The Spirit of Volunteerism

Volunteering means coming forward on our own, without any constraint or pressure and offering oneself or one’s services for a cause completely free of cost. Volunteering is self-initiated by choice, unconditional, selfless, sincere and with no expectations of monetary benefits in return.

It is characterised often by a lot of ground level work due to various reasons such as constraints of cost and skill. In volunteering, no task is big or small, and it often calls for readiness to do whatever it takes to achieve a goal.

Large organizations like United Nations, Stanford, PMI, formally call for volunteers and select them through an elaborate process. Many people aspire to associate and work for such organisations, some are specifically trained in areas such as medicine, education or emergency rescue, and others serve on an as-needed basis, such as in response to natural disasters.

In today’s WIIFM (What’s in It for Me) world, volunteer has its pros – networking, gaining skills, experience and exposure, access to jobs and opportunity to officially associate with a cause or community. The last enhances a person’s profile and image, especially of those at leadership and higher management positions, in society as well as professional world. Personally, I feel volunteering is also a great platform to showcase our skills and expertise in front of the world.

Generally, the stage of life (as per Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) we are in determines our intensity and motivation to volunteer, hence reasons for volunteering differ from person to person.

While some aspire for bonding and belongingness, some do it to meet new people, make friends and enjoy the activity and time spent with like-minded people. For some it can be serious, some of the reasons people in ‘self-actualisation’ stage have shared with me revolve around strong feelings of reciprocation, strong belief in/passion for a cause and an urge to solve it, and a sincere intention to pass on one’s knowledge and experience to help others avoid losses or harm. Many times, people have faced grave problems and life-changing incidents related to their cause. These experiences make them stand up and want to do something about it themselves. It can be as simple as sweeping the neighbourhood, planting trees, or feeding people. There are many such real-life cases.

People in the “self-esteem” stage volunteer for fame, visibility, resume building, brand, and identity. These too are good reasons and if done in right spirit, volunteering helps them grow in their career, build confidence, and improve self-esteem and self-worth. Volunteering is different from pro bono. Unlike traditional volunteering, under pro bono, professionals deploy their specific skills for the benefit of the community or NGOs or those who are unable to afford them or access them due to various reasons. Pro bono is used to describe the central motivation of large organizations e.g. WiDS, in case of Stanford, is “for the public good" rather than for shareholder profit.

While working as a volunteer leader, I come across several myths and misconceptions about a volunteer’s role. It is commonly believed that people who have more free time, who don’t have any other work, take up volunteering. In fact, many senior professionals and some of the busiest people in the industry do pro bono work. Working professionals’ time is considered more important than a volunteer’s time; volunteer work is taken lightly and considered compromisable, especially compared to professional work, and not expected to be of good quality or professional as it is done free of cost.

Volunteers are considered to be doing favours to the organizers, benefactors or even the cause; this propagates the misconception that they are not accountable for their carrying out, communicating or fulfilling their responsibilities. They are thought to not have timelines, deadlines or need of best practices, and even if they do, they can be side lined. Volunteering sometimes does not turn out to be successful. Stakeholders have a bad experience or sometimes the work is not appreciated. Volunteers too have their shortcomings such as lack of flexibility, lack of gratitude or thankfulness for the benefits of volunteering, intolerance towards others’ views and perspectives and egotism. Volunteers are frequently taken for granted and their time and space are not respected.

When two volunteers working on the same cause are in two different stages of Maslow’s hierarchy, they attach different values and priorities to the cause. This leads to disputes and conflicts. They are intensified when the volunteers fail to understand the bigger picture, its context, the urgency and the impact and further clouded when volunteers lack empathy and put themselves before the project goals.

In such situations, team spirit and experience of working in large teams or with strangers, good communication skills, setting the right expectations and tolerance towards those different from oneself matter. Good volunteers know how much work to take on, are responsible and accountable, and can even say ‘no’ at the right time and in the right manner. They understand that they cannot expect any kind of work to be accepted just because it’s done free.

Displaying wrong attitude which creates overheads, stress and stretch for the whole team defeats the cause. So do favouritism, misuse of power, calculation and manipulation, hidden agendas, lack of integrity and transparency, and violation of basic ethics. Repeatedly creating doubts about the work at hand or withholding information just to exert control leads to confusion among volunteers. This does not serve the team, and leads to failures of not only projects, but the fundamental cause as well.