Douglas Orane | Is the Spirit of Voluntarism Waning?
Address at the Jamaica Association for the Deaf Annual General Meeting: May 2009
I remember this as one of the happiest occasions at which I participated as a speaker. There was an individual signing for the hearing impaired as I spoke, so that all in the audience could understand. They were so enthralled, and I became caught up in their infectious enthusiasm. I explored how to manage the work of volunteers for mutual benefit.
While Jamaica has enjoyed a long and strong tradition of voluntarism, there have been times when we have had to question whether that tradition is waning. I sense that there is the danger of the diminishing of that life force in the sector. And, it is not an unfounded concern, as individuals and corporations become more self-absorbed, as the struggle for survival and success consumes us.
Eleven years ago, GraceKennedy brought that question into the national sphere through the annual GraceKennedy Foundation Lecture titled 'Vision and Voluntarism: Reviving Voluntarism in Jamaica', delivered by Professor Don Robotham.
The reality is that a lot of activity that masks itself as voluntarism is really carried out with the objective of getting something in return. Again, you might say, 'What is the importance of motive? Surely, equipment donated to a hospital does the job intended, regardless of the motive of the donor.' That is indeed true. However, there are implications for the sustainability of the sector. Where the motives are not pure, support will ebb and flow in keeping with the opportunity factor to the donor. Also, without the proper motive, volunteers will not approach their voluntary work with the appropriate attitude.
Professor Robotham pointed out that many agencies complained of volunteers who felt that, because they were not charging, they didn't have to do their jobs in a professional manner. He emphasises that, 'Volunteers who do not have that extra moral or spiritual commitment from within are not likely to last long in today's difficult social environment.'
What we need to appreciate is that, with the growth of the sector, the management of volunteers has become a discipline in itself. It is not simply a matter of institutions asking for help; the institutions have to prepare themselves to accept the help they are being given.
In the seven years since I made this speech, it's become increasingly clear to me that sustained voluntarism needs to be grounded in a deep sense of spirituality, and a moral conviction to do what's right for humankind. From personal experience, the buffeting that one receives from setbacks, albeit temporary, on the volunteer journey, requires a wellspring of faith to keep going.
The Jamaican nation, and that includes our diaspora, is filled with a multitude of people who want to reach out to help others. It's important for needy organisations to hone the skills of how to engage volunteers productively.
Examples include building the emotional bonds between volunteers and the respective institutions, promptly and constantly expressing gratitude for the contributions of time, talent, and financial resources, and transparency in keeping the volunteer community regularly informed of the progress in improving the institutions that they are helping.
Is voluntarism waning? The answer is, probably no. It's just that we need to fully open the door for volunteers to experience the joy of giving, through well-thought-out actions that will capture their attention and engage their interest.