Building a Better South Africa
The Uber of Volunteering
A hop-on, hop-off bus service has made it easier than ever to volunteer.
You’d love to help out somehow, some way, but you just have no idea how to get started. Sound familiar? Probably – after all, many people are attracted to the idea of lending a hand to a worthy cause, but with all the logistics involved (which charity to support, how to get there, what kind of assistance to provide), it seems easier to do nothing.
That’s exactly why Roberta Donovan launched Better SA. Living Ghandi’s exhortation to “be the change you want to see”, she thought about the eagerness with which friends greeted her suggestions to volunteer – so long as she organised the intervention, that is.
“Volunteering has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. Every weekend, holiday, Christmas morning, I’d sign up to help people. I’d beg my friends and family to come with me, and they’d be happy to do so if I arranged everything. That’s how I realised that the key to getting more people involved was taking the effort out of volunteering,” she recalls.
Inclusiveness of this sort is important to her because, as she says, South Africa belongs to everyone, not just a chosen few. “South Africa has a lot of problems. This can be frightening, but it also brings home the fact that we all have to do something to make it better – even the smallest action makes an impact.”
With no formal experience in nonprofit organisations besides her own on-the-ground interaction with charities and foundations, Roberta left her job in marketing to start Better SA in 2014.
She envisaged the initiative as “the Uber of volunteerism” – a platform that does pretty much everything for those wanting to get involved. All they have to do is check out Better SA’s website (www.bettersa.org), select a cause they’d like to get involved with, and show up at the bus hub. The rest is taken care of. Better SA provides transport to the relevant venue as well as the supplies required to make the intervention happen, and then takes the volunteers home again. Buses run in Johannesburg every Saturday morning, and volunteers are back in time to enjoy an afternoon braai. As Roberta says, it doesn’t get easier than this.
That’s probably why the public has so readily embraced the initiative. Roberta says that when it was first launched, there were about five volunteers – mostly friends and family members who had been coerced – on the bus. Fast-forward three years, and Better SA isn’t able to keep up with the demand.
The profile of volunteers is tremendously varied. The youngest helper has been just three years old, while the oldest person to
hop on the bus was 92. What’s fascinating, says Roberta, is the number of “have-nots” who are anxious to help their countrymen. “We see residents of [Joburg township] Alexandra coming on board to help out with projects in [another Jozi township] Diepsloot, for example,” Roberta enthuses. “We get everyone from students to retirees.”
There’s certainly no dearth of willing hands. Nor are there any questions about who to help. Roberta explains that charities have to meet certain criteria before they will be considered as beneficiaries. For instance, they have to prove that they are reliable, as: “We can’t risk taking volunteers to a charity only to find the premises locked and empty.” They also have to demonstrate their willingness to work with volunteers. Cultivated over her long-standing interest in volunteering, Roberta’s connections in Johannesburg’s townships made it easy to find such beneficiaries when the project was first starting out – and since then, the number of projects supported by Better SA has boomed. Roberta explains that initiatives range from grooming and walking shelter animals to making sleeping bags for the homeless. There is, however, a strong focus on education, as Roberta is emphatic that this is the only way out of poverty. Consequently, volunteers are invited to take part in projects like numeracy and literacy workshops, or teaching children and the unemployed how to use a computer. “It’s amazing to see how kids, especially, engage with volunteers. They seldom receive this level of attention, and they’re so eager to learn.” Experiences like this are what make volunteering so utterly addictive, she says.
Despite its successes, funding remains a challenge for Better SA. With a little more sponsorship, Better SA would not only be able to provide more buses to service Johannesburg, Roberta would also be able to realise her dream of introducing the service to Durban and Cape Town. That’s something she’s desperate to do. Every week, she receives pleas from people in these cities who would love to take part in the kind of active citizenship offered by Better SA.
For Roberta, this is a sign of South Africa’s remarkable spirit. It’s what keeps her hopeful for the country’s future. “It’s impossible to sit on a bus every weekend, surrounded by volunteers who want to make a difference, and not have complete faith that there are good things ahead for us,” she concludes.
If you would like to sponsor a bus or take part in Better SA’s corporate Employee Volunteer Programme, email email@example.com.
Better SA has grown into a dedicated network of volunteers who meet weekly.