People care: harnessing citizen power through strategic volunteerism

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I recently read an article about a Bagamti River clean up initiative that saw the mobilization of thousands of volunteers from the Kathamadu Valley.

While the organizers deserve a real “standing ovation” for being able to involve such a huge number of people, I would like to make the case for what I call strategic volunteering, an approach that combines hands on activities with campaigning and networking.

Mobilizing people for social change while praiseworthy and often useful, is sometimes not enough especially if we deal with complex situations and we have to come to terms with the impact of the volunteering action.

There is no wonder that generally speaking the various cleaning Bagamti campaigns are, on average, a great ‘success”: it is hard to find a better example of a “commons” like the Bagmati River, so neglected that truly deserves attention and care among the general public.

The dedication shown by the volunteers proves the genuine attachment people have towards the river, a defining feature in terms of people’s reliability and readiness to take action when there is a real need.

Have no doubts: at the right call, it might be the river, the local school in need of mentors or a hospice for old persons, people are ready to respond.

Still volunteering is not a shortcut to solve long standing problems. We need to ask ourselves the following questions:

Is it fair to entrust volunteers with the enormous task of cleaning a river? Do we really expect them to get the “mission accomplished’?

What about roles and responsibilities of local public bodies and concerned state agencies?

While we cannot but reconfirm the general “principle” that wherever there is a need, there is scope for volunteering, it is important to stress that its contributions should not be a standing alone but be complementary and linked with other actions.

Here the case for strategic volunteering that goes beyond the simple and tangible “action” like cleaning the Bagmati by raising the accountability standards for the concerned stakeholders, those in charge of cleaning the water, renovating and maintaining its banks.

Through long term engagement experiences for the volunteers, something quite different from traditional “manpower” mobilization, strategic volunteerism ensures and help duty bearers do what they are supposed to do, leveraging volunteers’ efforts for long term solutions.


Through a cleaning day, an online petition, a rally, a series of articles, leaflet distribution, a flash mob, a parents gathering and by visiting the offices of those public servants in charge of cleaning up the river, we generate interest and we create pressure by forging partnership and synergies that, together, have higher chances to bring the desired change.

By pushing, possibly “softly” for a change through campaigning and advocacy, strategic volunteering engages stakeholders and authorities in order to generate a renewed interest in a particular cause, forging a new consensus, bridging the gaps among actors and offering a platform for dialogue.

To make it simple, strategic volunteerism is a highway that leads to a collaborative framework for sustained change.

At the end of the day, we are talking about two sides of the same coin: you first mobilize volunteers for some concrete, practical actions and then you ensure that that critical mass can be leveraged to bring the desired change through multiple forms of civic action.

Clearly strategic volunteering is based on a longer perspective and on a clear differentiation from other forms of citizenship action: mobilizing the mass for a day is not enough; you need to sustain the volunteers’ interest and involvement with a certain level of continuity and consistency over the time, making them feel passionate and ending up owning the cause.

If it is not an easy job to mobilize thousands of volunteers for a day, it is even more challenging to maintain their involvement in different ways and for much longer.

New skills will be required for volunteering promoting organizations, not only excellent volunteering management capacities but also great expertise on communication and public relation.

It will be paramount for them to convey the right message in the right form, finding the right ingredients and right recipes to keep volunteers’ interest alive by involving them in multiple forms of service, including new, unorthodox and creative forms of engagement.

By ensuring tangible actions coupled with high level engagement through campaigning and advocacy, strategic volunteering sets the conditions for high impact systematic change that, with a focus on results, shows the added value of volunteerism.

We are talking about a blueprint that sets aside doubts on effectiveness of volunteering action.

For volunteering promoting agencies, think twice next time, be strategic. You will work harder but also will get better results at the end.

Position: Co -Founder of ENGAGE,a new social venture for the promotion of volunteerism and service and Ideator of Sharing4Good

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