My first experience participating in a volunteer project was at Royal College in Sri Lanka. As a high school student, I was thrilled to “give-back” and participate in activities that will not only help others but will also hone my personal and professional skills. I didn’t have to think twice to participate. I literally just had to show up, help, and go back home. I loved the experience and understood the impact I’ve made and believed that if all the world’s people volunteered, this world would definitely be a better place.
That’s why I dedicated myself to expose volunteering and its benefits to people around the world.
When I was in high school, my parents were in a capacity to help me. There was always food on the table, and I had a comfortable life. It didn’t cross my mind at that time to self-reflect my position and privilege. I don’t worry too much, as I’d like to think that I utilized my comforts to give back. I volunteered more, enthusiastically giving back to my community and developing a deep sense of liking to it.
But when I came to the United States, things started changing. I was well off and comfortable, yes, but volunteering wasn’t as easy. There were countless days where I was lost in thought at night thinking about how I’ve not had the opportunity to volunteer as much as I’d like. Adulting yes, but at the cost of something I was really passionate about – volunteering. It worried me. I was to juggle work, studies, prepping, and all the other things stabilizing myself first that “volunteering” always came at a price with a transaction that I had to be mindful of. If I volunteered my time, that meant taking time off from already full schedules of work and studies. If I was to join an organization it meant paying for membership fees and committing myself to long-term goals. Being a migrant didn’t make anything easier either. Some volunteer opportunities came at a larger price that I wouldn’t dare make.
I had 24 hours in a day and “volunteering” was a transaction.
Nevertheless, I gave back. I volunteered and invited others to volunteer, just like most of us do, irrespective of how hard it was for me. I know that most of us don’t volunteer because we have overwhelmingly free time or bottomless bank accounts, but because we actively want to contribute, just like everything else we invest in, in our lives. But that is just the point.
If the true essence of volunteering is “giving back” to society, it shouldn’t be hard. Just like everything else, it should be equitable and open for people from all walks of life. Volunteering shouldn’t come at the cost of a job, a degree, or money. While I grace by to afford it, there are billions of people who can’t.
The 2018 State of the World’s Volunteerism report published by the United Nations Volunteers found that 70% of the world’s volunteering is done informally. This means they volunteer by themselves, locally, for causes they care about and not through formal organizations. But most of the world’s tools are geared towards organizations – business enterprise software that track volunteer hours, manage donors, and at the helm, generate Corporate Social Responsibility and Social Impact reports. I don’t want to be a hypocrite. I know they are important and my nonprofit uses many of them, but I’m yet to come across major tools and resources that focus on the individual person’s ability to create volunteer projects, connect for social impact, and generate their own individual reports of impact.
The Coronavirus provided us a glimpse of this problem. When organizations were forced to a halt, individual people were scrambling to help each other. The best of humanity came out – people connected through social media, new movements to shop for older people were born, and people started making masks and helping those in need. But what spoke louder was the inadequacy of tools and resources available for individual people to take action. Social media served as a source of upliftment, but that is a temporary solution.
Local challenges don’t usually have external solutions. And when local challenges need solutions, local people already know best. This is why volunteering needs to be equitable, so people from all walks of life can create and connect to volunteer projects on their own time, for causes they care about, with no strings attached and no transaction to worry about on time, money, and commitment. If you and I believe that 7-billion volunteers can contribute to a better world for generations of people after us, we need to provide all 7 billion people the tools to volunteer, not just for the altruistic people who have time and money to do so.
The world is very different and vast, and in it lives people with extraordinary lifestyles. Each one of those exceptional people is capable of social impact and we need to reassess the industry to provide them – the individual person – the tools to create, connect and track impact. While I can’t overestimate the contribution of formal organizations that employ volunteers, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of individual people to change the trajectory of our future.
We are building a new movement of volunteerism geared towards every single person. I invite you to join this revolution.