy with games and various other activities, but some enjoy being out in the fresh air. That is why there is the duo-bike. A semi-electric bike with two seats side by side where they are driven around for half an hour by a volunteer. “How hard can it be?” I thought, and it’s healthy too. And despite my busy existence as an entrepreneur, I can of course spare half an hour a week.
After telephone contact with Zorggroep Aelsmeer, the official intake would take place on Monday at 10:15 in the neighboring care home. In business, I am used to arriving on time, so at 10:13 I was at the reception desk bright and cheerful. As it turned out, my contact had just walked to the canteen to have a coffee break. Everyone is entitled to a break, isn’t it?
At 10:25, the receptionist saw me still waiting and told me she would walk to the back to pass on that I was waiting. As if nothing had happened, around 10:35, without making a single excuse, my contact approached. Whether I wanted to follow her to her office.
In the ‘small office’, where her name was neatly written on the sign on the door, there was a made-up bed, an old desk, and three chairs. “Just a little more time,” she said, and immediately after entering she left the room again. “Sure,” I thought to myself. “I have all the time and really want that high paid top job, so I’ll wait.” Oh wait, I was here to sign up for that half-hour bike ride….
After three minutes, she came back and asked me to follow her to another office. After all, she had just moved she told me. No problem at all, of course.
Arriving at her ‘new’ office, I was presented with a questionnaire as if I were applying for that well-paid top job after all. What my motivation was, my background, and what I did workwise, etc. After a half-hour round of questions, she politely asked if I wanted to fill in a form with a pen. They did not yet have that form digitally.
She then informed me that she would contact the community center and they would contact me to explain about the bike. After that, someone would schedule me for that half-hour bike ride every week. If everything went well for four weeks, we would have another meeting and she would apply for a Certificate of Good Conduct. She had previously gone to a lot of trouble for someone who had quit after only three weeks. That was a lot of work for nothing, so I had to prove myself first.
A week later, I received an email saying:
You will start as a Duo bike volunteer at the meeting center in the Irene building. The first time will be on Monday XX-XXXX-XXXX at 10:30 a.m.
At 10:27 I was already at the community center and asked for my contact person. “He is not here, he is on holiday. But perhaps I can explain about the bike,” said a colleague.
Slightly surprised, I remarked that I am even familiar with a motorbike with a sidecar, so perhaps this explanation was a bit redundant. Nevertheless, he insisted on demonstrating the bike. And yes, it was a bike with a front brake, rear brake, pedals, and handlebars. Big deal.
“But what is the point now?” I asked, “Is anyone going to cycle with me today?” “I don’t know,” he said, “my colleague arranged that. But I can explain the bike.” I suggested: “Just send an e-mail when you guys want me to go cycling.”
The following day, I received a message from my initial contact, asking how things had gone. Kindly, I told her that the contact person was absent and that I was waiting for a new appointment to cycle.
I signed up four weeks ago and am still waiting.
Organizing a dinner for socially less active people
“Hello sir, you had expressed interest in organizing a monthly dinner?” Even before I could answer, the young woman from Roads Dinner Guests interrupted me: “May I first explain how we operate?” “Of course,” I replied.
“Well, as stated in the application, you commit for a minimum of one year. You will first have an intake with me, then two more intakes with two other colleagues. Then we select candidates you meet with. Then we see if there is a match and then…” “Um, excuse me ma’am,” I interrupted her, “We’re talking about organizing a small dinner party here, aren’t we?”
“Yes, we are, but this is our protocol.” “Madam, I regularly organize dinners for friends. Can’t it just be that they come over and if they don’t like it, they leave again?”
“No, sir,” she said in a stern tone, “we have certain protocols we have to work accordingly to it. These are shy people.”
“Yes, I understand that. I work as a coach with manic-depressive people who have suicidal tendencies, so surely I should be able to handle this isn’t it? But committing to you guys directly for a year? What if I organize a dinner and we’ll see how it works out afterward?” I kindly suggested.
“Sir, please listen to me carefully,” she spoke pedantic and sternly. “I am explaining how we proceed…”
“Bye madam,” I interrupted her, “I don’t like your tone. I am not applying for the position of prime minister. This does not feel like a constructive conversation. Goodbye.”
Accommodating young people from problem families after school
Coming from a problem family myself, I know what it feels like as a budding adolescent when you can’t talk to anyone. After a friendly telephone intake with the Neighbourhood Families Foundation, the lady asked if she could come by for an official intake interview. This was because she had her eye on a 14-year-old boy who sometimes – once or twice a month – wanted to come to someone like me for an hour after school. The boy was having problems at home and wanted to express himself once in a while.
During the intake, I told her I was alone at the time. I did live together recently with my ex-girlfriend and son, then 5, who is now almost 15. I even built schools for young children in various developing countries. Thus experience with children? I don’t have them myself, but think I know something about them.
I also told her about my own background, that I was once placed out of home myself at a young age, about my business career, and that the latter might be inspiring to youngsters like this.
Her eyes began to shine and she repeated several times what a fantastic match it could be between me and this boy. She would process all the information, apply for a certificate of good conduct, and get back to me in a few days for an introductory meeting with the boy.
A few days later, I got an app. Hi Ben, I couldn’t get hold of you by phone. It was incredibly nice to meet you. I also looked you up online and with what you have done and are doing, you are definitely inspiring for young people like this. But I have some bad news. Our policy is that single men are not allowed to have contact with children we take under our wing. Sorry.
Shopping for a less mobile elderly person
I got a call from a friendly lady from volunteer center Amstelland asking if I would like to pick up some groceries for an elderly less mobile woman who lives a 3-minute drive from my house that same day or the next day. No problem, of course.
After 20 minutes, she called back, saying that the need had disappeared because there was already someone else who could help her. No problem of course.
4 days later, I got another call from the same lovely lady asking if I would still offer my shopping service. There was no solution after all. She just had to ask if the lady had some cash in the house, as she was not allowed to hand over a debit card and I was not allowed to take it. No problem, of course.
That afternoon I drive to the sweet old lady who is gasping for breath with an oxygen tube in her nose, waddling to the door. She asks if I want to read the handwritten note with ‘hieroglyphics’ out loud. “No, speak a bit louder, because I am also a bit deaf. What do you say?” No problem of course.
The dear old lady had been housebound for two years because she was exhausted after just a few steps. Lonely and alone, she waited for a place in the nursing home, but the waiting list was too long. Until then, she was dependent on third parties. Poignant that this can happen in the ‘rich’ Netherlands. Quite a problem, of course.
The following day I received a phone call: “How did the grocery shopping go?” Somewhat searching for words, I replied, “Well, it was just… grocery shopping. I think I can handle that.” She asked, “Would you be willing to do that on a weekly basis for this lady?” I indicated that I was willing to pick that up temporarily, but she suggested I come over for an intake with her and a colleague. That was the protocol.
With all due respect, I declined that offer. A weekly shopping round is fine, but an extensive intake for that seemed excessive. She understood my point but still insisted… Sorry, but I won’t go along with that.
I have now twice been allowed to unravel her ‘hieroglyphics’. The second time I also had to bring 4 small cans of coke, for when her son would visit. He works just five miles away. Internally, I thought, “If your son works so close by every day, why do I have to do your shopping every week?”
No problem in itself, of course, but a bit strange.
Not unwillingness, but incompetence in aid services
It really isn’t unwillingness. People who take heart in foundations like the one described above have their hearts in the right place. I think the problem lies much more with the decision-makers and protocol initiators. I encounter this within the business world as well.
When protocols become more important than pursuing your (charitable) goals, something is wrong. It is not unwillingness, I call it ignorance, and because of that ignorance, a lot of people who desperately need help are missing out on their well-deserved attention.