Almanac Life: There is a great joy in being useful



I came across this phrase whilst listening to a podcast about Maurice Hilleman, the father of modern vaccines. A humble, unassuming but brilliant and driven scientist, Hilleman developed over 40 major vaccines that we use today, including hepatitis A and B, mumps, rubella and measles to name a few. Hilleman died in 2005 aged 86, recognised as one of our greatest ever scientists, yet I cannot recall hearing about him until today.


He was being interviewed in his final years about his work and accomplishments, where he said.


‘I am kind of pleased about all of this, I am not smug about it, I’m pleased because there is a great joy in being useful…’ 


I would say being ‘kind of pleased’ is a gigantic understatement when one is accredited with saving over 8 million lives per annum!


I was highly attuned to this little gem, as I had just been studying the Australia Talks dataset, where 54,000 Australians were interviewed in 2019 about their attitudes on a wide range of topics. Amongst these was a finding that half those surveyed would feel happier if they were more involved in their community.


Volunteering is a great way to be both useful and get more involved in community, better still if it intersects with an interest or passion. Sport ticks my boxes, and getting involved as a volunteer seems the perfect vaccine to ward off feelings of loneliness and disconnectedness.


Unfortunately, I sometimes see churn and disillusionment amongst volunteers. For those of us who are leaders in the NFP space, I think we have a responsibility to provide an appropriate framework to ensure that volunteer experiences are stimulating, rewarding and contribute to personal growth.  A good New Year’s resolution perhaps?


Merry Christmas everyone. I hope you stay safe, joyous and useful in these bizarre times.


As a footnote, 73% of Australians surveyed also said they would be happier if they travelled more often, and what a shocker that has turned out to be in 2020…



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About Peter Robertson

Born and bred in Eumundi and Nambour, in strong company indeed. After studying Maths and Physics at uni in Brisbane, I pursued a business career that I sometimes worry is best described as 'Jack of all trades - master of none'. Having safely made it to my mid 50's, I am still yet to have a real job - but I expect to grow up someday. My love of sport has never waned and I regularly play tennis, golf and surf. Other pursuits include fly fishing and trekking. I have been serving on a few private and NFP boards in sports and other areas to keep me out of mischief.


  1. Nice little piece Robbo! Volunteering for the most part, for most people can be very rewarding. I wrote a piece for the ABC a few years ago that was featured on “Open Drum” (you can still read it here – ) a comment that was made in the follow-up by someone that had volunteered for years as a meals on wheels delivery person, was the way they felt completely taken for granted. There was little to no consultation when the organisation (council) changed the system and just expected the vols to conform. Many left. I had a similar experience a few years later, after 32 years as a volunteer dealing with homeless, disadvantaged people and underprivileged kids and meeting all sorts of regulatory requirements, training in child protection and so on paid personnel told us we had to cancel a series of outing that had been planned, booked and about to commence. Not one of those paid people had ever been involved nor did they contact any of the volunteers running the outings to outline what changes/enhancements had been introduced or needed to be meet. It was a complete disaster and left me totally disillusioned with the organisation to the point that I resigned from all involvement and took my knowledge off to another much smaller group. It would have been nice to have felt useful but that experience was anything but….

  2. Thanks for the link to your heartening story KNDole and thanks for the comments. The value of volunteer contributions to sport alone (and our society) has been estimated between $5 and $6 billion dollars annually. However, because this is given freely by volunteers, it is a slippery slope towards not valuing this properly (or not at all). It is up to NFP leaders to make sure that volunteers feel properly valued and respected and have the tools and framework to make them as effective as possible. Only with this framework and culture in place can the true community and individual benefits of volunteering be fully realised.

  3. Nicole Kelly says

    A thought provoking piece, Peter. What an astounding and brilliant man Maurice Hilleman must have been. I’m going to do some more research into him.

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