Change Notes: Acts of Charity Lead Us to Acts of Justice

Dec 18, 2012

Change Notes header

There’s often a fine line between individual acts of caring and systemic change – a line we cross often in a world that needs both compassion and justice. That line took center stage last week at the International Association for Volunteer Effort (IAVE) conference in London, where I worked with 400 attendees from 70 countries — all of whom engage volunteers to help meet critical needs, all of whom end up developing solutions to larger issues in the process.

When we serve, confronting the needs of our community and our world, we are awakened to systemic challenges, and we discover new ways to meet them. Celina de Sola’s work in El Salvador is a case in point.

After responding to disasters in the U.S. and around the world, Celina wanted to have a longer-term impact in one place. She returned to her home in El Salvador to co-found Glasswing International (our affiliate in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) with Ken Baker.

Working with partners like Chevron, Hanes and USAID, the group targets at-risk schools where most students attend classes for little more than four hours per day and two-thirds drop out after 9th grade. Glasswing engages hundreds of volunteers to lead after-school programs – school newspaper clubs, discovery labs and glee clubs, and academic support in English and computers – along with ongoing projects to improve school facilities and grounds.

The payoff? Glasswing has extended the school day, increased attendance, and received a $5 million investment to extend the program to more cities and schools. Some say that Glasswing has focused the power of volunteers to combat the increasing sense of fatalism in El Salvador.

Points of Light's international network has grown from a few social entrepreneurs to thousands of them, leading change in 22 countries. Singapore Cares has grown from zero to 20,000 volunteers in three years. RomAltruista, in Rome, has grown from zero to 1,000 volunteers in just three months.

In Brazil, RioVoluntario is applying skills-based volunteer leadership to improve the quality of day care for Rio’s low-income children. HandsOn Manila’s intensive enrichment program provides high-achieving kids in poor schools the resources to reach for academic success. On 15 university campuses, HandsOn China’s student leadership program offers over 20 student-managed projects each week, networking events, resume books for the top 150 student volunteers and roundtables with business leaders.

Companies are deploying their most capable professionals to countries around the globe. IBM volunteers have promoted digital entrepreneurship in Sao Paulo, built a strategy for attracting businesses to Danang City and created a five-year roadmap to make Johannesburg a safer city. General Mills nutritionists are fighting hunger in Malawi and UPS is changing driver education and improving safety in countries around the world.

Are all these good deeds charity or efforts to achieve social justice? Many would say there is a hierarchy of good, in which social justice trumps charity. But I see it more as a continuum. Often acts of charity lead us to acts of justice. We need volunteers to reach out with arms of compassion to care for the world and we need volunteers to help heal and repair what is broken.

Points of Light CEO Michelle Nunn’s full remarks to the IAVE conference plenary session and at the Volunteer Center Forum

Michelle Nunn

CEO, Points of Light