July 15, 2012
Last week I attended a fund-raising function organised by former refugees from the Kachin State in Myanmar. Most of them have not been here longer than 5 years. In very short order they learned about living in their new environment. They bonded as a group, like seeking like, as you do in strange territory. They learned from each other, finding out how to access resources, and supporting those who needed extra help. And the leaders among them established a national network to share local information and to keep in touch with homeland politics.
This function entertained both old and new Kiwi supporters with song and dance, and then provided a meal for 200 people. It was a superb demonstration of event management organisation and spirited goodwill: a totally awesome display of volunteering. Now they have raised a goodly sum to provide medical supplies and mosquito nets to send to the remote and primitive camps for displaced people in their homeland.
This story got me thinking of all the different representations of volunteering: there are a lot of related words and phrases in common parlance these days.
The Kindness of Strangers turns up as a book title, over and over. It’s there on You Tube presentations and in song lyrics, and a TV programme. It’s the title of a scientific study, which includes reference to that archetypal model of a kind stranger, the Good Samaritan. Pay it Forward is a variation on this theme – a practice that has been around a lot longer than the movie of this title. A Guardian (UK) article claims “a civil society needs the kindness of strangers and acquaintances”, and cites another report from the Young Foundation , which argues that
Civility is the largely invisible ‘glue’ that holds communities together, and that experiences of incivility cause hurt, stress and deeper social problems, and has a bigger impact of people’s sense of social health than crime statistics. Perhaps most significantly it shows that civility operates on a reciprocal basis and that it is ‘contagious’.
Volunteering is also touted as a glue to hold communities together; and ‘civility’ reminds me of Civil Society – which is just the term to embrace volunteering and all the ways we talk about community and people. Like this:
Civil society activity meets fundamental human wants and needs, and provides an expression for hopes and aspirations. It reaches parts of our lives and souls that are beyond the state and business. It takes much of what we care about most in our private lives and gives it shape and structure, helping us to amplify care, compassion and hope. (Making Good Society, 2010)
The Gift Economy is another variant of the concept of volunteering, that ancient practice of exchange and sharing that kept the wheels on communities before we got hooked into market-economy drivers. And the Gift Economy is still a big one. Pacific Nations can enjoy remittances from emigrants that total more than local economies. Maori consciousness of collective wellbeing and responsibility means ‘volunteering’ in the accepted definition has no equivalent in their language. So we refer to mahi aroha – “work performed out of love, sympathy or caring”, which is part of everyday cultural life within family/whanau, and marae communities. Nor should we forget that New Zealand’s 4.9% contribution to GDP by the community and volunteer sector is another constituent of the Gift Economy.
And then I think of Altruism, a virtue demonstrating a selfless concern for others, the opposite of Selfishness. It is a huge topic, involving religion, philosophy and pretty much all of the social sciences. Volunteering is a form of altruism, given the normative definition of free will and no financial reward. And wouldn’t you know it – research is showing a strong correlation between volunteering and personal health and well-being. Volunteering, as a Gift Relationship, is always a two-way stretch.
One more piece in the jigsaw of volunteering is Philanthropy, that munificent gesture that is going to keep an organisation solvent for another year. Etymologists will recognise the Greek origins of this word, meaning ‘love of humanity’. It’s another way to reinforce all the interpretations of volunteering I have highlighted. Philanthropy is about private initiatives for public good, operating outside government and business. You could say Philanthropy embraces all the elements above, writ large.
I learn from these reflections that “volunteering” is a fundamental element of being human, of belonging to a community of family and friends and to wider connections. Long may this premise remain without corruption.