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Killing Lady Bountiful

Maddy Oliver |  27 August 2008

Lady Bountiful, by Gene Carr A newly-trained volunteer and I chatted with a young Liberian woman who'd been referred to us. Bright young kids lounged on a three-piece suite that almost abutted the TV, alternately watching cartoons and listening in to us. Then, in a pause, the volunteer blurted 'Isn't it marvellous — you've paid off your loan to come to Australia already!'

Our client assumed a neutral expression and transferred her gaze elsewhere. She breathed carefully. Panicked, I plunged into another track; did she need help finding a job, now that she'd finished her training? No, she was okay. I got us out of there fast.

On the way to the car, the volunteer said 'Maybe if we find her a new place, she can improve her housekeeping.' What? The flat was as tidy as a small place with young children can be. I realised our well-heeled volunteer was in culture shock.

I swore it wouldn't happen again. From now on I would tell volunteers to keep their mouths shut during the first meeting. But they were supposed to be making a connection with families they were assigned to help over weeks or months. What was going wrong?

It's difficult to articulate something so subtle. On the face of it, the volunteer was complimenting the client. But her words revealed how little she thought of her. Because the circumstances of the loan were confined to the briefing notes (the client hadn't mentioned it) the volunteer breached the client's privacy by mentioning it.

Even worse, her comment hinted that she assumed the client might be unable or even unwilling to pay debts, or simply that wealthy white ladies are qualified to pass judgement on poor refugees.

Oversensitive? Maybe. But refugees often have to suffer incursions on their privacy and self-respect. They can spot these threats a mile off.

In my mind, I called it the 'Lady Bountiful' effect. The inescapable power differential between the helpers and the helped works insidiously. Naïve volunteers assume that because they know more, families should take their advice. They are hurt and frustrated when families continue to look after their own interests in their own way.

When visiting their personal friends, volunteers wouldn't dream of checking the fridge to be sure there was enough food for the weekend, or insisting their friends enrol in language classes, or knocking on the door for half an hour if they thought their friends were hiding inside. All these things happened in our service. How could we teach volunteers to behave as guests?

One part of the training that we revised for each intake, hoping to fix the problem, was cross-cultural skills. Cross-cultural skills should lessen the panic-inducing culture shock volunteers can experience in visiting an African or Asian household for the first time.

In middle-class Australian culture, we have fixed ideas about the value of eating vegetables, of children having their own beds, and of 'integrating' into the dominant culture through language, among other things. It can be difficult to let go of these values, and naïve volunteers regard cultural differences as urgent problems.

But 'Australian values' are not on the radar to people trying to find lost family in war zones, or send money back to a camp. There was little we could do in 18 hours' training to prepare volunteers for the flesh-and-blood experience of difference.

Culture shock wore off as volunteers got to know their families personally. Lady Bountiful's influence was more persistent. Lady Bountiful tells us that means justify the ends; that if we think it's good for the family then the family must do it. Moreover, she enjoys helping the family so much that she's sure they can't do without her.

But I came to see we couldn't do worse for families than to undermine their self-determination by either telling them what to do, or doing everything for them. We talked empowerment, but did we walk it?

The ideal of pure charity that Lady Bountiful draws on is powerfully seductive, and our naïve volunteers and I had all signed up for it. Giving to others without thought of return is the best, the highest; sanctioned by major religions. But like all ideals, it is poisonous. It gives you a licence to boss people around.

The seduction of pure charity lies in how it transgresses our social reality of reciprocity. Pure charity transcends grubby commerce and the dreary exchange of gifts at Christmas. We know very well that there's no such thing as a free lunch; and yet, in a perfect world...

But trying to realise the perfect world in this imperfect one can mean that returns won't be recognised, because you're not supposed to be getting any. I wanted to help our volunteers see what they were getting, as a way of avoiding the resentment and burn-out that follows efforts to practise 'pure' charity. And to get Lady Bountiful to butt out as well.

Instead of being paid, volunteers do 'rewarding' work. These intangible rewards are of different kinds. One question was whether we were getting what we hoped for when we offered to do the work. (I include myself because I was so poorly paid that I was practically volunteering.)

When we interviewed candidates for training we asked what they hoped to get out of volunteering with us. They were surprisingly uninformative for a university-educated crowd. They 'just wanted to help people.'

All the same, the sacrifices involved suggest they have solid motivations they can't articulate. Self-awareness training was the answer, I thought. But I was reluctant to question trainees in a public forum as if it were a murder investigation. Instead, I asked them to write it down and keep it secret, so they could be honest.

Interrogating myself, then, it's obvious why I baulked at asking trainees to tell, because my own motives are entirely self-serving. As a teenager I wanted to 'help people'. I had never helped people and knew nothing about it, but I did know that helping people is both feminine and beyond reproach, a rare combination. It's nice to be right, as well as good.

Helping people also promises authority, at least over the unfortunates needing help. And beggars can't be choosers, so I'd be safe from criticism from them, as well.

There might have even been a secret bargain with fate that I could claim help in turn if I needed it; insurance. Most shamefully, my parents don't go in for charitable work, so it was a chance to be better than them. No wonder I never asked myself these dusty questions before.

And working for refugees promises even more 'rewards'. Poor things, fleeing from cruel regimes across the globe. Helping them saves the world by proxy. I could go on, but even this short list shows I got plenty out of my ill-paid job.

These aren't the 'rewards' people mean. But to deny them is to draw the line in the wrong place, so you end up being the one who gives too much, and is therefore within her rights to demand compliance. Lady Bountiful, who wants the credit of giving without thought of return, but can't help counting her sacrifices.

Our experienced volunteers didn't drop clangers that revealed underlying contempt. They made light of their own work, listened calmly and had fun. Their families adored them. But there weren't enough to go around. How could we prepare naïve volunteers for the challenges that faced them?

I had great hopes of a training session where working volunteers came to share their real-life experience with the newbies. I watched the trainees' faces as they listened to a disaster story involving efforts to save a family from themselves. Messy real life. But the trainees were thinking 'That'll never happen to me. I'm not like her.'

But it did, and they were. None of the new training we devised matched experience for a teacher. Our volunteers entered the dark wood, as before. A few weeks after they were placed with their family, they would call to find out why their family didn't trust them or take their advice. Only then could we link their experience with what we'd harped on about in training; setting boundaries, respect for the clients' autonomy and realistic expectations.

We had no choice but to place naïve volunteers with real refugee families and watch them walk the familiar path. In the end, our client families taught volunteers the humility needed to help people and learn new things.

I was ashamed that the poor, the sick and the unlucky were called on to teach the prosperous and seemingly powerful, but maybe that's my own helper's arrogance. I timidly hoped our families enjoyed the role, and weren't tired of a long line of charity workers needing the same lesson.

Ultimately, only face-to-face experience with real families could kill the Lady Bountiful in us — and only after her demise could we count our blessings and continue with the work.

Maddy OliverMaddy Oliver lives in Sydney. She is currently writing a romance novel for teenagers and short travel pieces. The above essay was Highly Commended by the judges of the 2008 Eureka Street/Reader's Feast Award for humanitarian and social justice writing.


Maddy Oliver


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Submitted comments

A very sensitive & perceptive article on volunteerism - among other things.
As a young child I grew up with the expression, "as cold as Christian Charity", and later in life read in a Chairman Mao essay, "when serving the people, act with no expectation of appreciation. Just act."

Maybe it all boils down to, as the Buddha is reported to have said in reply to a question from a spiritual community, "Karma, oh monks I declare is intention." Or similarly profound words!

I do volunteer work in a palliative care setting and our coordinator/ trainer's primary focus when describing an environment into which we will be entering is on the nature of the 'housekeeping' we will encounter. Her own housekeeping is immaculate. An uncharitable person may describe it as obsessively clean and neat!

david hicks 27 August 2008

Very relevant and enjoyable.
Thanks you.

saba hakim 27 August 2008

Maddy, thanks for the lesson well put. I gained several insights. I will remember some of it, and try to do unto others as I would have them do to me. Sometimes we don't know how, whether giver or receiver, so doing is the way to go but we need someone giving us feed back as we go.

Ann Long 27 August 2008

This is such an excellent article that gave me much to think about. I am involved in an indigenous project in the Northern Territory in a couple of remote schools. Let me tell you that the ‘Lady Bountiful’ phenomenon is alive and well it seems to me, not restricted to females, not restricted to those who are not earning much money for what they are doing the opposite in fact, not restricted to whites, not restricted to individuals but also ‘benevolent’ organisations and governments. The whole idea of empowerment and enabling of others has that patronising component. Do we actually know what it looks like when there is a fundamental respect, acceptance of each other? I suspect that it is much complicated by the highly individual view of the receiver and if the help is asked for or not and if they have a choice or not. As the article indicates experience is such a teacher, it is a pity that it is the haves getting yet another opportunity for personal enrichment.
I am also involved in arranging teaching placements in the Northern Territory for preservice teachers; I will make this an essential reading for them. Thanks Maddy.

Christina Walta 27 August 2008

Great piece and a timely reminder to 'love others as we love ourselves'. This of course brings us to the problem of knowing ourselves (humility) and then going beyond our ego and self interest, which looks for reward, however minuscule (even the 'feel good' motive advocated to enroll volunteers). Human pride is soooooo insidious and it is very difficult to sit with a nebulous reward.

David's Mao quote is apt. "Act with no expectation of appreciation", and out of love for Other is fundamental and the precursor self-knowing/understanding is hard work.

Hilary 27 August 2008

What distinguishes rump Christian societies like ours from non-Christian societies is benficicence. If you collapse in the street, if you get run over, if your car breaks down and you need a push, an Aussie will still come to your aid,even a Lady Bountiful'. That's benificence.Benificence does not exist in non-Christian societies.

Claude Rigney 27 August 2008

I've been a prison chaplain for many years, and have had many volunteers working alongside me. The same culture shock awaits these volunteers inside the razor wire. They come expecting a stereotype, only to find that they have stereotyped themselves. The process of growth for some is quite profound.

Your essay is a great resource for other volunteer services training programs.

Kim Miller 29 August 2008

Claude Rigney, I must wonder whether you have ever been to a 'non-Christian society'? When I think of the generosity, care, assistance and grace I have received from people in countries of very different religious heritages, I am often ashamed of our own society, with its oft-mentioned Judeo-Christian heritage.

Joanna 01 September 2008

I heard Maddy's interview on 'Life Matters', ABC Radio National.

Great story! I've been a well meaning volunteer, and a trainer of volunteers in a community radio station, many of whom were refugees before coming to Melbourne.

Thanks for the challenging reflections about being a volunteer.

Warren Crosbie 03 September 2008

We are often very suspicious of our own motives for wanting to give of ourselves. Perhaps the need to contribute to the tribe, to society, is more fundamental than personal motives. Post and Neimark's evidence review, Why Good things Happen to Good People (Broadway Books 2007)finds that what volunteers personally get out of it is not glory, but health benefits - profound ones.

Liz Baker 04 September 2008

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