Partners In Health

A Vital Lesson: How Volunteer Empowerment Will Help Us Survive

Tonight, I attended Partners In Health Volunteer Night, at their Boston office. Jon Shaffer, the Community Engagement Coordinator at PIH and a friend of GlobeMed at Tufts, was running it. He made sure we were all full of crusty pizza (a definite motif at practically every global health meeting I’ve been to for some reason) and that all 30 of us introduced ourselves, and then he started in on a general presentation about the work PIH does. I was really impressed and pleased at the variety of volunteers there; I was sitting across the table from a soon-to-be-Harvard-Med-School-Student, across the room were Haitian-American women and their teenage sons, behind us a woman who worked at a financial firm. One question sat in my mind: How does PIH draw all of these people in? Not only to volunteer, but to donate (as our task for the night was to call and thank donors from every corner of the country)? What lessons can I learn, and can GlobeMed at Tufts learn moving forward in their third year, when member engagement is really going to be put to the test?

A few things really struck me as the key pieces to engaging us as volunteers. The whole night began with information. We learned about Partners In Health’s basic mantra, a little bit about the then and now, and then we got a special presentation on monitoring and evaluation methods that the data team at PIH use to improve their systems and interventions (Side note: I’ll see if I can grab that presentation, it might be really good for explaining to our data team and our chapter how we can help Nyaya use data). Right off, the volunteers were engaged because they were empowered with a little knowledge. Next, we were given our instructions on how to call and thank donors, which were very specific. We were told what an asset to PIH we were, since they don’t have nearly enough staff to call and thank all of the donors. As volunteers, we help ensure that monetary support for PIH will continue, and all of the great work out in Haiti, and Rwanda, and Malawi, and Russia, and Peru will continue. We went to our phones, we did our jobs. Finally, we came back together and shared stories about our most interesting phone conversations before leaving. So, with all of this, I tried to think about what, exactly, kept me engaged the whole night?

Volunteer Empowerment. We talk often in the world of global health equity about patient empowerment and community empowerment, but it’s important not to forget about keeping up a sense of agency for volunteers. Didn’t we all get involved in the fight to end health care inequity because we felt like we could do something about it? This sense can easily get lost, when there seem to be a million other people in your organization, doing a million different, seemingly unrelated things. I think we lost this a bit in the past year at our chapter. So here’s the bits I pulled from how PIH keeps their volunteers engaged and empowered.

  1. Empower with knowledge. By teaching our chapter members about big global health issues (here is where GHU already does some work) and specific things about Nyaya and Nepal (something that I hope will be added to the weekly meetings), we will give our chapter members some authority, some agency, so they can be excited to get their work done. It would be the most beneficial to do this at the beginning of each meeting. Knowledge is (em)power(ment).
  2. Empower with specific roles. Each chapter member should have a specific job that they do. If this means giving them a title, do it. If this means giving them a printed out sheet of directions on how to complete a task, do it. This one is going out to the EBoard especially. Work with your team to assign very specific jobs to everyone.
  3. Empower with solidarity. Remind everyone, every week, that the work we are doing is important, and that every member with his/her specific job is vital to the functioning of the chapter, and immensely helpful to our friends at Nyaya and their patients.
  4. Empower with work. Actually DO what you and your team set out to do. Everyone is responsible for making sure everyone else is contributing, so don’t be afraid to ask your fellow member about their project, and encourage them along. Sometimes organizing events or writing grants or planning lessons is hard, but we all committed our time and effort early on, so lets actually focus the energy of our commitment into our tasks.
  5. Empower with community. This part, I think, also has gotten overlooked at our chapter the last 2 years. We all get stressed out from time to time, we all have a funny story we want to share with everyone some days. We need to find time, either at meetings or outside of them, to connect and just be humans around other humans tied by a common love and drive. If we care about our fellow chapter members, then we will care more about seeing everyone succeed individually and as a group.

I’m definitely missing out on what will undoubtedly be an excellent fall semester for our chapter, and I look forward to coming back and diving into more great projects with all of my friends at GlobeMed.