Waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of ambulance sirens, being stuck behind one on the road, crossing your fingers when one passes by… all of us have engaged in these unconscious reactions before. Similarly, many of us have said a prayer under our breath when a funeral procession passes by, momentarily wondering about the person who has passed and shared sympathy for the family’s loss. These are our unconscious reactions to witnessing loss and hardship. However, a reaction we may not have engaged in nearly as often is actually wondering about the person behind the wheel in that ambulance, or the cemetery worker who hands family members the last fistful of dust to cover a buried casket, or a torch to light the funeral pyre.
But what has this got to do with anything, one might wonder? Of all things, it does seem to be an interesting way to lead some people to introspect and then to volunteer. iVolunteer’s Dine and Dialogue initiative, also called Active Citizenship, was created with the premise that the first step to creating sustainable volunteering is to invite people to just see what the lives of some others in the community are like and breakdown stereotypes or biases that may have been subliminally created. The experience is intended to offer potential volunteers an opportunity to build empathy towards those unlike them. This is the first step towards creating a desire to do something.
Every few months a group of individuals would get together to visit a community, share a conversation and meal that would be prepared by the community. We believe that this zero agenda interaction is the first step to inspire someone to volunteer.
Lalitha and her family have been working on the burial ground for generations. In our mind, when we planned this initiative, it was to engage with someone who we thought maybe had the most difficult job. To wake up every morning, hoping someone had died, so they could make ends meet for the day. To be surrounded by sadness and grief all the time. With this belief firmly etched in our minds, we invited a group of potential volunteers to interact with the family that had served in the burial ground for several decades. Imagine how taken aback we were when Lalitha shared that she actually loved her job. “We provide the first step in closure to a grieving family. If we were to get emotional then we will not do our job well. The most important thing is to do one’s job with utmost dedication and commitment. The task at hand is more important than anything else,” she shared.
With this in mind, we engage our initiative for the purpose of alleviating the burden of those who don’t have the choice. For the volunteers who had gathered there, this was no less than a life lesson in gratitude, humility, and work ethic – as well as a great attitude in the face of hardship.
This and many such instances led us to create a model for volunteering – the 4 E’s approach. Our belief is that not everyone is at the same starting point. We need to create opportunities that allow different people to volunteer and rise to the occasion based on what they desire to get out of it, and what inspires, motivates, and even constrains them. Over time, we believe our approach will help individuals evolve into volunteers that require no external stimuli to stimulate the desire to volunteer overtime. We believe that a one size fits all model doesn’t work given each individual’s specific uniqueness and each human being’s unique drivers.
So how can we approach volunteering such that we are able to create sustainable volunteering?
The 4 E approach tries to create a journey for an individual volunteer as below while enabling the volunteer to reflect at every stage what he/she has gained from the experience and where they see themselves, ahead in the journey.
iVolunteer also approaches volunteering from an outcome desired by the NGO point of view- we, therefore, have a very strong skills-based volunteering program. NGOs share their needs on the platform and potential volunteers apply to help fulfill the needs of organizations. While this volunteering is more transactional, a good experience will often result in the volunteer coming back for more.
Needs range from short terms tasks such as helping with translating content, reviewing or creating a policy, developing a website to some that are more long-term such as helping with strategic planning, coaching of senior staff over a few months, developing processes and systems. The latter calls for deeper engagement and over a period of time – the iVolunteer Whiteboard program caters to this where a group of professionals work together with 3-4 NGOs in a location.
Our belief is that unless we combine volunteer motivations with the outcomes needed by the sector, we will always struggle with the conversion of intent and sustaining volunteer interest. Anything that we can do to curate opportunities that factor both these elements will change the future of volunteering in India and globally.
Aarti Madhusudan is Principal Consultant with iVolunteer. She also runs an initiative Governance Counts that supports organizations in building stronger Boards. Passionate about volunteering herself, Aarti volunteers to promote DaanUtsav India’s festival of giving. She is based in Chennai , loves clear blue skies and Indian classical music