This blog is going to get us focussing on matters of the heart. Don’t worry – it’s not love of the romantic kind that I’m talking about, although there’s evidence out there that volunteering can help you find that special someone. What I want to reflect on is how volunteering helps us to have a bigger heart – to be kinder and more compassionate people in the world – and why that’s so important.
In a culture where narrow individualism is strongly valued and endorsed, it’s easy to forget what’s at the heart of volunteering, or that volunteering should, on some level, be about the heart. Compassion and kindness become easily eclipsed by values of competitiveness and self-advancement. Volunteer managers, are often caught in a web of competing demands, reducing budgets and a very real need to prove the value and worth of what we do in facts and figures. And I worry that sometimes, in this process, we risk losing sight of some of the warmer, fuzzier and really very precious outcomes of volunteering. As Sue Hine points out in her recent blog, “we are close to perceiving volunteering as an asset to be exploited, to be traded like any other commodity.”
Compassion is our caring, human response to suffering. It’s the feeling that arises when we see another being’s suffering and feel an authentic desire to help. Over the last 10 years there’s been a growing interest in the science, psychology and sociology of compassion. Stanford University has a Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, whilst Berkeley hosts the Greater Good Science Centre.
Researchers now think that both humans and animals have a compassionate instinct, which has evolved and adapted to aid our survival. So compassion is instinctive, but it can also be cultivated. As Stefan Einhorn points out:human beings learn by imitating, in fact, we’re more prone to imitate other people than to do what they say and therefore we need inspiration and examples, in order to learn how to be more kind and compassionate.
As volunteer managers, we create opportunities where people can get in touch with and express their compassion for others (we’re like compassion cultivators!). And these volunteering opportunities are incredibly valuable, not just because they enhance CVs or improve employability, but, as a growing body of research shows, because acting from a place of compassion can have a radically positive impact on people’s health, wellbeing and happiness. A recent study at the University of Michigan found that people who engaged in volunteering lived longer than their peers who didn’t volunteer, but only if their motivations for volunteering were altruistic rather than self-serving.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about what should be at the heart of volunteering. Here’s some questions to get us started:
- what aspect of volunteering do you consider particularly precious?
- do you think compassion matters? is it important whether people volunteer from the heart or from the head?
- As leaders of volunteers, what could you do to encourage compassion within your volunteering programme?
- Have you witnessed positive impacts amongst your volunteers when they act from a place of compassion?