Impactful volunteering: an interview with Philip Thomas

When volunteers come into our lives, they bring not just their skills but their hearts and passion. One such extraordinary volunteer is Phil, lovingly known as “Pak Phil”.
Pak Phil discussing about his work in Kalimantan with Vanessa, YUM's Executive Director

When volunteers come into our lives, they bring not just their skills but their hearts and passion. One such extraordinary volunteer is Phil, lovingly known as “Pak Phil”. Through the Australian Volunteers Program (AVP), he became an integral part of our family during his remarkable five-month journey with YUM.


At the end of Pak Phil’s assignment period, we asked him a series of questions about the different experiences he’s had while volunteering with YUM. Here are his answers, in his own words…


Q: Could you briefly introduce yourself, Pak Phil? Your background, interests, and what led you to volunteer with YUM?


Pak Phil: Since I retired from freelance urban planning in 2015, I’ve found a new vocation in overseas volunteering. I’ve now had in-country assignments in Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Indonesia and it’s been a fascinating and rewarding experience. When I’m not overseas, you’ll probably find me bushwalking in the Victorian Alps or sitting out a pandemic in Melbourne.


Like many others I back-packed across Asia when I was in my 20s and that life changing experience is partly why I’m here now – as a way of giving back to those countries and people who gave me such a valuable experience then.


Q: What were some memorable cultural experiences or encounters that you'd like to share?


Pak Phil: The office outing to visit Cirebon was memorable in many ways. I especially liked seeing how all my colleagues cooperated so well and how everyone had a role and knew what to do – I’m not sure when I’ve seen that same type of teamwork in Australia. The visit to the coast and to the market in the early morning was fascinating, and taking a foodies’ tour of the local dishes and specialities. I particularly liked the empal gentong which I have now cooked twice since I got back home – enak sekali!



Q: You were involved in creating a land use strategy for YUM. Could you briefly explain the goals and strategies of this project? What were the main challenges you faced while working on the land use strategy, and how did you overcome them?


Pak Phil: The land use strategy for YUM’s land in Kalimantan was my main project and I found this fascinating because of my urban planning background. I had to advise on how YUM could use their land to generate a long-term income for YUM’s activities there. There were numerous challenges in quickly understanding the situation, where the land was, getting information about the land and the local area, and developing new, realistic ideas.  As with many challenges, my main response was to talk to people – colleagues in Kalimantan, Pak Purnama and Vanessa in Jakarta, and friends overseas who had some specialist knowledge. ChatGPT was also a great source of information for some of the more novel ideas such as carbon credits, renewable energy farms, transport depots and hot air ballooning – but it needs to be used with care and caution.


Q: In addition to the land use strategy, you also mentored YUM's fundraising team. What areas did you focus on during this mentorship and were there any unique approaches or lessons from your professional background that you integrated into the fundraising team's work?


Pak Phil: I enjoyed working with YUM’s fundraising officer (Naya) as a mentor and coach and I struck gold because he was interested in my systematic and strategic approach and actually understood it. I needed to focus on long-term benefits and so we concentrated on skills such as work planning, fund-raising strategies, professional development, and proposal writing. I drew on lessons from my own rather lengthy career and what I felt had contributed to my own professional development – like networking, lifelong learning, and work planning.



Q: Volunteering overseas often leads to personal growth. What have you learned or gained from your time with YUM that you'll carry with you in your life and future endeavors?


Pak Phil: For the first few months I found it quite challenging to be in such a huge city and not know anyone I could go out to dinner with or explore Java with. Before the pandemic there were many other volunteers in Indonesia, but the Australian Volunteers’ Program is only now re-starting and I was the only volunteer in Jakarta. But I’m quite resourceful and enjoy my own company, and over time I got to know my colleagues better and to join online social groups like MeetUp which arranged social gatherings with walks and dinners and book exchanges. Zooms with family and friends in Australia were also important.


Q: What are your thoughts on YUM's work in improving the lives of people in West Java and Central Kalimantan?


Pak Phil: The funding environment for NGOs like YUM has changed enormously over the last few years as Indonesia’s ‘ranking’ has improved from Low Income to Middle Income. While this is generally good news, it means that international aid has moved away from Indonesia (and SouthEast Asia) to other more needy countries, mainly in Africa. Only the most flexible and strongest NGOs are surviving in this changing environment and YUM is responding well by exploring new funding opportunities like crowdfunding, creating a social enterprise arm, and through initiatives like my land use project in Kalimantan. There will always be poor and disadvantaged people and so there will always be a role for YUM to ‘empower communities to lift themselves out of poverty’ and YUM is setting itself up well to respond to these challenges.


Q: Lastly, what are your plans or hopes for the future, both in your personal life and in your professional career, considering your experiences with YUM?


Pak Phil: My mission as always is to find more love and kindness in my life and I’ve been doing this recently with my son and his wife and two small grand-daughters who have been visiting me in Melbourne. I’ve been teaching Rory (two years) how to grow plants and to cook, and I’ve been teaching baby Quinn (8 months) how to coo and to be held.  But I also love to travel and want to cycle through Europe – or to drive around Australia – but haven’t decided which will be my priority for 2024.  Maybe I can consult my YUM colleagues about how I can set my priorities better!



We are profoundly grateful for the knowledge, the dedication, and the unforgettable Australian charm that Phil has brought into our YUM family. Also, our gratitude goes to the Australian Volunteers Program for making this happen!


Pak Phil on his last day of assignment


Enjoying the sunrise at Cirebon


After enjoying empal gentong for lunch at Cirebon


Pak Phil made his own empal gentong back home!