Working in the area of social justice, I am involved in many community groups that are aimed at delivering a particular message with the goal of engaging people in their cause. As community workers, we spend a lot of time discussing our strategy to engage people to raise awareness in order to create social change. We strategize, brainstorm, research best practices, plan, and work hard to implement our ideas to get people on board.
A few weeks ago, I was at a community table, working to actively strategize our approach to our work and our public engagement. We were all working hard to toss out many ideas based on the issue we were working for, hoping something would stick. It was a hard process, as most strategy meetings are. After some time, someone boldly asked the question to our group: “Do people actually care?”
Social justice advocates, volunteers, and non-profit staff working towards a specific cause have a tough job. We stand outside stores asking people for donations. We create web and social media content aimed at getting people to “click to care”. We gently intrude into people’s sense of altruism through our approaches, all because our causes rely on awareness, donorship, lobbying or investment to move the needle towards change, cures, or a general societal improvement.
On many levels, its very easy to see that as a society, we care. Volunteer Canada, a national body dedicated to promoting volunteerism and giving in Canada, reported in 2013 that Canadians volunteered close to 2 billion hours, however, the number of Canadians volunteering declined from 13.3 million in 2010 to 12.7 million in 2013. Analysis suggests that the decline in the number of Canadians volunteering could be due to a lack of focus in engagement efforts. In terms of donorship, the donor rate is higher than the volunteer rate, for reasons that can be understood, yet trends show a decline in donorship. The only saving grace is that while there are fewer Canadians donating their money to causes, donation amounts followed an opposite direction, with donors making larger financial commitments.
I care because social justice and dedication to community work is in my blood. Having two very engaged parents, I learned at a young age the importance of using one’s talents and resources for the benefit of society. Thus, I started to pursue working within areas in which I could make a difference. When I gained the professional opportunity to work towards MANY areas where I could make a difference through a general community engagement program, I wanted to do EVERYTHING. Change the world and contribute to every single social issue that I came across. I worked hard to do so. I put in volunteer hours. Researched all the social issues I could. Donated as much money that I had available. Said yes to every single ask for help, and thought that if I said no, that would mean that I didn’t care about a particular issue. I pulled this off OK for a while but I soon began to spread myself too thin – I came short on commitments, began to resent those things I had became so invested in, and generally disengaged due to engagement overload.
I was given the opportunity to make a professional change that allowed me to hone in on one focus area, which has allowed me to release myself of the guilt that I wasn’t making a difference in every single area of social justice, and replace that guilt with the satisfaction that my focus allowed me to actually do work that had the possibility of moving the needle towards change.
Canadians are inundated with requests to care. Online advertisements, door solicitations, store-front donation representatives, check out fundraising campaigns, school fundraisers, church donations, corporate fundraising campaigns, friends’ fundraising events. So many organizations, initiatives, fundraisers, and advocacy groups exist that people in communities get inundated, and confused.
“Do people actually care?” I think the fundamental answer that question is “yes”. However, the desire to care has been replaced with a general confusion on how to care. With the lack of focus, and mostly collaboration, on the approaches we take to solving our society issues, comes a lack of focus from those we rely on to carry on our causes through donorship and volunteerism.
As social justice advocates, fundraisers and non-profit staff, we need to get away from the belief that just because we exist as a cause, people will automatically jump on board. Instead of finding the best ways to attract the dollars and time of the public, we need to first clean up house amongst ourselves to better coordinate together the way we reach out to the public so to not only stop stepping on each other’s toes, but to keep an even playing field that the most valuable players actually want to play in.