Volunteering or the chain of weaknesses with an intermediary

For me, volunteering has become a demonetized notion and activity, for the most part. It will become clear later why I say this. I know I started with the end and, as usual, I make statements that can give rise to controversy, but wanting to be helpful, I repeat some tips for the benefit of both organizers and sponsors; you will see why below:

(1) Run impactful projects that solve real problems, avoid those that just put a “band-aid on a wound,”
(2) Exclude the presence of politicians and the state from these activities,
(3) Real and direct involvement of the potentially interested community so that most of the volunteers come from here,
(4) Establishing the evaluation criteria of the project, before and after,
(5) Contractual establishment of all responsibilities, benefits, and attributions of all interested parties: organization, sponsors, volunteers, community,
(6) Strict ante portas evaluation of the benefits of the project,
(7) Postpartum evaluation of short, medium, and long-term results,
(8) A formula for compensating the time and effort of “volunteers,” those who do not belong to the community to which the project is addressed,
(9) Strict control of the funds spent, down to the comma, each invoice,
(10) The direct costs of the project must be predominant in the total budget, a minimum of 60%, the rest being its management costs and the profit of the organizer,
(11) Transparent communication of benefits, results, problems, and the financial part,
(12) Exaggerated PR does more harm without a basis for real achievements.

Let’s look at and analyze the phenomenon of volunteering through the lens of communication (and branding) and start with remembering and analyzing some essential aspects: volunteer activities, who volunteers, who pays, who earns, and who benefits. I must say at the outset that for a good period of my life, I participated directly in such activities or donated money or goods, either as raw labor or as an organizer or designer, sometimes with my entire design agency.

However, where does the idea come from that it is good and pleasant for us to give our effort to society in this way? My opinion is that somewhere along the way, with the birth of industrial society, the community spirit was lost over time, the small and close-knit communities being destroyed and gradually replaced by the current, atomized society, at most familial but increasingly singular, unicellular. In small communities, everyone helped each other make a living, whether building a house for the newlyweds, gathering the harvest, or caring for older people or children. The notion of volunteering existed somewhat close to today among the Catholic missionaries who went overseas in the name of God, where they established orphanages or provided medical aid to the people they wanted to convert. Nowadays, the place of the Catholic Church – because the Orthodox Church has never been missionary – has been taken by corporations that, under the slogan of involvement in the community, ensure an image benefit at low costs. There would be a lot to write and explain about the role of corporations in society. Still, I will limit myself to the statement that they, in the context of volunteering, not only play a pre-arranged game but are much stronger than the referee, i.e., states, governments, and society. Basically, they make the rules, appoint the referee, fund the teams, and then play this game with a predetermined outcome, and the authorities humbly bury their heads between their shoulders. In short, no one can contradict the axiom that any corporation only pursues profit, and the way to get there most of the time doesn’t matter anymore.

The main volunteering activities that everyone knows because they are the most common, popularized, and with the broadest audience and participation are tree planting, garbage collection, fundraising for various social causes, a helping hand in various activities and sports competitions such as marathons, mountain biking, the marking of tourist routes, the revitalization of an old railroad route and others. They are the most popular and most accessible to communicate because they require the least effort on the part of both the organizer and the volunteer for a short period, with minimal involvement – such as a donation of money or goods or a few days of work “sacrificed” to the cause respectively – without involvement or the need for particular expertise. Basically, they make the rules, appoint the referee, fund the teams, and then play this game with a predetermined outcome, and the authorities humbly bury their heads between their shoulders. In short, no one can contradict the axiom that any corporation only pursues profit, and the way to get there most of the time doesn’t matter anymore.

Practically, it takes a click on the phone to register on Facebook for the respective activity, to pay an amount from the card as a donation, or to participate as an unskilled workforce. In total opposition, I put the volunteering of doctors, those physically and technically trained who participate in Salvamont’s actions, and other such persons who intervene medically or in an emergency according to specific specializations and skills to save lives, calamities, to medical analysis and investigations carried out free of charge in the field for the benefit of some isolated communities, etc. I am full of admiration for the doctors who voluntarily go to Africa to treat the communities there dentally or epidemiologically – this is just one example; there are others of the exact nature.

The rest of the activities are nothing more than the fulfillment of powers and obligations of the authorities that they do not exercise, such as afforestation or garbage cleaning, guarding the public property and the environment, caring for older people or children without supporters, or free filling of a force of paid work at activities such as sports competitions or marathons, for the benefit of the organizer. Let’s not forget that all the organizers of such activities are sponsored financially or in kind by different companies and even by the authorities. For compliance, the decisions of local or county councils where the allocation of sums for various non-profit organizations are voted on can be consulted.

Thus, by using volunteers, the organizer, usually an association or a non-profit foundation, secures a share of the benefit. Basically, the sponsors mostly pay a share of the costs that must be supplemented with voluntary work so that the non-profit organization does not break even. Therefore, the final and absolute beneficiary is the sponsor, who, with a modest amount of investment, ensures its visibility in the direction of the target groups it is interested in. It should be noted that the costs would be much higher if sponsors had to pay for actual advertising in traditional media and online to reach their respective target groups with their commercial messages.

A very interesting feature of these activities is the rush of the organizers to have with them – publicly, of course – various “influential” characters with visibility: bloggers, trainers, influencers, various motivational gurus, news presenters, singers, music bands, actors, etc., who rally for free (or not!) to these “causes” – these “volunteers” get VIP treatment, though. Everyone wins something, and the public figures get a bit of significance over their job as clowns – I was also one of them – the sponsor is happy that he thus gains better visibility to the public. The organizer rubs his hands with joy because, thanks to them, he managed to tickle a few feathers and secure some income, and the volunteers are thrilled to take pictures with the stars. Until the end, everyone plays their role correctly, and the snoring or motivational speeches, photos, and videos explode on the small screen and social networks.

Another category of people involved in these activities are state representatives, from mayors to ministers; we find all possible and impossible officials. They participate either based on their personal interests or based on the visibility of the event, whether celebrities are participating or not, based on the participation of other officials, and, of course, based on the importance of the sponsor. The paradox is that if a minister of the environment participates in the greening of a water course or in afforestation, that person believes that he supports such “laudable” initiatives with the weight of his position and institution: ecology, clean environment, etc. I have a different opinion, that is, on the contrary, he publicly demonstrates that he personally, his position, and the institution he leads are irrelevant and incapable of ensuring a clean environment. He relies on the effort and pocket of the honest citizen – again, the volunteer, to solve these negative aspects.

Let’s go back to the activities of afforestation or garbage collection carried out by different organizations, two examples that seem blatant to me. First of all, the need is undoubtedly there. The problem is that there is not enough afforestation to match the deforestation, and here, it is entirely the “merit” of the state that should allocate resources for such a thing. In the case of garbage, the “merit” belongs to the state – which does not clean or provide collection or storage facilities – and to the community that collects the garbage, which does not make the slightest effort to keep its locality clean. With a big heart, I, the volunteer from Rădăuți, go to Valea Ariesului to exterminate what the entire massif of the Apuseni is throwing away. To top it all off, you don’t see a local foot in such actions. The same happens in forests. Very often, we observe the situation where a garbage clean-up action, for example, from a national pact, is done by a non-profit organization in collaboration with the regulatory or supervisory authority or the one that manages the respective national park. In my interpretation, those authorities cannot fulfill the purpose for which they exist, to allocate effort, planning, and budgets to solve the problems in their job description.

In summary, I, the taxpayer, voluntarily clean up the garbage resulting from the irresponsibility of the respective authorities and communities, and the organizer, usually sponsored by a large company, makes a profit from this so-called voluntary activity for the benefit of the community, that reckless community led by such a lousy administration. Likewise, in the case of afforestation, the state and a few deforesters profit from the cut wood, so the volunteers come to afforest for free and make an image profit for the sponsor and financially for the organizer. In addition, it should be said that all these activities have resulted in zero or almost zero because, in a few months, the garbage is in its place; thanks to the local communities and the letting authorities, the forests are still being cleared, and the forests have a degree of bush catch significantly reduced because they work with non-specialist planting volunteers.

The practices of non-profit organizations to use sponsorships and donations should also be mentioned. I do not generalize, but I have seen and heard far too often specific “gray” or “black” practices. Regarding profits, large organizations, those that have already “taken root” and have public visibility, can afford costs of 10-20 percent of the amount received as sponsorship without anyone asking them to account. A very profitable activity, isn’t it!? Sometimes, it is much more profitable than an actual economic activity involving employees, production, services, distribution, marketing, etc.

I also lived in communism until I was 18 years old and experienced voluntary work in the form of a compulsory collection of bottles and jars, chestnuts from parks, medicinal plants, harvests, papers, and cardboard. And then, and now, voluntary activities were and are nothing more than a replacement for the duties of the authorities who do not do their job or of the uncaring communities. Summa summarum, the costs are outsourced from the authorities and corporations to the taxpayer through the “benevolent” non-profit organizations.

I also start from the idea that any work should be rewarded, a lesson I received at a young age from a man who marked my life. In my humble opinion, especially if I carry out an activity for the benefit of the community, it is not necessary to save the state budget, corporations, or non-profit organizations. Yes, maybe my psychological profile urges me to help my neighbor, and thus I feel more spiritually fulfilled, but it is not necessary to pay for everything myself.

So far, I have only made, in fact, a lengthy plea for volunteerism and the real involvement of the direct beneficiary community and corporations in this kind of activity. I’m still trying to see if there’s any good left in all this hustle and bustle of doing good. I keep thinking about what to do and can’t think of a more sophisticated idea. However, I have a few simple and fixed ideas: communities swimming in garbage must be left to suffocate in their misery, deforested mountains looming over towns must be allowed to do their job, and volunteers must no longer work for free. I agree many of us need a higher and less petty meaning in life, which is why we are psychologically predisposed to volunteer to help where needed. It’s part of our definition of human; it’s human for most of us to jump in to help. That’s why I believe we can give this help discriminatingly and free of charge only to those who prove they want to do something and ask for help. I don’t see why an organization from Constanța has to rescue the Apuseni if the authorities and communities there do not show the slightest sign that they would like to organize to improve their situation. Maybe they don’t have the resources, some will say. So, how do non-profit organizations manage to raise money and resources? So it is possible. The lack of resources at the community level is an excuse for non-involvement and incompetence.