OPINION: Volunteering is all about community

OPINION: Volunteering is all about community

Participants in Jewish Care Leadership Development Programme
Participants in Jewish Care Leadership Development Programme
Participants in Jewish Care Leadership Development Programme
Participants in Jewish Care Leadership Development Programme

by Sonia Douek

We all need to be able to do something positive for our communities without expecting a payment, this is the “True Spirit of Volunteerism” according to International Volunteer Day, 5 December 2015.

Over the past five years or so there has been a growing commentary to encourage more people to get involved and volunteer. Incentives include getting something on your CV if you are unemployed or a student, keeping busy if you are not in employment, and even reward schemes for volunteering such as cinema tickets or volunteering as a pre-requisite to receiving benefits.

The word volunteer means – “freely offering to take part in a task or enterprise or working for an organisation without being paid”.

So, while we know that volunteers tell us they get so much more out of volunteering than they give, and that many tell us that the structure of volunteering and feeling useful has helped them with difficult personal circumstances, I do question whether we ‘sell’ volunteering as a product to the volunteer and often lose sight of the concept of altruism and community responsibility which is a reward in itself.

In a world, and a community to some extent, that is constantly concerned about the next generation, we often forget the values that build a community and could learn much from the communities that have gone before us.

Volunteering is changing, we are told, because people are time poor and therefore we need to find ways to engage people in short-term volunteering to make it more attractive – and we do just this at Jewish Care with an increase in employee volunteering and projects such as Shabbat with Jewish Care or involvement in Mitzvah Day.

But, are we really so time poor? Our grandparents washed by hand (no washing machines), cooked from scratch (no takeaways or ready cooked meals and certainly eating out was a rare occasion) yet they found time to fundraise for charities, organise events for those less fortunate than themselves and dedicate their leisure time to ‘good causes’.

I think the answer really lies in one of values. Our values today have changed, even within the Jewish community. Altruism is questioned – how many times recently have we read or heard that this is not a true concept but there is always a hidden agenda or another reason for people getting involved?

And, by selling the role to the volunteer with its added perks, do we risk putting off those who truly feel an obligation to their community by not recognising their motivation based on these values?

One of the most extraordinary initiatives to take place in Jewish Care over the past year or so is the group of young adults who have voluntarily put themselves forward to learn more about Jewish Care and want to involve themselves not just at a strategic level but a grass roots level in the work we do. None of them are looking for career progression or work experience, none of them are receiving even a ticket for the cinema! Their motivation is the want to do something for their community and their recognition that the work we do is so essential within that community.

This group reminds me that volunteering, something Jewish Care was built on, can benefit from volunteering incentives but its core is about community and most of all the individuals within that community wanting to do something positive without payment.

One of our 3000 volunteers recently told us, “We give a lot to Jewish Care and we get 100% back.” Without our volunteers, we simply could not provide the depth and range of services for the 7000 older people and their families who depend on our support each year. Some only give a small amount of time, others regularly commit to a weekly or bi-weekly activity. We can never have too many volunteers who make it possible to achieve what we do on a daily basis, strengthening our communities and building meaningful relationships with those who really rely on their good will and commitment each and every day.

Sonia Douek is Head of volunteering and community development at Jewish Care and has developed a strategy for the organisation that has seen the growth of volunteers in the organisation reach 3,000 people.

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