Monday, June 21, 2010

Volunteers : The silent worker bee

Volunteers are one of the most valuable resources and a voluntary organization can have, especially today when a lot or most voluntary organizations are largely staffed by paid professionals who work for a salary. While the changing nature of the sector and the increasing demands and scrutiny made by government, donors and funders and even the general public may mean that this shift is largely inevitable, volunteers still help to remind us of our roots.
At Oasis, we have been fortunate in being blessed by many volunteers – short term and long term. Some of them have been around for years and while having cost the organization next to nothing, have enriched Oasis in ways that might be difficult to quantify. The other day, we were trying to calculate in monetary terms what the worth of a few specific volunteers with their particular skills and experience might be. I do not know what figure was finally arrived at, but we agreed that if we had to hire all those people and pay them the salaries that they could command, it could hit the organisational balance sheet quite badly.
But money and salaries are one thing. Often volunteers bring with them skills and experiences that are not readily available in the market place. It is not a matter of being able to pay the salaries, often the right people with a suitable combination of commitment and skill are just not around.
When volunteers come from another culture or country, they also enrich local staff in providing them a platform to work in a multi ethnic and multi cultural environment. They usually bring perspectives on a particular situation or a way of doing things that are fresh and new and can help challenge existing notions of how business has always been conducted. More importantly, by their very presence and the dedication they display, they may end up challenging or changing local work culture and practice.
It is worth considering why volunteerism, even for a short spell is not at all entrenched in India. The concept of the ‘gap year’ is not prevalent in India at all unfortunately. It is one straight and long ride from school to college and university and then onto your first job. In most situations, a gap in the resume that does not follow this beaten track would raise eye brows in most interview situation. The concept of taking some time off now and then and follow the call of the heart is not too well understood or accepted in India.
Of course there is also an economic dimension to this that must not be missed. Volunteerism costs. It may not cost the receiving organisation like Oasis directly, but some one obviously is paying the bills that the volunteer worker is incurring in the country- their housing, their grocery bills, utility bills and others. Depending on organisational policy, possibly the office may absorb some bills, but that still leaves a substantial chunk that the volunteer ultimately is responsible for.
We at the receiving end of a volunteer's untainted service are often unaware of what it takes to raise that sort of money that would pay your bills, no matter how frugally you ultimately choose to live. Occasionally mid career professionals have worked long enough and saved enough to manage their own finances, but ever so often we get younger people who are not likely to have reached that stage and need to reach out to friends and family to raise the necessary resources to come.
Volunteers are the silent worker bees that often quietly and unobtrusively keep the bee hive of activity running. More importantly perhaps they keep a much needed notion alive; that in a materialistic society where every one seemingly works for money- not every one really is.
Volunteers represent the incarnational model that often enough it is more blessed to give than to receive and enough people still exist who believe that and live by that.

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