Volunteering and social action: what, how and where

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What does it mean to be a volunteer? According to the definition that Caritas puts forward, it is someone who “in a continuous, disinterested and responsible way” devotes part of his or her time to activities in favour of others or of collective social interests, with projects aiming to “eradicate or modify” the causes of need or social marginalization. But the scope of this activity, which was born in the early twentieth century, goes far beyond helping others. It may be that the first beneficiary ends up being yourself.

Volunteering brings great benefits to both the community and the individual. Committing to an activity with others strengthens ties with the community and broadens support networks by connecting with people who share interests, concerns or sensitivities with you, and encourages you to practice and develop your social skills. It activates the learning, allowing you to know more about that activity on which you are working. The volunteer gains new perspectives on things and gets to know himself better.

According to the document Benefits of being and having volunteers of the Fundación Antena 3, signed by Fernando Chacón Fuertes, being a volunteer enhances the “defence of myself” by helping you to forget and work on personal problems. It also makes you feel important, necessary and better with yourself, raising your self-esteem. In short, from a personal point of view, volunteering is beneficial because it makes us feel better.

Volunteering also provides health benefits. According to Britain’s “General Health Questionnaire,” which measures mental health and well-being (in which the lowest scores are considered the healthiest) volunteers scored an average of 10.7, while non-volunteers got 11.4. Another study, from the American Psychological Association, showed that adults over 50 who do this kind of work are less likely to develop blood pressure and enjoy greater well-being.

If you want to benefit from the advantages of being a volunteer, here are a few ideas to inspire you:

According to the Hazloposible Foundation, which since 1999 has developed projects to channel the capacities, talent and illusion of thousands of people towards NGOs that need collaboration to support their causes, the five most demanded professions are:

  • Psychologists. They develop their career in specialized centres of psychological attention to families, children or adolescents, or work in direct care through their own centres.
  • Educators and pedagogues. They occupy positions of direct attention in the area of formal and non-formal education, and education for development.
  • Project managers. In addition to administrative tasks, they aim to find, propose and justify subsidies and grants that give sustainability to NGOs.
  • Social workers. Professionals dedicated to direct social care for families, children and the young, or groups that require specialised care for different reasons.
  • Company/NGO directors. People are sought who are proactive, dynamic, flexible, highly skilled, and capable of facing up to complicated situations.

In addition, NGOs and companies not only seek such technical or theoretical profiles. There are thousands of activities in which anyone who wants to help can participate. A good sample of issues and countries in which to exercise as volunteers is found on the volunteersinternacionales.org website. For example, we find numerous initiatives related to the empowerment of women in Argentina, Cambodia, Costa Rica and Ecuador; and others on animals and wildlife in Brazil, Mexico and South Africa.

In Spain, the Hacesfalta.org website brings users into contact with no few curious and necessary activities, such as “culture classrooms” in prisons, prevention of gender violence and ‘LGTBIfobia’  among the young, or spending a Christmas in Morocco helping people with a vulnerable social status.

Volunteers are also needed to make people laugh. Victor Hugo rightly said that “laughter is the sun that drives the winter out of the human face” and, clearing black clouds, we find associations like Clowns without Borders, which, through the “recruitment of artists”, aims to improve the emotional state of children suffering from the consequences of armed conflicts, wars or natural catastrophes, through shows performed by volunteer professional clowns.

Strikingly modern volunteers

America recently has suffered two serious natural catastrophes: the earthquake in Mexico and Hurricane Maria. Spontaneously, thousands of citizens went out to help those who were left with nothing. Afterwards, volunteering organised itself:

  • Volunteers Mexico, which asks for “solidarity and support” for what happened. “If you are from another city, ideally you should support your place by donating at the collection centres or the bank accounts set up for this. Don’t travel to other places if no hands are requested from outside,” they ask.
  • The website of the Puerto Rico Volunteer Development Centre, which is encouraging citizens to help in shelters.
  • The website of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which also encourages citizens to help to mitigate the damage caused by Hurricane Maria in three ways: donating time and money, donating goods and volunteering.

What is online volunteering?

Someone may say that they would like to volunteer, but do not have enough time. Organisations, including the UN and Red Cross, have found the solution: applying new technologies and using online volunteering. This allows citizens to collaborate with a great variety of tasks like cyber actions, advice, computer science, design, etc.

Thus, specialised webs appears dedicated to this, such as ICT Volunteering, of the BT Foundation, which uses new technologies as a vehicle to help the less socially favoured sectors.

Corporate volunteering

Far from being reflected in outdated topics, companies are, more than ever, aware that they have a role in society, each in its own sector, with its dimension, its features and its impact. Through corporate volunteering, they offer their employees the chance to help build a more just, supportive and sustainable world.

For the workers, corporate volunteering brings improvements in skills for leadership, communication and teamwork or emotional intelligence (according to a study by ESADE, 80% of executives who have experienced a volunteer experience in the third world shows this).

Corporate volunteering also brings advantages to the company: it improves the work environment, improves its public image and can contribute to reinforcing brand loyalty. It also offers new channels of communication and the sense of pride and belonging grows.

One example is the Somos Voluntarios Santander programme of the Banco Santander. Created in 2011, this manages to involve its human capital in the development of local activities with the aim of improving the well-being of groups at risk of exclusion. Banco Santander’s volunteerism is distributed throughout the world: in the USA there are 3,043 employees involved in social initiatives; in Latin America, 43,878; in the United Kingdom, 6,778, and in continental Europe, 10,166. The more than 60,000 employees who contribute to this type of act have helped a total of 259,866 people.

As the facts show, the work of Somos Voluntarios Santander has been a huge success recognised by the entire world. In this sense, the social work has been awarded with the European Top Employer 2017 certification, which awards excellence in the management of people in organisations, having achieved recognition in Poland, United Kingdom, Spain, Belgium, Holland and Germany.

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