Exclusive Interview with Professor Lucas Meijs on Volunteering for Internationals & More
On 5 June 2023, Volunteer The Hague Project Manager Tetyana Benzeroual sat down with Professor Lucas Meijs for a wide-ranging interview on volunteer culture in the Netherlands, how internationals living here can make the most of their time volunteering, and the interesting concept of "hyphen volunteering." The transcript of that conversation can be found below.
Lucas Meijs is a professor of “Strategic Philanthropy” at the Rotterdam School of Management (RSM), Erasmus University. His current research focuses on issues related to strategic philanthropy, volunteer/non-profit management, corporate community involvement, voluntary energy as a natural resource, and involved learning (life-long development by volunteering). Professor Meijs has been an appointed member of the Raad voor Maatschappelijke Ontwikkeling, the official policy advisory body for the Dutch government and parliament. He regularly publishes on management issues in the philanthropic sector, as well as on volunteer work. He served two terms as the first non-American co-editor in chief of Nonprofit and Voluntary Action Quarterly, the academic journal of the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA).
Tetyana Benzeroual: What are the benefits of volunteering for internationals in The Netherlands?
Lucas Meijs: Volunteering is a very easy way to get connected with new people. We usually think about volunteering as a long term commitment - that you go every week to the same place. But there are many more short term options too! Especially these are very nice if you want to connect to your neighborhood. For example, you could participate in a monthly volunteering activity for a few hours and discover new and interesting places in The Netherlands while meeting new people. I like to tell my students that volunteering brings you places where you usually would not end up going. It might be a place you never thought of going to, like a food bank, but it's good to experience it occasionally and reflect on it. Next time, you could participate in organizing a big barbecue for kids in the neighborhood, which can be a fun and rewarding experience. So it's important to think about creating a "hyphen volunteering," where you gain something from the experience.
It's not transactional but rather finding a win-win situation. It could be as simple as enjoying good weather or exploring a new part of the city. It's about looking for ways to make volunteering align with your interests and comfort zone. Sometimes you might push the boundaries a bit, but if you're doing it with friends or even a group of strangers, it becomes more fun.
T.B.: Could you please tell us more about what you mean by the term “hyphen volunteering”?
L.M.: When it comes to hyphen volunteering, what I mean is that volunteering connects to something in your agenda; in other words, it builds on to the activities and commitments you already have. In the U.S., for example, there are organizations like "Single Volunteers of DC," where people combine dating with volunteering. So, if dating is already part of your regular activities, you can make it an icebreaker by volunteering together. Family volunteering is another option, where you involve your friends or family in the volunteering experience. Think about connecting volunteering to existing plans or interests.
[So] instead of seeing volunteering as something added to my already busy agenda, you can ask yourself, "What am I already busy with and how can I connect volunteering to it?" For example, there's a concept called "plogging," where you combine jogging or running with cleaning up your neighborhood. It's about finding ways to integrate volunteering into your already busy agenda.
T.B.: We've observed that our audience of international volunteers can be divided into two categories: Those who are already employed and those who are searching for work. How can volunteering benefit these two groups?
L.M.: For those who are already employed, volunteering offers an easy way to get out of their working bubble, to step outside of their work environment. It allows them to break free from their routine and engage with a wider community. We have a notable example of a Japanese organization in Rotterdam that was thrilled to support very local philanthropic causes because it gave their employees a chance to connect with people outside their business level. So let's use volunteering to make this a real multilevel international experience.
If the working individuals only confine themselves to their own bubble, their international experience becomes superficial in place of a more authentic and meaningful international journey. For those who are unemployed, the role of volunteering differs slightly. Here, volunteering can serve three purposes. Firstly, it offers an opportunity to meet new people who can help with job searching. Try meeting new people, as many as possible. We call this the network function. Engaging in volunteer work that allows you to interact with a diverse network can lead to potential job connections.
Secondly, volunteering helps individuals explore various sectors and gain insights into the job market in the Netherlands. By volunteering in different areas such as sports, healthcare, or working with children, they can assess which field aligns best with their interests and skills. We call it the experimental function.
The third benefit is skills development. We call it "functional volunteering." Unemployed individuals can use volunteering to sharpen their abilities in a specific area. For instance, if someone has expertise in sports or a related degree, they can search for a weekly volunteering position in a community sports center to demonstrate their capabilities to potential Dutch employers. Combined volunteering offers a "signal function," which shows employers that the prospective employee, engaged with a relevant volunteer role, possesses the necessary skills and commitment.
So, the whole combination into the signal function can greatly benefit those seeking employment. Experimenting with different opportunities, understanding what suits them, showcasing their skills through volunteering, and making connections can help them secure suitable employment. It's important to remember that even if a volunteering experience reveals a strong personal dislike for a certain activity, it's still a successful outcome. Being able to determine what doesn't work for you is just as valuable as finding something that does. Ultimately, it's about gaining self-awareness and making progress in your life journey.
T.B.: How is volunteering in The Netherlands different from other countries?
L.M.: Hmm, I think what is important here is that internationals do not compare volunteering as they know it from their own countries to The Netherlands and instead think of an activity they enjoy greatly. Once they know what makes them happy, then they can try to find this activity in the volunteer environment. There are volunteers driving at primary schools and sports associations, volunteers cleaning up all kinds of places, painting houses, collecting for the food bank, and cooking for vulnerable individuals. Whatever you think is a paid job, you most likely can find someone doing it unpaid as a volunteer in The Netherlands. Of course, correct training is expected as, for example, one cannot drive a car as a volunteer without a driver's license. Neither can this person drive a car for a paid position without proper licensing.
In former communist counties, for example, volunteering is perceived by the older generation as forced, whereas the new generation sees it in a similar way as Western people do. If you come from The Netherlands, Belgium, or the Northern states, you see volunteering as active belonging to a community rather than just unpaid labor. They see volunteering as a team effort and an opportunity to build connections within a group. It's not just about doing work; it's about being part of a community. Americans see volunteering more as unpaid work and a slot filling in an assembly line where volunteers are replaced by other volunteers in line. In The Netherlands, we see volunteering much more as a team that builds together a car. But getting into the (Dutch) team is a bit of a struggle. To use an understatement.
T.B.: This probably explains why internationals need to interview for volunteer positions, which comes as a surprise to many of them.
L.M.: In the States, volunteers will be interviewed to assess if they can do the tasks. The difference with The Netherlands is that the main purpose of the interview is to assess if volunteers fit within the team. In fact, volunteers in The Netherlands are not expected to perform the same task over and over again. They become valuable members of the team who can take up their own projects and steer the course of their volunteer organization. This can make it challenging for internationals to integrate into volunteering activities, as they need to fit into the existing team dynamics. However, once they become part of the team, volunteering in The Netherlands offers flexibility and variety in terms of tasks and activities.
T.B.: Any last words of wisdom for our international volunteers?
L.M.: For international volunteers seeking positions, it's important to consider that they have the opportunity to become integral members of the organization and something bigger. This aligns well with the desire for learning and belonging that many internationals seek. Volunteering can help them find that sense of belonging within a specific group or organization.
It doesn't necessarily require a weekly commitment, as once you become part of the team, there is flexibility in how often you contribute. It can be on a monthly or intermittent basis, depending on the volunteer's availability and preferences. Ultimately, volunteering offers the chance to find your sense of belonging and connect with a community that resonates with your interests and values. It's a valuable opportunity to be part of something meaningful and contribute to a greater collective.
T.B.: Thank you for sharing your insights and expertise on volunteering in the Netherlands!