Lessons learnt in HR while volunteering to feed the homeless

09 Aug

Lessons learnt in HR while volunteering to feed the homeless

I recently volunteered with an organisation to help prepare, cook and feed a local homeless community within the vicinity of our Sydney office.

Now I’m no martyr and don’t expect any praise, after all, three hours out of my week is nothing compared to so many others. It certainly was an interesting experience, and as we worked our way from the kitchen to the venue, I reflected on the experience and how the fundamentals of HR can be transferred to so many things.
Being clear on each of the team’s role and “key success indicators” will create clarity and performance – The 12-or-so volunteers were each allocated a job and given broad instructions as to what they needed to do. Cooking a meal shouldn’t be too hard right?
Myself and two others were responsible for the fruit cups. Because I’m rather spontaneous (or maybe impatient is a better description), I started cutting up the pineapple as I saw fit. But my watermelon and rockmelon associates were feeling somewhat lost, how are they to be cut? What size? How many cups do we need to fill? This false start put us behind in schedule, but we all chipped in together to first fill individual bowls of each fruit.
Now, it still wasn’t clear about how many cups needed to filled, so again taking initiative (being impatient) I started filling the cups that were in front of us with the three fruits. Apparently the pineapple was to be used sparingly, I had successfully filled all the cups with each fruit (with ample rock and water melon left over) only to find that there were in fact another 20 cups to be filled and I had failed at one of my key success indicator, being that all cups should have all three fruits. Whoops, I wish I had of known from the beginning!

When people are unproductive it’s not helpful for anyone – at one stage I’d finished cutting the pineapple (very poorly I might add) and distributing it among the fruit cups and “had nothing to do”. As I looked around at the frantic kitchen I felt unsettled as I wasn’t pulling my weight. I looked for guidance from someone but couldn’t get a clear answer as everything was perceivably under control. So, like the studious employee I am, I grabbed a washer and some disinfectant spray and starting wiping the bench areas.
I probably only need to wipe them down once or twice, but because no one was directing me otherwise (and I really had no idea what needed to be done), I kept wiping. Let me tell you, my area was probably one of the most hygienic workspaces by the end of the night. It was quite unfulfilling and I felt bad that the team over by the stove were working their arses off and I wasn’t being overly helpful.

Do something because you want to do it and not because you expect thanks – this point may be slightly controversial and is not intended to cause any offense. This was the first time I’d volunteered in such a direct capacity. For whatever reason, I kind of thought those that I was “helping” would be ever so grateful for what I was providing them. But what I found was that the majority of them didn’t outwardly express any gratitude. If I’m honest, why should they? I’ve taken 3 hours of my week and will be crawling into my nice warm bed shortly after whereas this is a day to day reality for them.
Now, when I reflected on this, I didn’t feel any resentment, because I wanted to do this for myself and not to be showered with gratitude from others. This is quite poignant with a lot of business owners who often provide their team with great opportunities or benefits alike, beyond “the ordinary”. The important learning here is that you shouldn’t tie it with strong expectations, because you may become spiteful or bitter if it’s thrown back at you (employees resigning or performing poorly “after all you have done for them”). But there is a silver lining – there were the few gems that were so thankful and helped make me feel like I had made a difference, even if it was just for that one point in time.

Having a motivating and inspiring leader can make a big difference – Even in the times of uncertainty, there were a number of volunteers who helped run the organisation that were total shining lights and got everyone on board and engaged with the job at hand. They were so connected to their purpose, it was infectious. And not to mention the feedback and appreciation from them at the end of the night once the job was done.

Overall it was a really good experience, that I was grateful to be a part of.  Now although this wasn’t specifically through wattsnext (although we do align ourselves with a number of causes), I would encourage business owners to look at finding a community initiative that the can align themselves with and get the team involved. It can be a great team building exercise and helps the team to connect on a different level outside of work.


Katie Hamilton , HR Strategist

Katie is a self-proclaimed “HR Analysis Guru”, helping businesses to thrive by developing strategic HR Plans focused on achieving business objectives. Coupled with her genuine desire to create great workplaces, Katie empowers leaders to achieve peak people performance. Katie ensures she offers truly commercial results for all her clients.

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