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Volunteering may be key to solving our problems

Thursday, May 22, 2014
United Way TT Chairman Ian Benjamin, right, makes a presentation to a National Day of Caring participant at the event on May 18.

Ian Benjamin, who recently assumed the chairmanship of the respected charity United Way T&T, had been deeply affected by state attorney Dana Seetahal’s shocking death, as had many of us. 


The tragedy reinforced in him a conviction that he shared with a small audience at United Way’s offices on Edward St in Port-of-Spain the day after Seetahal’s funeral. He’d been in attendance.


“Her passing has got to mean something for us. We know what we are required to do. It’s in our hands. It’s as simple as that,” said Benjamin, who is also an attorney, encouraging his listeners to participate in United Way’s second annual National Day of Caring on May 18. More than 2,000 employees from various companies volunteered for charitable projects across the country. 


Volunteerism may be the key to solving the country’s problems, Benjamin said later in an interview with the T&T Guardian.


“If you’re a volunteer, by definition you’re not thinking of yourself only,” he said. “You’re doing something and giving of yourself and your resources for someone else, so that it gets you into the mind set of ‘other people’. 


“And once you get a momentum, a dynamism about working together with other people for building a better community, then you’re going to build a better society, and then you’re going to build a better country,” he said. “Thinking about other people—that’s the essence of volunteerism.”


United Way has been operating in T&T for 13 years. It’s part of an international organisation that has an 127-year-old history and is the biggest privately funded non-profit in the world, operating in 41 countries and raising billions of dollars annually, which it distributes to a variety of causes and charities.


United Way T&T raised more than $4 million last year that it distributed to 24 organisations including those working in adult literacy, youth education and training, and supporting the victims of domestic abuse.


“It’s transformative,” said Benjamin about what it means to an NGO to have another organisation fundraise on their behalf. “Because if an NGO has to take its limited resources, do its frontline work, as well as raise money, then really you’re stretching into breaking point.”


The key to United Way’s operation is its collaborations with corporations, who donate directly and encourage donations and volunteering from employees. 


More and more businesses are seeing the importance of being a good corporate citizen, said Gervase Warner, a United T&T director and the CEO of Neal & Massy Holdings, who organises the National Day of Caring. 


“We recognise that we have an obligation as a large corporation like Neal & Massy to participate in the community,” he said. “We give away $6 million a year from our foundation. Most corporations in Trinidad have some form of engagement with the community around them. It’s just part of doing good business.”


Facilitating volunteerism ultimately helps with the bottom line, said Benjamin.


“Everybody who has a job wants fulfilment,” he said, “and if they have a desire to be a volunteer and their company facilitates that, they are a happier, more productive, more disciplined employee. It’s an imperceptible addition to the bottom line for any company.” 


Besides having companies organise teams of employees to take part in the National Day of Caring, United Way also uses a standing order system whereby employees can give from their salaries without thinking about it. 


United Way has built up a good deal of trust all over the world. Part of the reason for this is that it makes sure the funds are given to reliable non-profits that United Way assesses itself. It then makes sure funds are used for the purpose they were intended. 


United Way also provides training and advice to help strengthen the non-profits they work with. 


“You will find that the moment you try to tackle any kind of social issue that has a certain amount of intractability, then a pin prick approach is not going to have any effect at all,” said Benjamin. “You will be spinning your top in mud. So you need to be able to strengthen an NGO’s capacity.”


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