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Spirit of Volunteering

Volunteering really is an international thing.  It happens all over the world, wherever there are people, some of those people want to make a difference and help others – they want to volunteer.

Over the years, from our small building in Leith Walk, we have made many friends from far away.  Sometimes the relationship is fleeting; part of an exploration, a sharing.  Like the 20 Chinese visitors (Social Workers with an interest in care of the elderly) who spent the day with us last week learning about what we do.  Or a few months ago a group from the Finish Association for Mental Health (interestingly the oldest voluntary mental health NGO in the world, founded in 1897) who came to learn about our Health and Wellbeing service.  We share ideas, we learn of differences of culture and methods of delivery.  We learn of common or divergent challenges, but regardless what binds us together is ‘volunteering’.

Sometimes these meetings are organised, planned in advance such as delegation from volunteer centres in Norway who visited earlier in the year to learn about the Scottish model for supporting volunteering at an infrastructure level.  At other times it’s just someone passing, usually while on holiday, that pops in to say hello.  Witness my having a great conversation recently with a couple on holiday from California, who worked for the volunteer centre in Sonoma County, when they popped in for a chat.  Or the fascinating discussion on the cultural differences, and similarities of volunteerism with a group from Saudi Arabia.  In what has been a very Scandinavian year we also had the pleasure of welcoming another, separate group from a Finish Church.

Occasionally these conversations start an on-going relationship.  From one such impromptu visit, our friend Mary Lynn Perry, who manages the volunteering programme for the City of Sacramento, has come back to see us, led one of our Evolve sessions and become a contributor to our best practice “wiki”…  And then there are our friends from Volunteer Otago in New Zealand – they first visited us 20 odd years ago and we are still in touch.

Whether in New Zealand, Finland, Norway, China, the US or Saudi Arabia there is nothing really complicated about it.  When we work together, when we give our time for others things are better.  It’s one of the most human things we can do.  Volunteering is just a convenient word that we use to describe what we do naturally.  And “volunteering” isn’t the only way of describing it.  One of our volunteers Dave Wylie wrote this fascinating article on the Spirit of Volunteering in different cultures across the world.

The Wider Spirit of Volunteering by Dave Wylie

The word ‘volunteer’ is open to interpretation and can be applied to many human activities.  One could volunteer to fight in a war, or assist in a disaster or do what I do which is to offer my meagre talents to an ‘official’ agency of volunteering such as Volunteer Edinburgh where I help staff the Phoneline to find activities and assistance for the elderly and others.

It used to be the case in this country back in Victorian times and beyond that volunteers were local worthies motivated toward assisting the poor and disadvantaged in society through charities and religious organisations. These organisations still exist with such as The Women’s Institute.

We live in a different world and these days people from all backgrounds take part in volunteering whether this be ‘formal’ through agencies like VE, or ‘informal’ as in offering your help to a neighbour in need or helping with a local activity.

The word ‘volunteer’ goes through the Middle French ‘voluntaire’ and has its root in the Latin ‘voluntarium’ which simply means ‘willing’.  So far, so mundane, you may think, but there are and have been cultures and communities in the world who know no such word or perhaps have different words to denote what we know as the concept of ‘volunteering’.

In Maori culture for example; “Mahi Ahora is defined as work performed out of love, sympathy and caring, rather than for financial or personal reward.  The feeling that each person in the community has a duty of care, and that it is not an obligation”

This philosophy it would appear is borne out of a notion of pure altruism though I wonder if such a thing truly exists.  It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “It is one of the most beautiful compensations of life that no man (sic) can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.”

It is perhaps a basic human instinct to want to help others but at the same time we are gaining some reward whether this be an emotional satisfaction or having learned something ourselves through the process.

The notion of ‘Ayni’ shared among the indigenous, Highland population of the Quechua in Peru is about ‘reciprocity’ and ‘balance’ not just between people but shared with nature itself.  Giving and helping others in need creates ‘harmony’ but it is not completely altruistic, there is a ‘mutualism’ involved.  I may need assistance today, but tomorrow it could be you.  This brings to mind the community in St Kilda off the coast of Scotland who survived for many centuries due to this idea of ‘reciprocity’.  A hard, rugged lifestyle bred this necessity for a communal way of living.  And perhaps it is within such communities where life is hard-pressed and urgent that we will find such reciprocal philosophies and practices.

Gotong- royong in Javanese culture sets more primacy in voluntary contribution to the common good than it does on material wealth.  Bayanihan in Philippine culture reflects the spirit of community and mutual aid.  This is seen in practice by literally helping families move house by lifting the entire structure with the aid of bamboo poles and re-locating it as desired.

Closer to home in Ireland there exists the word Meitheal which means ‘work team’.  This is a neighbourly philosophy which derives from rural life and the urgent need to harvest crops.  In poor times, maybe a wife had lost her husband, the farming community would come together to help.  In more modern times, the concept can be used to include help with decorating a house or just any excuse to get together and share.  In this way friendships grow and groups form and these groups may take the idea further and offer help to local community groups or elderly folk.  Communality breeds communality.

Ubuntu among the Nguni Buntu people of Southern Africa has been influential on a national scale as a human ethic and has been seen as key to the formulation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which aimed to provide a peaceful transition from Apartheid to the current system of government. It can simply be translated as ‘humanity towards others’ which is also applied at a more local, community level. I can also be translated as ‘I am because we are’.  Again, this ‘socialisation’ and primacy of community over the individualism is central to agrarian peoples needful of assistance perhaps at harvest time.  Compare this with the more urban and individualistic ‘there is no such thing as society’ as espoused by a British Conservative government in the 1980s which promoted entrepreneurship and a move away from the collective philosophy of previous governments.

The Malagasy culture of Madagascar have a word Fihavanana which is a world-view that can be summed up with the phrase ‘the relationship is more important than the money’.  It is also similar to the popular American phrase ‘pay it forward’ as in a good deed is rewarded.  This is a stark contrast to another saying ‘a good deed never goes unpunished’ which has a far more negative connotation.

The Finnish word talkoot indicates a community coming together to undertake a task whether this be helping repair a neighbours damaged roof or helping with removal.  Similar to Meitheal this can easily just be a worthy excuse to socialise and bond.  A similar concept may be found in rural parts of the USA particularly among Amish communities which have long practised Barn Raising.  The assembling of barns requires a lot of labour so the wider community gets involved in helping with this very necessary task.

In researching this area of human activity it has been heartening to realise the extent of good intentions in the world.  People, it seems, have an instinct and desire to give of themselves freely when left to do so of their own volition.  Perhaps this instinct is stronger in times of tragedy and dire need but it also shows itself as part of ordinary community life and friendship.

As Ubuntu insists ‘a person is a person through other people’ or as John Donne had it ‘No man is an island entire of itself’.  To volunteer is to promote human warmth and kinship and the reward is to both sides of the human equation.