Till recently, I used to think that volunteers were a tribe that gave more, engaged more and hence received more in life. I thought they were special, that it took a deserving NGO, a cause and a relatively structured and protective environment to curate a volunteer experience and then nurture it to factor an impact.

But, now after almost six years of being an observer in this compassionate world, just listening to all the wonderful volunteers I meet and having the privilege of being a citizen of a city that has “giving” embedded in the very fabric of it’s being, I have changed my mind.

Volunteering can be impromptu, emergent and have immense impact for a social cause in an unprotected environment. The impact could be abysmal or superlative, depending on the cause and, to some extent, on how it has been propagated.

Volunteering has two profiles today. The first remains safe, well-intentioned, structured with a proper strategy … for the long term – engaging for a cause at an NGO/ deserving institution with a vision that promises an eventual impact; education, elderly care, hunger, health, vocational training and people with special needs fall under this bracket. This could also include skilled volunteering for the short term with a focused task to be accomplished, like accounting, marketing communications or event management, to cite a few examples.

There is, however, another equally impactful side to volunteering that is gathering momentum fast, where volunteers engage  when a community faces emergency, a disaster or a social issue that needs support. Such causes are unexpected, cannot be curated and the response is instinctive and yet based on HOW you reach out to volunteer hearts. I call them “hearts” as the initial response is from that organ. You ache for what went wrong, want to be part of the change or just want to do something to reduce the suffering… hence, you volunteer. The intensity is a lot more than normal, you respond to genuine messages of need and you are willing to give more than usual.

This is when volunteering knows no boundaries of caste, creed or in today’s context. what you eat! What matters is that YOU CARE! You could be a student, a housewife, a professional, a senior corporate or even a retired elder. If you have the passion and have able hands to engage, then volunteering is your business as much as anyone else’s.

In Chennai, the past two years have seen tumultuous tides with fewer crests than deep troughs, but through this entire period, it was volunteers who stood their ground and commanded respect for their selfless contribution. Whether it was the Chennai floods of 2015, Cyclone Vardah of 2016, waterways restoration or other ensuing issues in 2017, we have witnessed an impressive presence of volunteers who have put aside superficial differences and come together for a cause that needs their combined presence. This is more than planned or structured volunteering, it is community-service-on-call! This is when volunteering is everyone’s business and they need to take care of it, together.

Neither the authorities nor the volunteers have advance notice, no credibly secure environment to work in or any idea of how long it will take to solve the issue. Yet, everyone comes together with an odd combination of compassion, faith and pragmatism. Somehow, this combination works and volunteers feel fulfilled when they see a real-time social impact on the community at the end of it.

A strong community is definitely everyone’s business. Social investment ensures that volunteer resources, expertise, creativity and passion in our community creates opportunities for everyone and this is the ultimate gift for a true volunteer.

I conclude by sharing a term I have borrowed from Google and believe in… VOLUNESIA – the moment when you forget that you are volunteering to help change lives because it’s changing yours.”

So, why shouldn’t volunteering be everyone’s business?

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