(The following is an abridged version of what I read at a recent forum on volunteerism organized by the UP Kalipunan ng mga Mag-aaral sa Sosyolohiya)

The early history of volunteerism bears the mark of institutional interests operating behind the selflessness of the individual volunteer.

As long as this was the case, volunteers were viewed with suspicion. The idealism that volunteerism tapped usually vanished with the volunteer’s realization of the sponsoring institution’s hidden agenda.

Many volunteer groups began as adjuncts of church, government, and business corporations.  But soon, they took a life of their own and gradually weaned themselves from their originating mother institutions.

If one examines the rules by which today’s non-government organizations or NGOs seek to govern themselves, one cannot fail to notice how most of these still revolve around the issue of autonomy – an indication that the process of differentiation from institutional sponsors is far from complete. It is almost axiomatic for voluntary organizations to diversify their funding sources as soon as they can. This is the only way they can draw their own programs, and avoid being captive to externally-generated agendas.  Volunteer organizations stay away, for the same reason, from politicians and ideological groups. The one single vision to which they commit themselves is community empowerment, the strengthening of the people’s own autonomy, and the establishment of conditions for enduring community self-reliance.

This vision translates to a readiness to withdraw at the right time, and a studious avoidance of any attempt to cultivate a new form of clientalism and dependence.  Volunteer groups avoid styling themselves as the new patrons, constantly reminding their members that volunteerism is not about the volunteer but about the community being served.

This is not always easy to carry out.  The same process that provides volunteers with the psychic rewards that keep them going also entices them to prolong the community’s dependence on their presence.

This brings up the ethical code that distinguishes volunteer work from other spheres of human activity like religion, politics, or business. Volunteer work is not merely unpaid or uncompensated service, for that only distinguishes it from an economic transaction.  In its purest form, volunteer work is also not motivated by any wish for religious conversion or political recruitment into a religion, party, or cause. The true volunteer is a self-directing and self-sufficient person.  Her cup overflows – this alone is what accounts for her generosity.  Her volunteerism is not part of a strategy of self-realization. For she is not in search of personal meaning; she is overflowing with meaning.

In the real world, however, the voluntary sector has to work with a variety of individuals who bring with them all kinds of unrecognized personal motives and needs.  This often results in easy burn-out, and the relatively short duration of passionate work.  Many dedicated volunteers end up withdrawing from volunteerism in order to pursue more conventional lives, or they graduate to fulltime religious or revolutionary careers.  This basic instability is what prevents the volunteer sector from fully institutionalizing itself.  It is almost as if every attempt to rationally organize itself becomes a reason for its decline.  This seems to be the fate of many NGOs that started as small bands of idealistic volunteers and became big and bureaucratized.

There is virtue in smallness, but it too has its attendant problems. How do you extend your reach to more communities if you remain small?  How do you shape the spirit of volunteerism into something truly useful if there is no sustained recruitment and training of volunteers?  The lesson this seems to teach is not so much the shirking of all attempts at professionalization, but the resolute avoidance of being ensnared by centralization, bureaucratization, and organizational survival for its own sake.

In an earlier time, it was thought that the modern nation-state would make volunteerism superfluous.  Today everyone assumes that what the State cannot do is better left to the market.  Yet millions of poor people fall through the cracks of government and the market. Volunteer work takes up the cudgels for them.  Sometimes volunteers realize that their work only results in the perpetuation of unequal structures, because, instead of allowing these unjust structures to collapse beneath the weight of the problems they spawn, volunteerism only serves to blunt the pain of the victims.

It is a paradox that erodes passion and commitment, but which no voluntary organization can resolve for anyone. Every volunteer will just have to figure it out for herself.

In any event, it will not take very long before people begin to realize that volunteer work is not enough, that it cannot take the place of concrete social reform.  But the times seem hostile to deep reform. So many unarmed activists have been arbitrarily jailed or summarily killed. It is hard to imagine what may happen when all avenues to social reform are blocked.  Will young people continue to take up with fervor the gentle cause of volunteerism?  Or will they offer themselves one more time to the other face of volunteerism – revolutionary idealism?  I refer, of course, only to those who have not yet given up.


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