Using Technology for Healthy and Sustainable Volunteerism
NOTE: This is a guest post from Nilima Abrams, a documentary filmmaker, social entrepreneur and the founder of Chalo, Inc.
I often tell people, casually, that I don’t really like apps. They say, “but you’ve been working for two years to launch a mobile app business!” This is true, but it’s not that I think the technology is so cool; rather, apps are tools, which oftentimes end up creating more problems. How many of us have more time now? Sure, slicing flying fruit and flinging cartoon animals across the screen is fun, but these only provide fleeting distractions, until the next gimmick replaces them. Do we have shorter attention spans, and a jaded sense of excitement?
It’s not that technology is inherently a waste of time, or that people shouldn’t use it for entertainment, but the proportions are, in my opinion, off. Luckily, there are truly useful apps and programs that facilitate everything from “micro volunteering,” to helping people with autism communicate better. There’s no reason that technology cannot continue eroding the perceived dichotomy between doing good and having a good time, but to do so, we must offer consumers a range of technological tools to fit their needs.
Last summer Cabot Cheese Cooperative approached our social-venture startup about making an app to unite and recognize volunteers. They explained that the farm families who own their company give back to their communities, often un-recognized, and they wanted Americans to have a way to celebrate each other’s good work. To build a program that would be useful and fun, we first sought to distill key factors and barriers to successful volunteerism. The following two anecdotes help to illustrate these:
1) One weekend in college I told my friends that I was going to walk stray dogs at a local animal shelter — they shrugged. The kennel was in a depressed area and the dogs were sometimes scary. I felt lonely as I walked the lonely dogs, thinking that if I were bitten or fell I would be all alone. For some reason I kept going back to the kennel, probably out of a sense of pity, but I knew I would quit soon if something didn’t change.
One weekend, to my surprise, one of my friends asked to join. The next weekend another, and then another until we had too many to fit in my car. Suddenly it was the cool thing to do, and no one wanted to be left on campus. We cooed over the dogs and enjoyed the wooded trail, laughing and chatting. Then, one weekend, the fawn colored pit bull I was walking turned and lunged at me, bared teeth gnashed towards my stomach. I tried to back away but was still holding his leash and his teeth just missed me, biting instead the down vest I was wearing. I should have been scared, but rather than panicking and spurring the dog’s panic into a full-out attack, I managed to assert a “top dog” attitude, correct him and safely walk him back. Just knowing other people were providing support — mostly moral support — gave me the confidence to help avert disaster.
2) I volunteered as a “Big Sister” for Alice and her little brother. My time with the kids would inevitably lead to many, “I am gaining as much as they are” moments, and I often asked myself, “am I really doing anything for them? We just talk and hang out — how is this helping their future?” I would discount that I could really be important to them, just by being.
Each week, however, when I would ring the doorbell, the kids would literally scream with excitement. I would hear feet pattering frantically around the house and shouting that “Lalima [a cute approximation of my name] is here!!!” Though I felt embarrassed, I also liked being honored. Their vocal reassurances helped me to know that at least they were having fun, regardless of my over-analysis. I stopped trying to quantify my impact, and started to accept that all parties benefited from our time together. Thus, ironically, in feeling appreciated, I could get out of my own head, and bring back the focus to them.
From these and other experiences, we found the following points useful for healthy and sustainable volunteerism:
- It feels good to help others — this is well documented, but, like exercising, it is hard to get started, and people need tools to help them. The dog-walking friends had a great time once they started, but they needed peer support and access.
- Recognition feels good. The reason to help others is not to be admired, but everyone likes to be appreciated. Recognition from my Little Sister did not diminish the value of the service, but rather increased it.
- Social support is important. While enjoyable, volunteering can be very stressful, and doing it without support leads to burn-out. I would have quit walking dogs if not for my friends joining me.
- Tracking is important; because so much of volunteer activity is (for good reason) hard to quantify, many people feel discouraged. Keeping track of one’s efforts makes them “count.” Since I didn’t know exactly how I was helping Alice, I just focused on the weeks, months and years that I mentored her and felt pride in the consistency, and then in her growth and accomplishments.
- Self-interest and helping others aren’t mutually exclusive. I really did gain a lot from mentoring Alice — she made me laugh, feel purposeful in life, and maybe it even helped me get into college. Volunteering need not be self-sacrificing, and if tangible or intangible rewards help inspire you, why not?
We took these factors and translated them into an app. Reward Volunteers iPhone and web app will give people a tool to track volunteer efforts, gain recognition for themselves and their causes, feel supported by their social networks, and get rewards for themselves and their causes. Reward Volunteers users connect with Facebook, log volunteer hours, tag the organizations they serve, take photos and share with friends. The more they participate, the more chances they have to win prizes, from Cabot Cheese gift baskets to an Alaskan cruise, and Burton snowboards.
Furthermore, all activity helps volunteer organization win cash prizes. We want to make sharing about volunteering as cool as posting those Spring Break photos, and shift attitudes from duty and guilt to fun and inspiration. We want to Reward Volunteers and use technology to support them. Find out more about the app at RewardVolunteers.coop!
Photo by Peter Higgins