Sunday, January 13, 2008

The gift of time

I'm going to take a small detour and consider what motivates people to give.

Richard Titmuss
wrote a seminal piece on the gift relationship in 1970. His focus was blood donating; sometimes referred to as the gift of life. The following series of blogs relates to voluntary counsellors in a youth oriented telephone counselling agency and will be informed by his account as well as by my own experiences, and those experiences shared with me thus far in my data collecting (please note, this is a work in progress).

I am calling this the gift of time, because the time gifted is substantial. But I also want to make it clear the gift involves more than this. It's a commitment to the interests of others; to being available, to listen, and to (hopefully) making a difference.

I say hopefully in part because outcomes are hardly ever known and the style of counselling approach taught (based on the training manual, and on the philosophy of the organisation): is substantively non- directive and client-centred, a Rogerian approach.

The gift of time begins with a personal development programme, this involves 10 sessions; a committment of one evening a week and a weekend day. This is then followed by a basic counselling course, again 10 sessions; an evening a week and a weekend day. A further weekend is then dedicated to coming into the organisation via a Marae based weekend. That's a total of 50 hours minimum before taking any calls for the organisation. And as already intimated, its not just time, its what fills that time; a very personal journey sharing life events, understanding oneself and valuing of others undertaking a similar learning experience. This involves significant amounts of self disclosure as well as practice in counselling through role plays; through triads (where one person takes the role of a caller, one the telephone counselor and one as observer) and 'fishbowls' (where peers as well as the group facilitators provide ideas as well as feedback. The gift involves time as well as personal involvement and disclosures; there is an additional requirement to authorize a police check by the organization. In addition there is financial cost. A sliding scale is used with a cost between $50.00 and $105.00 for the personal development course and again for the basic counselling training course. That's a total cost to the volunteer of $110 - $210 and an additional cost of the Marae weekend.

In addition, young people who enter into this are required to be over/ state that they are at least, 17 years of age. There is no upper age limit. There is also a requirement that the volunteer consider themselves to be emotionally well and ready to undertake training; to have sufficient physical, mental and emotional health to withstand personal challenge and to receive personal feedback. If the applicant has hearing, language or mobility issues or if they are a 'consumer of' mental health services, the applicant is asked to contact the programme coordinator for a interview. The application pack also requires signing a declaration committing to staying a year after training (this involves ongoing annual membership fees plus attending a group supervision weekly and being rostered for two 4 hour phone duties a month.)

To quote Kermit the frog, "it's not easy being green".

There is decision point at the end of the personal development course where feedback from the volunteer and the group of peers involved and the course facilitators regarding whether the next step of training is to occur. Again, at the end of the basic training there is a further feedback step where there is self selection as well as peer feedback and group facilitator feedback (with right of veto) as to whether the person can then go 'on the phones' as a counsellor, or listen in with a buddy, or undertake a 'transition training group' where they will be further assessed as ready or not to take calls. Becoming a telephone counsellor for this agency, one who is able to 'go solo' takes time, committment, money and skill. In return the volunteer receives a certificate in personal development and basic telephone counsellling skills. These have no definite external value outside of this organisation.

To misquote Kermit the frog, "it's not easy being keen".

Its an exceptionally unusual gift.
Titmuss believed that the voluntary donation of blood represented the relationship of giving between humans in its purest form, because people give without the expectation that they will necessarily be given to in return....
There is no reciprocation.
As with Titmuss' description of the gift relationship involving blood donating, in this expose on voluntary counselling, the tangible rewards can be described as minimal; a certificate with no or very little external validity. They might also be considered 'negative' when the costs involve far outweigh tangible benefit.
So what motivates the voluntary counsellor? What do we know of the expressed motives for giving or not giving? Very little.

While my research looks at change involving the use of computer and communication technologies in a youth telephone counselling agency, some of the underlying issues also need to be explored. This will be continued in further blogging.
Please feel free to let me know what you think about what makes people 'give'. If you know of further reading I could be doing here, point me to it. Feedback is invited.


  1. Was thinking about this recently - how giving creates an imbalance between the giver and the receiver - how our desire to do good/ feel good/ contribute material possessions, time or expertise always comes at the expense of others in some way - giving seems to be an essentially flawed activity

    Maimonides' Laws Concerning Gifts to the Poor was helpful as was that Augustine thing - "when you possess surplus goods, you possess the goods of others"

  2. Thanks for the link Arti.
    Altruism as moral servitude was Ayn Rands take, but I am not convinced.
    If i possess the goods of others, giving them back seems a rationale act. Titmuss extends his discussion into altruism being created within contexts. My own came from socialist Grandparents in the tradition of Marx: from those that have to those that have not.
    Seems giving, or the right to give and to receive, is also political.