Reinventing the volunteer

2008-03-25 00:00

RECENTLY I was invited by the Cancer Association of South Africa (Cansa) to give its staff and volunteer personnel a motivational talk. When the woman on the telephone told me that Cansa was a non-profit organisation I knew that I wouldn’t ask for a fee.

Cansa, like many other non-profit agencies, is experiencing a shortage of volunteers to assist in its various community outreach programmes. A number of issues were discussed as contributing factors to the debacle.

Firstly, with poverty and unemployment, many people are not volunteering because they are looking for paying jobs — volunteers by definition are not paid. The second was that many people do not find volunteer work rewarding. Everyone wants their contributions to be acknowledged.

Later, I reflected on the issue of volunteering, not only its importance to social development but also on its role in developing the human spirit of giving.

It is this spirit of giving without expecting anything in return that says “I should assist where I can.” It is this spirit of giving that builds a community and a nation as one. If this spirit resides in our souls, then why are we experiencing a shortage of volunteers in our needy

society? Where has the volunteer in us disappeared to?

I believe it all begins with redefining the whole concept of volunteering.

Firstly, we need to revisit the stereotype and the common expectation that it is mainly

people without jobs who ought to volunteer their services.

Volunteers do not work only a short distance from their home, they sometimes have to travel far from their home. If they are jobless where do they get the money for transport and food for the day?

Secondly, we need to redefine the issue of “immediate gratification” that sees many people wanting to be paid for the service they offer. Is immediate gratification only in the form of financial reward? Granted, money is the foundation of survival but certainly should not be the only factor that rewards effort and hard work.

What are the other rewarding factors that can be employed in making the life and time of a volunteer worth it? In my talk I touched on the issue of recognition as a reward. Do we give recognition to people who volunteer their skills, services, time and effort?

I joked and told my audience that even when I volunteer my services and time free of charge, I always make sure that the press is on hand to capture my work. This is my immediate gratification. Someone gets to know about my contribution and as the story of my volunteering spreads, TV programme producers, magazine editors and radio station managers start knocking on my door rallying to profile me. Immediate gratification is not a moment in time but the beginning of a

journey where we expand our opportunities.

Thirdly, what do we do to promote the pride of a volunteer? They volunteer their services and come home with very little. Do we profile our volunteers into specific categories or do we simply treat them as a homogeneous bunch of recruits who have been secured to extend social service and development programmes?

If all agencies profiled their volunteers positively, then I believe they would have a strong working relationship with job recruitment agencies and the Welfare Department.

Why do we trap our volunteers in a vicious cycle of poverty where we expect them to give so much yet give them nothing or very little in return?

There should never be a shortage of volunteers because a volunteer lives in you and me. All it takes is for us to find ways of reigniting the spirit and bringing its dying flame to the fore.

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