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The art of giving

The art of giving

These ICT professionals hold down demanding jobs, but volunteer work is very much a part of their lives. What drives them to take on these multifaceted roles?

Vivian Chandra never forgets that a person living in a country with scant regard for democracy could get jailed for doing the job she does. As IT manager for Amnesty International Aotearoa New Zealand, Chandra runs the information technology side of the human rights organisation, but is also active in its campaigns.

An issue close to her heart, because of the nature of her chosen profession, is campaigning against internet censorship. One case concerned a Chinese national who was imprisoned for emailing the details of the commemoration of the Tiananmen Square massacre to foreign journalists.

She says internet users in China will not get a result for Amnesty International on Google. “If you try to type amnesty.org.nz, it would come out as file ‘not found, or file error’. And you may get a ‘knock on your door’ within the hour. That is the reality for a lot of people living around the world.”

Chandra says most Kiwis would find it difficult to relate to such fraught experiences. “You can go online right now and blog something nasty about your Government, and it would not matter. I could go out and stand in the middle of Queen Street and yell out something rude about the Prime Minister and the best I can get is a disturbing the peace [charge], a slap on the wrist.”

From volunteer to full-time employee

Chandra joined Amnesty International while doing her BSc in Physics at the University of Auckland 10 years ago, and has been active in the organisation ever since first as a volunteer worker (“placard, marches, that sort of thing”), then as an ICT contractor and now as its first permanent head of ICT. Four years ago she joined AI New Zealand’s governance team, a position she held for a year.

Prior to her current role, AI New Zealand had no full-time ICT staff, instead relying on project managers contracted for a specific period, interns and volunteers.

In October 2007, Chandra was contracted to recreate AI New Zealand’s IT infrastructure. The work involved changing the email and file systems from Lotus Notes to a Microsoft-based system.

After taking maternity leave the CEO of AI New Zealand offered her a permanent position, which Chandra “was ecstatic to accept”.

Chandra is aware of the quite different challenges she faces, compared with her ICT colleagues in the commercial sector. “I am effectively a one-man-band. While I still have to keep the website running, etc, there is also the long-term strategy and the building up of new technologies,” she says.

“I am working hard to implement a more corporate outlook. Corporates always have hardware refresh and all that kind of policy, I am trying to set those things in place while working on a budget as much as I can.”

AI New Zealand appointed a campaign director two months ago and they are working together on the organisation’s strategic web direction.

“The problem with nonprofits [is] there is never enough time or money for what you want to do,” she says. “I have grown up with this technology. I have a lot of exciting ideas I want to implement and it is hard to find the time. New things often have bugs that you need to work on. If you don’t have those hours to give, that is where things start to fall over.

AI New Zealand is currently applying for funding for new IT equipment. “I feel bad using the money that we have raised for things like computers, so we apply for funding from various sources.”

A Web 2.0 strategy

Social networking tools are in the sights for the campaigns. Chandra recently attended a conference on social networking and she says AI New Zealand has “sort of started dabbling” in social networking.

The organisation already has a couple of Facebook sites that are run by volunteers. “We have decided that is the best way for us to go, slowly, rather than try to manage it here; to encourage our groups to run their own thing.”

AI New Zealand has also uploaded some of its videos on YouTube and is also building a more interactive portal. “At the moment it is just a website,” she says. “Anything interactive usually comes from our head office in London.”

She says how AI is a movement of 2.2 million people globally, with 10,000 members in New Zealand.

When AI New Zealand moved to a new office on Grafton Road in Auckland, Chandra had the choice of sitting with the campaigning people or the fundraising people. She chose the former. “I can see my role will be more closely aligned with them, whereas I may help fundraising people with their IT. But with the campaigning people, I will really be working with them.”

Thus, while wearing her IT manager’s hat, part of Chandra’s duties is to work on some of the campaigns. She created a website banner for AI New Zealand’s campaign at the recent national election and uploaded a video to YouTube for the party candidates’ debate. Recently, she worked on standbyme.org.nz, the website for AI New Zealand’s Stop Violence Against Women campaign.

So what keeps her involved on the job? “I have a passion for human rights and that is where I come from,” says Chandra. When she meets with ICT colleagues, she does not introduce herself as the head of ICT. “I introduce myself as an Amnesty International activist who campaigns through fixing the IT.

“Just the fact that I know that I am making a difference in the world,” is an upside of the job. If she had worked for a corporate, she says, “at the end of the day the only difference you are making is increasing the profits for whatever company you are working for”.

At AI New Zealand, she says, “most days we get good news stories, [such as] political prisoners being released. A lot of these people come out of jail and say, ‘yeah, it was Amnesty International that helped me’.”

She shares a parable that keeps her spirits up when the news they receive is not positive. “A little boy is walking on the beach, picking up starfish and throwing them back into the sea. An old man comes along and asks him ‘what are you doing?’ ‘I am saving the starfish,’ says the boy. The old man says there are hundreds of starfish on the beach, why are you bothering? ‘You’ll never make a difference.’ And the boy says nothing, he picks up another one and throws it into the sea and says, ‘I made a difference to that one’.

“That,” she says “is the mentality you really have to have when you work in an organisation like Amnesty International, because while there may be 50,000 starfish on the beach dying, you have saved five just by walking along the beach.”

Servant leadership

Danie Vermeulen, chief executive of Kaizen Institute and Aubrey Christmas, CIO of Employers and Manufacturers Association (Northern), have always been keen to share their expertise and experience as corporate executives with community groups.

Their busy schedules — with work commitments requiring regular travel overseas — do not preclude them from active involvement in nonprofit organisations. Both are involved in the Elim Christian Centre in Auckland. Vermeulen is chairman of the board of trustees of Elim Christian College and president of the Kiwi Roundtable of the Council for Supply Chain Management Professionals. Christmas, on the other hand, is actively involved in Omega, a group supported by the Tindall Foundation that helps migrants find work.

The two met at the Elim Centre, where they helped set up strategies to boost its impact in the community, and help draw up the centre’s plans for the next five to 10 years. “It is a whole idea of setting up a vision and strategy and executing that,” says Christmas. “Since we both come from a professional background, we brought the expertise and skills that we have that we use day in and day out, to an organisation that has not had it in-house.

But, as Vermeulen says, what they get back from their community involvement is much more than what they give as professionals. “It is a sense of fulfillment. You can see you are making a difference. Not only can you see you are making a difference, but you make a difference because you want to make a difference.

Christmas concurs. “When you volunteer, it is not about you anymore. It is serving somebody else. When you see somebody gaining something, you gain something because you are exercising more skills than you have in the workplace.”

The extreme test

Their commitment to community volunteer work, however, was tested severely this year when six students of the Elim Christian College and a teacher were killed in a flash flood at the Mangatepopo Gorge in Tongariro National Park. The group was attending a programme through the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre.

“Somebody said a real adversity will test your character or faith,” says Vermeulen. “But it is really not testing it. It is revealing more the strength of your character and your faith.”

He and Christmas assisted the families of the victims deal with their losses and helped coordinate events following the tragedy.

Vermeulen took three weeks off work, while Christmas took a week off. “We just jumped in and did everything we could,” says Christmas. “As managers we say we are always prepared for disaster in the workplace, we plan for business continuity.” But, he says, the aftermath of the tragedy was different.

“You are dealing with people’s raw emotion and the grief,” says Vermeulen. “This was ripping out seven young lives. You are dealing with questions; why did this happen, how can this happen? We had seven funerals in three days. [He attended all of them.] It was the intensity, normally you can focus on something and go away and refocus. There was no time for that, it was just boom, boom, boom.”

“It pushed Danie and his skills beyond what he faces as a CEO because he was now dealing with governments, dealing with the community, the press, which you probably would not get if you are in a corporate position and it pushes your limits,” says Christmas. “There is a saying ‘what doesn’t break you makes you stronger’. It is somewhat true, but this is a tough one and it has had an ongoing impact.”

People from across Auckland volunteered to help. Christmas says he had to keep track of what they were working in. “They are also getting drained emotionally,” he says. “As a manager, you have to motivate, you have to coach. We had doctors doing sound systems, engineers cleaning up, with a gamut of people coming up and doing something.

“It is hard emotionally, but when you come back to the workplace it changes your perspective,” says Christmas.

Vermuelen remains amazed at how they were able to work with the dozens of volunteers over the three weeks.

“There was no organisational structure to deal with. What we had was very dynamic,” he says. “When you step back and have a look at how it worked, we had a core of people following certain roles. But we have this whole range of people hanging around the side and they were ready to do anything.”

For Vermeulen, it was fantastic to see the “selfless serving attitude” of the people who came to help.

In his work at Kaizen, he has dealt with many different companies and observed how people work. “To me this is almost like a maturity model,” he says. “There is no company I have seen that could do this.”

Vermeulen says the experience has given him a certain resilience. “Anything I will face now in the business, I will be able to say ‘if we can manage that and get through this, we can handle anything’. Nothing will be as tough as that challenge. It puts everything into perspective.”

Vermeulen says he reconciles his work at Elim with Kaizen, the New Zealand arm of a global consultancy that delivers Lean or Kaizen projects focusing on all aspects of business process improvement. “They are compatible because it is about making a difference, it is about lifting people up not only in the workplace but in life. It is looking for better ways to do things all the time.

“We have our Christian values and we apply that in every way,” says Christmas. “You can’t separate the person from the workplace, from the community. It is the same person in there. A fine balance is crucial.”

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Christmas applies this insight to his work at Omega, where he sees qualified migrants struggling to find work in their new country. “It is making a difference as you never know how each person will turn out and there are many leaders out there who have been influenced one way or another by somebody who put investments into their life.”

When he was based overseas, Christmas did pro bono work for nongovernment organisations in Cambodia and the Philippines. Christmas says when he asked his boss at EMA for time off to help with Elim after the strategy, he was told, “we are behind you. You are doing a far greater thing than I would do”.

For Christmas this sent an important message in regards to the best kind of management. “It is important in the workplace as well, not just executives being involved, but having the right management behind it.” Recently, one of his staff members asked to take time off for three weeks to work with a community in India. He said, “Go for it. You will learn so much.”

Doing volunteer work will make you a “richer person”, adds Vermeulen. “Somebody who focuses only on themselves and only taking and receiving and never giving back [is] just missing out.”

Social responsibility

For Andre Mendes, global CIO of Special Olympics, executives taking time out to do volunteer work in communities comes from an understanding of the role of social responsibility, “the importance of giving back, of acknowledging not everybody lives in the same circumstances”.

“We might be at the edge of a new thought pattern that goes beyond just raw capitalism and striving for one’s own agenda, or maybe one’s own company agenda, to a more enlightened way of operating,” says Mendes. His Washington DC-based organisation serves individuals with intellectual disabilities and works with a number of volunteers as well.

“Dealing with the reality out there prepares you for dealing with any contretemps you might have in your own environment, because you get to understand what life is all about and how people strive despite difficulties,” says Mendes. “Working in the areas of the less privileged helps to keep you grounded to the realities of the world out there.”

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