Building Community Resilience Through Traveling Volunteers

Last week I virtually attended the International Association for Volunteer Effort (IAVE)’s Building Resilience Through Volunteering During COVID 19 presentation given by Benjamin Lough, PhD. In his presentation Dr. Lough suggested there are 5 key characteristics of a resilient community that can be applied to the activity of volunteering itself: self organisation, connectivity, social cohesion, diversification and redundancy, and feedback and learning. I’d like to go one step further and extend his presentation by applying some elements of his talk to the topic of traveling volunteers. These unique volunteers can provide a value-add service to a community they are visiting by participating in volunteering activities. But now more than ever, they can also be key players in building community resilience as we emerge from this global pandemic.

First, what does resilience mean?

According to Harvard Business Review, resilience means “the ability to recover from setbacks, adapt well to change, and keep going in the face of adversity.” It should be understood, that people can be resilient both at the individual and group level. Many aspects help a person become resilient, such as, having a supportive network of friends/family, a strong belief system, or a personality type that lends itself well when the going gets tough. While these insights are helpful for individuals to understand, how (or does it) change at the group or community level?

In other words, what factors help a community become resilient?

I believe factors of community resiliency are based on well-respected leadership. If the community is lead by a team of trustworthy organised people, who are solid communicators providing factual information to a group of diverse of individuals living in that community who feel appreciated, then the community has a firm foundation to build upon if adversity comes their way. If on the other hand, community members do not trust their leaders to have their best interests in mind and they experience spotty non-factual information communicated to them when the going is good, it is hard to imagine how this community can become resilient during/after a crisis is over.

How can traveling volunteers contribute to community resiliency?

By expanding the resource base to tackle a community problem. A resilient-thinking community leadership team looks for innovative ways to help their community bounce back from a crisis if/when it occurs. In reference back to Dr. Lough’s 5 key characteristics of resilient communities, as applied to the activity of volunteering, we can see that diversification is one key characteristic of a resilient community. When a traveling volunteer comes into a community, they bring with them a diverse perspective (and another set of hands!) to add to the mix of people who work together on a local volunteer project. Leadership who embrace the idea of having traveling volunteers part of their community resiliency plan, will find that these new people will not only add to their resource base when a crisis is at hand, but long after it is over.

I. We.

Just 7 months ago we launched the #iamthiscommunity campaign. Many people responded (and continue to respond) to this challenge by posting their local/national volunteering experiences, showcasing community pictures they’ve taken, or (as nonprofit leadership) sharing hoped-for-participation-in volunteering opportunities for the traveler. While we recognise the “iamthiscommunity” challenge tends to focus on individual action, as a business/community member, we believe the individual “I” cannot be disassociated from the collective “we” purpose that drives each volunteer.

How many of you have heard the expression “there is no I in team?” This expression, typically used within the workplace and in sporting activities, means no individual is more important than the collective skills/efforts of the group. While elements of this can be debated and we can understand the reasons for this, in terms of our current global health crisis for example, never is it more important than now to come together as a group to fight COVID-19. Each individual (the I) has been asked to sacrifice many parts of their lives to keep us all safe as we ride this out together.

But how does this virus discussion relate to the topic of the USA/Canadian traveling volunteer and the #iamthiscommunity challenge? Simple. Although we encourage each individual volunteer to give of their time and talents to worthy causes as they travel across these nations, and identify as an #iamthiscommunity member due to the volunteering experience they have in each place, we believe these “I” volunteers make a sustainable difference to these communities because of the “we” nature of the volunteer heart. We believe volunteers are the kind of people who typically focus on others – they want to make an impact on communities they serve (that may not necessarily include themselves).

Given each individual volunteer heart primarily looks at how their actions will contribute to the greater community good, the #iamthiscommunity term may be considered as having the “we” factor embedded in it. Many I-am-this-community members make a collective “we” impact in the communities they serve. Knowing this, we are very proud to be associated with the giving and care volunteers who collectively give back to the communities they live and travel within. Thank you “I’s” for coming together as “we” to make our world a safer and better place.