Why do women go every Tuesday and Thursday to the op/charity shop? The cat shelters? The Samaritans / Lifeline? Women's Aid? The Amazonian rain forests? Ok, now we're moving on from just a few hours here and there. When one looks into the history of volunteering it is obvious that our world would be a more limited, less interesting and, for some, a more desperate place without the inspiring work of the volunteer.
Here are just a few examples you may or may not be familiar with and this is a tiny list from the 100's of 1000's of projects worldwide.
The General Federation of Women's Clubs (GFWC) is one of the oldest and largest women's volunteer community service organisation. In 2006 it's members raised nearly 32 million dollars for 230,000 projects and volunteered 8.4 million hours. Yes, 8.4 million hours, these are amongst the grass roots philanthropists.
The first world war saw many women volunteers. Voluntary Aid Detachment were volunteer nurses at the front line from 1915. Women volunteered for the Red Cross, planted 'Victory Gardens', encouraged the sale of war bonds (issued by the government to finance military operations).
Alice Chisholm and Rania Mac Phillany were Australian volunteers working in Egypt between 1916 and 1919. They ran canteens in Cairo, Suez and Rafa.
The first Women Police Volunteers in the UK (who became Women's Police Service) was founded by Margaret Damer Dawson, an anti white slavery campaigner, and Nina Boyle, a militant suffragette journalist.
During the 2nd world war in the US the Navy recruited women into its Navy Women's Reserve (WAVES). Before the end of the war 84,000 WAVES were working voluntarily in communications, intelligence, medicine and administration.
Long before women had the right to vote they were involved in a variety of reform movements from moral reforms to abolitionism to suffrage.
By 2010 a group of women built 1,650 homes within the women build volunteers program, Habitat for Humanity. Begun in the US, the program continues to grow across international borders.
I'm sure you're also aware of some of the vast number of projects which are based in the environment, the arts, historical archiving and social care and change. This is the everyday face of philanthropy.
Returning to the question of what is the motivation for this philanthropic behaviour, perhaps part of the answer is that it taps into our need for a sense of freedom, freedom to choose how we spend our time, freedom to create the world we want to live in, freedom to express our love and care for our community. Aboriginal activist Lill Watson invites us into this freedom, '"If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is tied up with mine then let us work together."
Volunteering in this way is empowering and creative. Women especially recognise this sense of community, it's what we've grown up with. We remember those times from our first experience of group/ community - the family we were born into. Where peoples needs were met or perhaps not met. We may remember that when needs were met it was because someone saw those needs and responded with attention, thought, care and action.
The volunteering community suits women as we enjoy the sense of belonging, of being part of something creative. We engage with the journey of it, the planning, talking, laughing, crying, the celebration of change and growth.
"Volunteerism is the voice of the people put into action. These actions shape and mold the present into a future of which we can all be proud.". Helen Dyer.
Volunteering also offers the opportunity for our personalities to express themselves. There are women who are great at initiating projects. They recognise a need and say 'Yes!' to the challenges of meeting that need. There are the sustainers who identify with the original vision and give of their time, skills, care and cash to maintain and grow the projects. Then there are the completer's who are able to clearly see the achievements, the shortfalls and are dedicated to steering the vision through.
The initiators are extraordinary in their ability to empathise with other living beings, they believe that positive change is possible and they are determined to initiate change. A great example of this is Ann Cotton who founded CAMFED ( Campaign for Female Education). She gave enough attention to the plight of young women in Zimbabwe (and later in other African countries), who had very limited access to education. How many of us wouldn't have even seen it? Or, if we had, felt our own version of sorrow and got on with our own lives? Not Ann, she began with available resources, making cakes, sharing information, inspiring and working on a project that has now supported over 15,000 young women and has a huge impact on the lives of their communities .
What often motivates volunteers is the sense that 'it is the right thing to do.' There are echoes here of Miep Gies who was one of five people who sheltered and protected Anne Frank and her family. Asked why she risked her life in this way, she replied that 'it was the right thing to do'. Those of us who spend our Saturday mornings at the cat shelter may not be risking our lives (well maybe you are on a bad day!) but still the motivation is there. We identify something inside us which speaks out, 'it's the right thing to do'. In this way it's a very personal choice, an expression of ourselves.
"Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in."
The sustainers amongst us are essential for the growth of the project and maintaining the vision.
"To keep a lamp burning we have to keep putting oil in it.". Mother Theresa
These women are extraordinary in their commitment of time and care. The sustainers are also those short on time but give in other ways. These are the philanthropists who donate their wealth to fund projects that they feel passionate about. This is a win-win experience where the project will gain the financial support it needs and the woman donating the money will be part of the positive change she also wants to see. Often, once a woman has reached a certain level of wealth, there is a limit to the satisfaction she feels in owning wealth beyond this point. Satisfaction comes from engaging productively in her community or in a community she feels empathy for. It is interesting to note here that the term wealth was originally bound up with a much broader sense of well being. This sense of well being often comes with being emotionally involved with giving. In stark terms would you find more satisfaction from buying another yacht or changing the lives of many young women in Zimbabwe or playing your part in arresting deforestation of the rain forests?
The completer's amongst us are really important to the initiators and sustainers. They are interested in ensuring that the original vision is honoured. They will check that the village water really does work with the right size washers, that monetary donations really are funding the whole project and not weighted unfavourably with the admin department. They will serve up tea and cakes in the afternoon to appreciate everyone and keep them going, (read G and T's, water, or hot chocolate as appropriate, completer's are very good at knowing the right beverage!).
An exciting factor of volunteering is its lack of discrimination. It invites in all ages and backgrounds. It does not only choose those motivated by an intellectual decision to change the world, or those with more spiritual passions. It even embraces those who have a 'looking for a partner' agenda amongst the fete committee discussions or activists marches (some of us will remember Greenham Common!).
The impact of volunteering is far reaching, it is personal and it is global. It is of the present and it shapes the future.
"A civilisation flourishes when people plant trees under which they will never sit". Greek proverb.
Finally, have you seen those quotes from people nearing the ends of their lives? The ones where they regret what that didn't do, how they didn't live their lives fully. Perhaps this is partly the satisfaction of volunteering, knowing that you are actively living your beliefs, your passions, your true selves. Knowing that you are having a positive impact on your world. And it is surely no small thing to know that you are in such great company!
A recent study (The Changing of the Guard: What Generational Differences Tell Us About Social-Change Organizations by Frances Kunreuther http://leadershiplearning.org/system/files/Chaning%20of%20the%20Guard%20etc.pdf), following different generations working in not-for-profits (NFPs), it’s not what the organisation is doing that causes problems for employees but rather the underlying generational differences between people around ‘why they are working in the area’ and ‘what they expect’. The different expectations have the potential to disrupt any workplace no matter how thriving.
The Changing of the Guard goes on to conclude, among other things, that Gen X and Y come to NFPs for very different reasons and have very different drivers but are just as committed. They often come to a cause through a very personal interest or connection, and they often want new organisational structures and work life balance. Baby Boomers, on the other hand, who are still running the show, came to the cause through political and intellectual awareness, are less interested in finding balance and even less interested in trying new ways of working.