By Guest Blogger, Sarah Saso, Director Community Relations for Manulife Financial
I had the great honour of being invited to the United Nations in Washington in November, to participate in a meeting on the State of the Worlds Volunteers Consultation meeting. I have worked in non-profit and corporate sectors in for more than twenty years. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to meet many like-minded people and contribute my thoughts and opinions to what I consider to be so important for our business and for society: volunteerism. We had lively debate, engaging both the “academics” and the “practitioners” in the consultation group to look at what volunteerism will look like in the future. Read on for my own personalized account of the events…
Day 1, Saturday.
I enter the room at 9 am to join a group of approximately 40 people. The majority of the people in the room are professors (we’ll call them academics) -researchers in sociology, political science, psychology. They are M.A’s, and PhD’s. They are Canadians and Americans with a few from the UN in Bonn Germany thrown into the mix. It’s exciting to be here because many of the academics sitting here in the flesh are the researchers whose work I have been reading. Their insights have informed my practice of engaging volunteers and measuring its value to business and community. So here I am, a corporate practitioner (we’ll call us the practitioners). Those of you who know me, know that I’m not shy. I’m not afraid to speak up, but jeez – this room of academics is intimidating.
So why are we all here? We have been invited to a United Nations Volunteers North American consultation meeting on the State of the World’s Volunteers. The purpose is to help the United Nations Volunteers organization put out a “State of the World’s Volunteerism Report” (SWVR). They are looking back over the last ten years in the volunteerism sector with an understanding that where we have come from will inform where we go in the future. The impetus for the report is that we must debunk the stereotypes of volunteering from “ah, it’s so nice to do” to a place where we validate volunteering as it contributes to society. The hope is that in the future, volunteering will be come part of societal DNA, as essential to us as eating and sleeping.
First step – introductions. We each give an overview about who we are, what we have been doing in the sector and what we hope to contribute over the next two days.
I’m sitting next to Susan Ellis, President of Energize Inc. out of Philadelphia. Her company empowers and inspires leaders of volunteers worldwide. It’s not a non-profit but a business in the business of volunteering! Energize offers, among other things, a website that includes a resource library of international volunteer opportunities. She writes a provocative monthly essay, and promotes courses, conferences and online discussions on the topic of volunteerism.
Yippee, I exclaim (using my ‘inside voice’ of course). I’ve found a “sister in the struggle” who will understand where I’m coming from! And so I relax and speak up – and as a front line corporate practitioner of volunteerism I have lots to share. I can speak about what employees at Manulife have taught me about motivations for volunteering. Again, from my company perspective, I can speak about what’s working, what isn’t and how to engage employees. I realize that this is why I’m here and why I was invited.
Next we split into groups. Most of the academics are in group A with most of the practitioners in group B. We go off to our separate rooms to discuss the following topics:
o Volunteerism is Universal – How is it perceived in North America? What are the common misperceptions?
o Participation in Volunteerism – What do we know about participation rates in volunteering in North America? (motivations, influences and barriers?)
o The Changing Face of Volunteerism – How are the manifestations of volunteerism changing with evolving global developments including the digital revolution? What further changes can be expected in the next 10-20 years?
After a full day, we enjoyed a networking dinner where we could just talk about whatever we wanted – but of course the conversations were all about volunteering! After dinner, I reflect that I am encouraged to be with this group (both academics and practitioners) who share a common interest in building a civil society. Exhausted from all the thinking, my head hits the pillow racing with thoughts of today’s discussions and eagerly anticipating what’s to come in day two.
Met at 8 am Sunday for breakfast with new friend Susan and we are joined by Ben from the United Nations Report Committee and Sarah-Jane, a PhD in Philanthropy at the University of Texas. Question to the breakfast club? Was there anything we didn’t say yesterday that we needed to? Yes! We agree we want to tell the UN SWVR that if we really want to have an impact in the volunteerism space globally, the report must be targeted to the policy and decision-makers. To the thought leaders who can influence, enable change, and most importantly, build capacity and achieve progress.
As the meeting started that morning, it was clear that we had long list of topics to cover. Each topic was assigned a 90 minute time limit.
o Livelihoods – How can volunteer action improve livelihoods of communities?
o Social Inclusion – How can volunteerism promote social inclusion in the North American context among racial and ethnic minorities, women, the income poor the unemployed, different age groups, etc?
o Social Cohesion – What is volunteerism’s unique contribution to helping prevent violent conflict and contribute to peace?
o Disaster Risk Reduction – What are the unique contributions of volunteerism in North America at each phase of disaster risk reduction, including preparation, mitigation response, and recovery?
o Governance and Political Participation –In what ways does volunteerism open up unique space for political participation?
o Towards a better society – In what ways can volunteerism contribute to well-being and lead to the kind of society that we strive to achieve?
o Taking Volunteerism Forward – How do we fully realize the unique contributions of volunteerism? What needs to change? What improvements to volunteerism infrastructure are needed?
The most contentious issue, causing heated debate (with me right in the thick of it) was the topic “towards a better society”. The topic description was “It is increasingly evident that the contributions of volunteerism stretch beyond economic development to include greater life satisfaction, happiness, health, education, personal control and freedom. In what ways can volunteerism contribute to well-being and lead to the kind of society we want to achieve?”
From my vantage point, as a corporate practitioner, I spoke about how volunteerism in the corporate context can improve the well-being of an employee, the well-being of a community and even improve business results. An academic from the University of California doesn’t necessarily agree with my corporate perspective. He sees Corporate Volunteerism as self-serving. “Why what is is good for the “COMPANY” good for society?” he asks. I respond, “because employees of the “C“ompany are citizens of society, and they are also volunteers. As well, a large portion of volunteer programs and the volunteers who give of their time to serve societal needs are funded by corporations.” At this point, a European academic speaks up, “I think the examples of the type that Sarah has given these past two days are very relevant to this discussion. They must be included in our notes to the United Nations report committee.”
I was glad to have support from those around the table on this one. As such, The United Nations has asked me to continue the discussion with them. To do what I do best: “connect” them to the many organizations that I know of who are doing innovative, important work and utilizing volunteers in the process; to facilitate the sharing of their stories, their challenges, and their successes so that they might have some practical examples to go along with the sector research. I am more than happy to do this, because from my perspective, Canada’s non-profits are among the best in the world. And, after these two days of meetings, I believe that even more strongly than I did going in. I left the event exhausted, energized, and proud to work for a great Canadian company that values and promotes the positive effects of volunteerism. Volunteering is part of Manulife’s cultural DNA and I am very proud and humbled for this opportunity to be able to represent all of Manulife’s employees who also believe in the power of volunteering.
If you are interested in this topic, The United Nations report (SWVR) will be available December 2011.
Interested in finding a Volunteer Centre in your area? Check out this list of centres across the country!