Age of Volunteerism: Prospects and Problems

By Bong Chansambath

© International Society for Performance Improvement/2016

Since much of the developments around the world today are done by volunteers, their roles are becoming more and more prominent each day. Volunteers play big parts in changing societies and the world around us. By involving in community projects, volunteers expose themselves to both opportunities and challenges. That being said, there are also some setbacks in which volunteer people face. What is volunteering? Volunteering, as defined by the United Nations General Assembly in 2002, refers to “wide range of activities undertaken of free will, for the general public good and where monetary reward is not the principal motivating factor.” From building schools in rural area to hosting a charity concert to raise funds for an orphanage or organization, organizing an educational workshop for high school students to conducting experience-sharing sessions with rural farmers on how to efficiently increase their crop yields, volunteering takes place in various forms and means.

It has been nearly five decades since the genocidal Khmer Rouge was brought to its knees. From a war-stricken and least developed country, Cambodia has rapidly transformed itself to one of the fastest growing economies in the world over the past decade, ranking sixth in the latest World Bank’s report. Poverty rates have dropped almost threefold from 47.8% in 2007 to 13.5% in 2014. The technological boom, rise of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs), increasing number of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and reformed education sector have treated the rising young population as both opportunities and challenges, most of which are concerned with employment and quality education. That being said, young Cambodians today are also taking on new learning experience through volunteer activities.

The Good Side

Why is volunteering important for Cambodian youngsters? First and foremost, it allows them to take on new challenges and absorb new learning experiences. Through volunteer projects and events, young Cambodian students are able to foster both their hard and soft skills, many of which they cannot learn in school. These include project planning and management skills, research and professional writing, interpersonal communication and presentation skills to name a few.

Second, volunteering provides space for them to make new friends and build networks with peers. I asked two of my friends for their perspectives on these points.

Touch Likhedy, an 18-years-old student at the Institute of Foreign Language, who recently volunteered in one project expressed that “Throughout the whole project, I learnt how to deal with various kinds of people. I learnt to work in a team. Most of all, knowing people [from the event] was the best thing.”

My other friend, Oeng Hongly, a 12th grader in Phnom Penh who was also a volunteer an event called “Major and Career Fair 2017” less than two months ago, underscored the benefits volunteering provides him. I got to see a whole new world outside the walls of high school and I learnt skills that I have never known I would need”, said this energetic high schooler.

Third and most importantly, Cambodian adults, including myself, tend to believe that doing non-paid jobs helps them to build their professional credibility since job recruiters today usually look for social and volunteer activities when hiring new employees. According to Volunteering as a Pathway to Employment Report published in 2013 by the U.S Department of Health and Human Services, young adults who have volunteer experiences have 27% higher chance of getting employed than those who do not.

Does this mean that young folks should be involved in as many volunteer projects as possible to build their credibility? Are students whose CVs are flooded with twenty lines of volunteer experiences better equipped and more successful in finding job than those whose bio features only short description of social activities? I am not trying to refute the fact that volunteering helps young people strive towards self-development personally, academically or professionally. However, I want to underline that the correlation between volunteering and a successful career needs further illustration and, to an extent, volunteerism also lead to negative effects when one overwhelmingly involves in at once.

The Not-So-Good Sides

Doing many volunteer jobs at once can distract students from focusing on their academic performance. Since some social projects require volunteers to commit a significant amount of time to join meetings or even travel to different places, students are often left with less ability to concentrate on their school assignments, exams or presentations. As a result, their in-class performance may begin to drop. Furthermore, it could potentially create negative reflection of a volunteer, if one were not able to manage time effectively because they jumped from one project to another. This is even more problematic for working students.

Secondly, volunteering without clear objectives does not lead to much good. Since every social initiative has a different purpose, one should ask what skills or experiences he/she wants to gain from that particular project. For instance, I voluntarily work in a public seminar on urban planning because I want to learn more on how the government can cope with rapid urban growth. On the other hand, it would be less beneficial for me to be in the abovementioned seminar if I do not in any way attempt to learn about urbanization. Some might rebuke that it should be that necessary for one to have an interest related to project they volunteer in. There are other skills to learn too. This sounds fair enough, right? However, I still firmly believe that volunteering with clear objectives would pave way for students to learn more quickly and efficiently than merely working for the sake of filling in their CV.

The last disadvantage of volunteerism is that it takes away personal time and can put volunteers in a distressed situation. Time constraint, physical tiredness, conflicts among team members and lack of incentives put volunteers in stress.

How To Volunteer Effectively?

In order to take advantage of volunteer jobs, I suggest two simple recommendations, which, I think, would make your volunteer experience a more exciting and beneficial factor that boosts your self-development in one way or another. First, we should not involve ourselves in more than one project at a time. This would spare us attention to focus on school works and pending assignments, all of which are having immediate effects on our future. In addition, doing one social project at a time allows us to take some time off from the already heavy burdens we have at school or works to do other activities that could also help us learn and grow personally, including reading, playing sports, eating our favorite foods or even sleeping. Second and last, we should set clear objectives before we volunteer for any project. Doing this would help us explore and take advantage of available resources and learning opportunities to continue to build up on our existing understanding and abilities. As a result, volunteering should be a lot more exciting and worth trying.

Views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of UNICEF.

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