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An Accessible, Equitable, and Health-Promoting Approach to Voluntarism

I Introduction

The trends in voluntarism have changed within the last century due to the socio-economic and political nature of our communities. From the early to late 20th century there was a move from disorganized and individual-based charity to more organized and state-based social welfare and then to a combination of state-based, volunteer-based, and community-based interventions. (Graff, 1998; Gordon and Neal, 1997) This last trend mixes state and voluntary organizations with people's involvement in making decisions and taking care of their own needs. More and more people are developing, revitalizing, and joining groups that have components of decision making, action taking, and friend making.

The Self-Help Resource Centre has developed a number of tools and resources through a series of projects that empower agencies and volunteers to work together on variety of issues. Ultimately, looking at this self-help/mutual-aid approach as an integral part of any change-directed initiatives will create a support system for your client. It will also enable them to contribute to the process of change for others. In both cases, it is good for their health and the health of others.

II How Does Self-Help/Mutual Aid Relate To Voluntarism?

"If you want people to do a good job, give them a good job to do"

There is no doubt that participation in self help/mutual aid is a form of voluntarism. The only distinction that has been made between voluntarism and self help is that formal voluntarism is done within the context of an agency while people who organize in mutual-aid groups usually do so without a formal organizational structure. Whether or not it is formal or informal, volunteering for an agency or in a self-organized mutual-aid group have as a common denominator that they are both done without pay and of one's own free will. The other commonality is they both expand the social network of the individual volunteer and build the social capital.

Self help/mutual aid provides techniques and opportunities for issue-based civic engagement and participation (for example, Amps to Amps is a group who have organized themselves around issues facing amputees). In addition, when individuals volunteer based on a self-help model it provides them with the satisfaction of self-management. The volunteers will have opportunities for group work, peer support, and skill sharing within the context of an identified job. Using the self-help model, agencies can engage their volunteers in a group format while exercising shared leadership in order to get tasks done. The self-help model of voluntarism can also be time-limited within the context of an ongoing job. It increases the volunteers' interest since, group work, if done well, is fun, creates relationships, and makes the results more achievable.

One point of interest is that there has been a rise in informal volunteering. In 2000, 77% of people reported informally helping others, up from 73% in 1997. Interestingly this happened when formal volunteering through organizations decreased in the year 2000. (Canadian Centre for Philanthropy, 2000) It is also noteworthy that participation in self-help/mutual-aid groups has always been considered as informal volunteering and a way to expand the social network.

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III The Diversify the Source, Enhance the Force Project

The Self-Help Resource Centre started the Diversify the Source, Enhance the Force (DSEF) project to promote voluntarism amongst newcomers in 2002. The original focus was on applying a self-help/mutual-aid methodology to the process of volunteer recruitment, training, and management. Through DSEF, settlement agencies would recruit newcomers. The projects would place these volunteers in mainstream agencies such as hospitals. Mutual-support groups were formed to provide these volunteers with opportunities to discuss their issues and get training.

As this pilot project gained momentum, more and more agencies and newcomers became interested in the project. The agencies were interested in diversifying their volunteer pool and using peers in the training of this group of volunteers. Newcomers were enthusiastic because it gave them an equal opportunity to participate, gain experience, and expand their support system.

The project was good for the health of the agencies since it expanded their pool of human resources. It was also good for the health of volunteer participants since they felt good to be giving back to their communities, being part of a social network, feeling useful, and coming out of social isolation. Indeed, it was a health-promoting activity in a broad sense.

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IV Lessons Learned

A number of valuable lessons were learned from this pilot project:

* The mutual-aid method of training and support for volunteers is a cost-effective and efficient way to recruit and train volunteers. We also learned that the same method has a very high retention rate for new Canadians (to review the results of DSEF evaluation and to access the peer support manual please contact SHRC).

* In reality, as the staff of a government or non-governmental agency, if your client is labelled "hard to reach," "at risk," or "marginalized" due to a number of social factors, there is only so much you can do for them. For the rest, your client probably will rely on neighbours or family members. Most human problems are complicated and multi-dimensional. So it makes sense that at the time of need a person relies on formal and informal support systems. In the best of situations, when searching for help, clients are given an opportunity to see their own internal resources and to map their formal and informal support systems.

* As a way of informally volunteering, self help/mutual aid enables the individual to become part of a group or community that has the same need, issue, or problem. It gives them a chance to see their power to deal with the issue through association, brainstorming, finding alternatives, creating change, and taking control while helping others change. In this case, they are not only volunteering to help others but also in the process are empowered and have created a new social support system for themselves--all of which have proven to have benefits for health.

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V The Mutually Ours Project

We applied lessons from the pilot project to our most recent one, Mutually Ours, which is ongoing in two distinct communities. The communities in this project are multicultural, "under served," and "hard-to-reach." They are typically inner-city communities with high-rise apartment buildings, public housing, a high rate of unemployment or under-employment, and lack of recreational or other services within the vicinity. The project began by identifying training needs and developing appropriate training materials. Volunteer community members were trained and in turn started their community groups to address some needs of the community. The process is slow but never disheartening. Currently six graduates of the program are running three groups for children and youth mixing cultural programs with recreational activities. For more information on this program, please visit or contact SHRC.

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VI Tools and Resources for Health Promoters

During years of its experience with self-help/mutual-aid methodology, SHRC has developed resources and workshops to enable agencies to engage their clients in formal and informal forms of volunteering. The validity of these resources has been tested through SHRC's different projects. In addition to the two projects discussed above, the Family Council Project provided a blueprint for the engagement of family members in long-term care facilities and the Family Caregivers Support Network provided support for the prototype of informal volunteers--the caregivers.

SHRC's model based on self help/mutual aid is used in development of all its resources for engaging clients in volunteering. This model

* can work in formal situations within the agencies and outside within the community;

* provides techniques and opportunities for issue-based civil engagement and participation;

* provides volunteers/clients with satisfaction of self-management;

* provides opportunity for group work, peer support, and skill sharing within the context of an identified job;

* enables people to work in a group while exercising shared leadership, in order to get tasks done; and

* can be time-limited within the context of an ongoing job.

The resources are all designed to empower agencies and volunteers to work together on variety of issues and are not only useful in the promotion of informal voluntarism but are also beneficial for agencies that would like to utilize peer-support and mutual-aid methodology in their ongoing activities. Not all the agencies benefit from a volunteer coordinator and using the self-help/mutual-aid approach and peer-support techniques enables these agencies to benefit from their limited number of volunteers and to recruit new ones.

For a catalogue of available resources, please contact SHRC.

Gordon, J., & Neal, R. (1997). Voluntary nonprofits organizations: new research agenda. Society/Societe (Newsletter of the Canadian Sociology and Anthropology Association) Vol.21(1):15-19

Graff. L.L. (1998). Past, current and expected future trends in volunteering by retired persons B the development of personal talents and fulfilment of civic responsibilities. In M. Maunsell (Ed.), Designing meaningful new volunteer roles for retired persons. Centre on Aging and Centre for Studies of Religion and Society, University of Victoria.

Lubben, J.E., Weiler, P.G., & Chi, I. (1989). Health Practice of the elderly poor. American Journal of Public Health, 79:731-734

Canadian Centre for Philanthropy. 2000 National Survey on Giving, Volunteering and Participating (NSGVP). Available from