1. 5 easy steps to understand volunteering
I will be upfront and state the obvious. I am a foreigner. The practice of volunteering isn’t that prevalent in my country as it is in Finland. The fact that there are events and organizations that are run solely by volunteers is still somewhat baffling to me. Although, now, I am slowly establishing an understanding and appreciation towards the effort.
That appreciation was developed through some volunteering experience I had here, and I came to feel the changes that volunteering can have. There were steps of figuring out and then eventually understanding how and what volunteer does for me, if you may. Following that premise, this will be a (hopefully comprehensible) rant / reflection on the topic – and how I came to the conclusions that I did.
Now, story time.
Voluntarism as I know it, was still seen through rose colored glasses – a group of dedicated do-gooders committing wholeheartedly to a cause they hold dear to.
Step 1: Start with Why
The first time I got to volunteer here in Finland was absolutely by chance. Tagging along a friend to visit a conference venue became participating in a volunteer briefing, and before I knew it – I signed up for a volunteer position on the spot. They needed the manpower, and I was told that volunteers would be able to get some free tickets to the event. It so happened that I was interested in some of the speeches that was happening in the event, and being the poor student that I was (am), I wasn’t able to afford the tickets. Pragmatically speaking, it seemed to be a fair exchange for me to commit some time to the event in exchange for a free pass to the event (and food too :D). It was a win-win situation.
And so it was, a done deal.
The reason I brought this experience up was because voluntarism as I know it, was still seen through rose colored glasses – a group of dedicated do-gooders committing wholeheartedly to a cause they hold dear to. While that kind of enthusiasm seep into the work they do and shows off the commitment they have to a particular cause, it may be somewhat intimidating for someone still figuring out my values in life (like me).
I guess the message here is that – while volunteering sometimes is shrouded with an overarching glow of goodness and niceties, reality might look slightly different. It sometimes can be seen as a barter system of sorts, with the volunteer offering their services in exchange for something an organization is able to provide. Be it working experience, networking opportunities or access to some event. As long as you know have a reason to do something, be it self-serving or not, sometimes it’s the contribution that matters. Also sometimes, the act of volunteering itself opens up doors to different experiences or opportunities that one could not imagine.
Volunteering was somewhat similar to dieting. Having your eye on the cake goal was extremely crucial, where in this case would be the reason why you committed to the cause in the first place.
Step 2: Committing and Putting Yourself Into It
My second volunteering experience in Finland did not particularly have an happy ending. But for what it’s worth, here’s the story of that encounter, and the lessons I learnt from it. I signed up to be part of an organizing committee of an event which happened to suit a particular skill set that I was looking forward to develop, plus somewhat believing in the cause of the campaign. Unfortunately, I underestimated the level of dedication towards a long-term project as a volunteer, and how it would take a toll on both me and the team.
In the end, the project was delayed extensively partially because of my lack of commitment, and the fact that I flaked out before finally throwing in the towel, admitting defeat that I wasn’t able to manage my time well enough to partake in the project.
I gathered from this experience that volunteering was somewhat similar to dieting. Having your eye on the cake goal was extremely crucial, where in this case would be the reason why you committed to the cause in the first place. I would be first to admit that it was a shameful experience not being able to pull-through what I’ve explicitly said I could and would do, but the thought process I had may resonate to many a volunteers working on a long-term project.
In the midst of working on the project, every now and then these series of questions would pop up:
“Why am I doing this when I could be doing something similar that could make me money?”
“Is this even worth my time?”
And my dedication to the project would waver a little. Until I gave up entirely.
I guess the key takeaway of this experience was that – despite doing something for a greater cause, people would fall through every now and then. Volunteer sometimes demands a great deal of personal sacrifice, and this is where the understanding of what you’re standing for can make you pull through. Those who have followed Game of Thrones would be familiar with wildfire. The substance burns without care for obstacles, and cannot be contained. I think a belief to the cause campaigned or the initial goal should be as strong as wildfire, pushing through your doubts and braving through complications that creep up along the way.
It would, of course, be a great help if you had your fellow volunteers around as a support system through your endeavors.
Showing empathy also means going the extra mile when you’re capable, and meet someone in need halfway to give them an extra hand.
Step 3: Observe & Learn
Having past that experience, I became skeptical of how volunteers could actually contribute to something; and how sustainable it was, for an individual and also for an organization.
That was until one day a friend invited me to visit a refugee camp where she was teaching Finnish for a few months. After spending time observing her explain the Finnish grammar and words that are still incomprehensible to me till this time and day, I started thinking of a discussion we had on the way over.
In her case, her volunteer work was somewhat aligned with her political believes, the future Finland she envisioned, and also what she imagines as the responsibility of a host and fellow citizen of the world. It was the very least she could do to make others feel comfortable into her country. In her words, “Well, I guess there’re reasons people choose to seek asylum in Finland instead of any other place, and the very least I can do as part of the nation is to make them feel welcome, you know? It’s already so hard having to start over.”
Seeing her think from someone elses perspective made me understand that showing empathy also means going the extra mile when you’re capable, and meet someone in need halfway to give them an extra hand. I didn’t tell her then but, I appreciated that moment as it allowed me to see the act of voluntarism through fresh eyes. Sometimes, seeing people being passionately motivated about things that they care about helps you realign your world view, to serve, rather than to receive.
Step 4: Rinse and Repeat.
So. I guess. Sometimes the cycle is just what it is. First you get gungho about things. Then you have doubts and questions. Or worse, you make mistakes. And then you recover and go for it again with a new understanding.
I have personally developed an new perspective of what I am personally passionate about. And I think that is core to me volunteering at an organization and the cause they stand for. With that, a new adventure in volunteering maybe? 🙂
Step 0: A Want.
Back to the idea of the wildfire. All fires need a spark, and sometimes all it takes to light up the wildfire is to just do it. At some point, your inner wildfire will ignite, and then you will have reflections on voluntarism of your own.
After all, the best lessons of volunteering my be the ones we teach ourselves.
1. “5 easy steps to understand volunteering” by Aia
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