Organizing for Volunteer Work: How to Deal With Faith-Based Volunteer Work

It has been a while since I wrote an article last (the last one appeared Feb.20 of this year). This is not an excuse that I am publicly stating so that my editors can forgive my shortcomings, but I was really tied to volunteer work and the beast took much of my time.

Recently, I was appointed Coordinator for Social Communications and Mass Media Ministry (let’s call it Social Communications Ministry here to shorten the mouthful title) at a local parish where I attend mass. Yes, I am Catholic. And yes, this will raise the eyebrows of my non-believer, i.e., atheist friends (I could now hear them screaming “what the heck are you doing!” while pulling their shirts over their heads like a Mexican football player who just scored a goal).

But please bear with me a bit because what you are about to read is not the religious panache that boils the blood of every atheist on the planet. This is not your “I will smite thee” exegesis of an article. Instead, this is more of an empirical testament of what I have observed during the last two months or so. I am, first of all, a social scientist by training and I do as much as I can to be objective with what I write that is free from bias (if that’s even possible).

And so, there I was trying to be spiritual and all until the position of coordinator was offered to me. I figured it would be a cinch since I had coordination experience many years back when I was still with the ASEAN Business Advisory Council. Not only that. It was also an ego boosting experience having the idea that I would finally be able to help the community where I was raised.

But I had a blind spot. Unlike my ASEAN stint that overflows with funds, I overlooked the fact that the ministry, the foundations of which I would lay down with brick and mortar and blood (now the blood part is an exaggeration), and the parish I will be helping, are poor.

This is where the story begins and this story is more of a “how to manage volunteer organizations the best you can.” Honestly, and since this is more like working for a non-profit organization with a touch of the heavenly, I was tempted to put “How to Manage Church Organizations In Order to Avoid the Pits of Hell” as its title.

The Archdiocese of Manila, Philippines, heeding the call of the late Pope John Paul II to make Catholicism’s presence felt in all forms of media, has established the Social Communications Ministry. Its purpose is to make available information to let people, believers and non-believers alike, get to know the Catholic Church more. The field of battle (this is me being melodramatic) lies on cyberspace.

Having that idea in mind, I was bent on helping our parish set up what is needed. I was like my old activist self only this time not advocating for Randian (Ayn Rand) nor Marxist principles (believe me I was in both camps for some time but not at the same time). After all, I believe that whom I will be helping is not just the church – the men in robe and their hierarchy – but the Church – the people. I have a thing for communities especially the poor and the helpless ones.

But like I said earlier, the parish lack the funds. I spoke with the parish priest and I told him what needs to be done and he concurred. Some of these include a website, a newsletter, and mountains of possible media training for members, all of which require oceans of funds. It would have been nicer if Moses would be here to help us with the finances the way he parted the Red Sea so that the Israelites could walk toward Canaan with promises of overflowing milk and honey.

However, the priest also added that the most pressing need of the parish is its sound system. At the time the project was conceived, it was in preparation for the Lenten Season, a big deal for us Catholics in the Philippines (although it is still a toss between Lent and Christmas for us Filipinos). To celebrate every mass in the church with faulty sound system defeats the purpose of spreading the “Word” if it is not driven clearly across. Thus, the task of raising funds for said sound system fell on my shoulders. Actually, it felt more like I was thrown into a gauntlet of fire with me turning into ashes my impending end.

How am I supposed to do it? I had no wealth of experience with regard to fundraising. Also, majority of our ministry members are college students and young professionals (newly graduates who landed jobs the very first time). Growing up I often hear my devoutly Catholic parents say that “God will provide” and that phrase always makes me cringe (I am not a very good Catholic, you see?). I had to do something, right?

What is worse is that my non-believer friends would not stop taunting me. I get sneers from most of them because they knew who I was to the point that one of them even said, “You’re the good bad example people should not emulate.” You get the picture? I think you do.

I treated the responsibility given me the way I treated my previous organizational engagements. I wrote letters and emailed other religious organizations as far as Italy hoping that their financial manna will fall from the sky straight to our parish doorstep. It never happened (perhaps I will tell you that story in another article). With the help of church elders, I got hold of names of people and organizations that are more likely to help. Solicitation letters, I wrote.

But unlike the usual correspondence that are normally sent by emails or by courier, the solicitation letters I wrote I had to carry by hand. I transmogrified into the postman overnight. The community where the parish belongs is semi-residential/semi-commercial and below middle class in income category, which says a lot about internet access.

By internet access I do not mean there are no internet cafes. There are plenty except those internet cafes are swarmed by teenagers drooling over the latest strategic network games and Facebook. The names on the solicitation letters, I have observed, are reminiscent of names of old that you would not even dare name your kids after. I had a great feeling that these people are quite old to the point that they are technophobic – the sight of a computer workstation scares the heck out of them and the mere touch on the keyboard make them feel they are breaking it.

We had to carry the letters by hand. With help from our Ministry members, we did the old-fashion advocacy campaigns. We went knocking door-to-door and went on explaining the purpose of our knocking. As part of his share, the parish priest announced in his every mass the project of the ministry, of why we were raising funds, and what they will be used for.

The cost of the sound system was pegged at PhP50,000.00 (US$1,171.87). A small amount you would say, but for the community where this will be used is already big deal. I went to talk to my Protestant friends hoping they would help us financially in the spirit of ecumenism, because that is what the church is for. They said they will be praying for me. I welcomed their prayers.

A few weeks before the Holy Week, funds started pouring in, although in small amounts. A few hundred bucks here and there, but they were not enough to cover the total targeted expenses. During the first week, we were able to raise about PhP3,000.00 (US$70.3089). On the second week, it was already close to the PhP50,000.00 mark. On the third week, we got a total of PhP105,000.00+ (US$2,461.08), more than what we hoped for.

Was it a miracle? How did we do it?

To the initiated, the accomplished feat would be classified as a miracle. They would see it as the modern day version of the multiplying of the loaves of bread and fish. I was close to believing that.

In an affluent parish, this would not be a big of a deal. The PhP50,000.00 target could have been raised in a matter of days. Perhaps a small group of rich benefactors would cover all the expenses. But if I were the type who easily believes in miracles, I would say that the miracle that took place was the miracle of people’s capacity to give a part of themselves.

Allow me to explain that part. An article from The Economist appeared last year that looked at how much street musicians get from busking and where (to my Filipino readers, buskers are those blind singers you see in foot bridges in the Metro). It turned out that in high class areas, street musicians get less donations when compared to not so well-off places. In other words, people with less in life give more to others in most need. They extend assistance in the form of money or in kind not because they have plenty, but because they know how it feels to have nothing. I practically did nothing save the part that I wrote the letters and we spoke sincerely to people telling them the outcome of this project is not for us, but for the community.

It is what Benedict Anderson calls “Imagined Communities,” of what makes societies and nations tick. It is the idea that you belong to a group, in this case, a family of believers; even if most of the time they are ridiculed for their religious beliefs.

The monetary assistance and gains, I believe from what I just recently experienced, are just secondary. What is of prime import is the thought of being part of a collective.

This is why I think people do volunteer work. It is not for the accolades and the laurels in waiting. It is to be part of something decent the impact of which is not game- or world-changing. It is simply doing what they think is good and right.

So how does one manage a volunteer-based organization? With trust, faith, and intelligence. It can be run like any organization except for the part where you need to keep the fire of fervor of members continually alight.