By Manuel Perez
To start with a truism, let me affirm that we human beings are social creatures, and by working together we’ve created various civilizations, including the ones that are presently interacting on the world stage. And, though of the work that human beings do together at this time is “productive” activity (producing money or goods), I must assume that the first gestures towards creating a community of individuals were those of generous souls helping out their neighbors because they felt good doing so.
According to Abraham Maslow, the renowned 20th Century sociologist, we all share a need of belonging and acceptance, which makes the need to be part of a group, to identify with other people, which makes this one of the most important positive “motivators”. This motivation probably led to the development of cooperative and philanthropic activities in early societies, which planted the seeds for what we now call voluntarism and volunteering.
The following pages are an introduction to promoting volunteer activities, utilizing the Venezuelan experience and history as a case study for contrasting the author's ideas and experience with what other cultures might consider to be “common knowledge” in this area. Interestingly enough, I will mention that in Venezuela, with few traditions in this area, most Public Relations and Human Resource corporate managers usually felt they were “experts” in volunteer recruitment and coordination, just as in the middle ages most European church leaders felt they were the “experts” who knew how to help the poor and needy. Sadly, both groups focused on using volunteers, which limited their recruitment pool to persons who were not searching for self-fulfillment activities.
Volunteering, which I define as the voluntary action undertaken without payment nor promise of payment (for the group, community, or individual), is an altruistic (selfless) activity that is a relatively recent development in human history. Of course, we must understand that religious organizations (including the Catholic Church) have always promoted long term charities and welfare activities, to support the needy, and they probably always generated some form of volunteers (even in ancient civilizations). In addition, it can be argued that volunteering as an individual gesture is a product of modern western civilization and is possibly even more specific to North European and North American philosophies as a response to the universal rights of all humans.
Traditionally, altruistic community activity in rural communities had characterized itself as family support or traditional mutual support methods that different communities expected, in which there is an evident and direct benefit to the individual, as well as the activities that a church or political party might organize to protect a group or community. Outside of these contexts, there are few examples of non-religious social support structures for the poor world history prior to the 19th century. Some authors also propose that volunteering is a modern phenomenon that truly starts to manifest in the 20th and 21st century democratic societies that allow for freedom of choice.
The explanation is that as individuals grew in prosperity, self-responsibility and independence, some of them found satisfaction in giving of themselves to others, in charity through service as well as through monetary support of charitable institutions. Thus, a change came about in modern society, transferring importance from the rich philanthropists to the multiple individual volunteers that were willing to give time, work and commitment to the needy.
Interestingly, this individual participation grew in parallel to rapid economic growth, and as new political ideals were proposed, to establish the need for government social welfare services worldwide. Of course, in times of plenty it was easy for a government to establish welfare and social programs for solving some problems and redistributing wealth and land among the poor. Yet, as most retirees and other segments of the population that rely on governmental support have learned, every country has its cycles of growth and contraction, which can severely affect the government programs that they rely on. When an economic contraction takes place, there are many power struggles over who would best be able to attend to specific activities, and where funding goes, often destroying the very programs that are most needed. This can then result in having special interests “take over” in exchange for supplying needed resources.
Recent world wide experience suggests that reliable and effective social and welfare programs require independent (grass-roots) organizations and charities that achieve their goals with local resources, most especially with volunteers. Some examples of these reliable and effective programs that I know exemplify this use of adult volunteers are “Doctors Without Borders”, the various “Red Cross” and “Red Crescent” organizations, the North American “Salvation Army”, the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, ParentsInAction (NYC), and the numerous religious organizations we come across in public service and charitable activities, among many others. In addition, we will periodically hear reports through our media of some non profits that have apparently been so successful that they have been co-opted by political interests that are either part of or opposed by their government. These efforts are not identified here, because once they stop being a volunteer effort they are no longer of interest to us - except in terms of the “” section.
Of course, reference will be made to some sociologists and psychologists that have looked into this matter, some of them well known and others not so well known. These include Robert Maslow and Frederick Herzberg, whose ideas on motivation I’ve always admired, and which are simple enough for any reader of this book to utilize.
In the coming pages we will speak more about the use of volunteers, some history about voluntarism (and voluntary efforts) and how we can motivate and organize people we know so they may become a part of the “Volunteer” movement.
NYC’s 114th Civ-Op Inc. Graffiti Cleanup
Team in July, 2009
Volunteer work (voluntarism) in Europe is first historically recognized as such during the Middle Ages, when many religious orders made it their mission to dedicate special efforts towards the needs of the poor, sick, orphans and the destitute. At this time, Christian charity was understood as being inclusive of these needy groups, and local churches became places of aid, support, asylum, and protection against social inequities. Other civilizations, including the Roman Empire, also had many public works and services in their cities, usually associated to a Temple or God, where citizens could give of their time and resources to help the needy. These activities, though “voluntary”, were usually highly regulated by a religious or political hierarchy (many women served in “nunneries”, and men could be “monks” while they studied, as still happens in some places of the world). These activities often represented more of an exchange of services in exchange for tuition or boarding than true voluntarism, yet we must recognize that voluntary physical labor was part the “exchange”, and so was considered “volunteering” by the society of the times.
Later, along with the development of human rights ideals and the concept of personal (individual) worth, other social welfare activities were perceived to be not only needed but desirable, and each of them progressively increased each community’s capacity for assisting their own poor population. In communities with little migration, the religious orders were usually sufficient to address the needy, but as a result of the Industrial Revolution, and the progressive industrialization of communities in Europe and the USA, this was no longer so. The mobility of populations searching for better jobs and better pay resulted in social and economic pressures that no religious group alone could attend. Since public discussion and representative governments also became the norm at this time, public pressure was generated on many local governments to assume new activities: activities that could somehow answer the needs of a transient and/or new population, a product of local, national and international economic conditions.
The social pressures that resulted from this combination of industrial development and the unavoidable urban concentration had a number of effects, including:
1. Large numbers of orphans and abandoned children that weren’t absorbed by local families (the result of poor health conditions, poverty, or local wars);
2. Large numbers of workers disabled in farming and industrial accidents who needed more medical attention and financial assistance than what was available from local religious communities;
3. A generalized process of increased family debt and bankruptcy, with no extended family support for those affected (historically, the local storekeeper and businesses offered only known and trusted community members limited credit);
4. Increased criminal activities that a lone law enforcement officer (sheriff, marshall, provost, etc.) could not control nor correct;
5. Increased collective risks of that couldn’t be handled on an individual basis, most specifically of fires, epidemics and even road accidents;
In the past as well as today, each of these issues required the creation of specialized and collectively financed organizations and institutions that could fill the need, including public orphanages, hospitals, fire companies, police, etc.. Historically, each of these organizations needed to develop a management structure and technology of its own, as well as mechanisms for sharing resources within the local communities, leading to labor and technological specialization and expertise.
The USA developed many forms and local modalities of community service and participation, including town hall meetings and even various forms of “volunteer societies” that had formal legal prerogatives. This empowerment of individuals to solve problems came hand in hand with both economic development, and the participative form of government that is practiced in the USA and many European countries. However, other populations and cultures have assumed that the “authorities” (elected or otherwise) are the ones that make decisions and have the responsibility to solve problems. In general, and according to the material I’ve read, in the 20th century there were notably fewer volunteer organizations and activities in countries with authoritarian governments, and the volunteers that cooperated foreign aid organizations could face strong “official” opposition to their work with the needy, even when they were responding to major disasters.
One interesting 19th century development was the “Bell-Lancaster Method”, or “Monitorial Method” of education, as described by Joseph Lancaster (1821) and Dr. Andrew Bell (1797) in which older students taught younger students, assisting the regular teacher and allowing for greater classroom sizes. This “voluntary” work by older students was successful, and it still appears present in various “learning by teaching” programs (also called “peer tutoring”) in modern day schools. Yet is it truly voluntary? Sometimes, I will admit, students truly want to serve as tutors to their younger peers, but I’ve also seen others pressured into performing this “community service”.
In general, I would dare say that there is a direct relationship between individual participation in a country’s government and the level of that population’s participation in volunteer activities. Why? Because volunteering allows individuals to become empowered. And empowered individuals have the ability to choose to do voluntary work.
Sample text from "Creating Volunteers", by Manuel F. Perez (2009)
Highly recommended! Niki Lambropoulos, PhD