Build­ing a Bet­ter South Africa

The Uber of Vol­un­teer­ing

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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 (­, 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 info@bet­

Text: Lisa Witep­ski Im­ages © Bet­ter SA

Bet­ter SA has grown into a ded­i­cated net­work of vol­un­teers who meet weekly.

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