The praise was a bit embarrassing, and I am not sure I liked how it was tactically deployed, but the masters of ceremony held up the USA as the paragon of volunteerism, gently disparaging the Brazilian audience, pointing out that only around 4% of Brazilians were involved in volunteer activities.
The State Department brought me out of retirement to manage public diplomacy activities in São Paulo for 42 days in August and September, 2018, as “while actually employed.” Before my retirement from the Foreign Service I was Country Public Affairs Officer for Brazil from 2011 to 2014.
The Importance of Volunteerism
“Do you know what that number is in the USA?” the MC asked the audience. A few hands went up with guesses ranging from 10-40%. Then she dropped the brick. “84%,” she said. I don’t vouch for the accuracy of that number. There is no doubt, however, that Americans are remarkable in the amount of their time and money that they give.
A Big Launch for a Big Idea
And what an event it was. The auditorium at Civi-co São Paulo was packed. Talk show host Fátima Bernardes (who Wesley tells me is the “Oprah of Brazil,” absent the car giveaways) introduced the program, emphasizing that she and all the others present were volunteers. The obligatory reading of honored guests included mayors and high officials, the Governor of São Paulo and three presidential candidates, although we saw only one of these.
Transforma Brasil is the creation of Fábio Silva, a 2014 IVLP alumni from Recife. The connection is why we were here. We saw and were seen (we were among the honored guests mentioned), made and renewed contacts and gained insights into a developing trend in Brazil. Volunteerism, at least the idea, is trending in Brazil, as evidenced by the high-level of interest in this event. Some comes a need to fill in gaps left by government services, but much of the real power comes from a realization that citizenship in a democracy means involvement beyond voting or demanding others do something.
Fábio was aware of volunteerism statistics and as a social entrepreneur decided to create organizations to help connect would-be volunteers with appropriate NGOs. The idea was to raise awareness, to encourage volunteers AND give those encouraged practical ways to get involved, i.e. turn aspirations into actions. This was at least partly an insight he got from his IVLP visit, that specifically addressed volunteerism and how to move people from indifference, to aspiration to action. If people do not know how to do something, they do nothing. Inspiration and calls to action must be closely followed by a simple answer to the question, “So wadda we do now?”
In Recife it Began
Fábio Created his first platform in his native city of Recife in 2015, and in cooperation with others installed similar programs in Campinas (São Paulo), Petrópolis (RJ), Cuiabá (MT) and Campina Grande (PB). “Transforma Recife” has already registered 120,000 volunteers and 400 NGO, and more than a million volunteer hours. Recife features a Voluntariômetro, an outdoor tabulator that counts the volunteer hours in the state of Pernambuco in something like real time.
We cannot claim that the IVLP program turned Fabio’s life around, but we can say, as he does, that the program greatly accelerated & facilitated his progress and gave him ideas. In other words, our program was part of a web of factors of success. A logician might say that the program was necessary but not sufficient. If it sounds like faint praise, recall that all great things are accomplished in cooperation with others, which means that many are necessary, but none is sufficient, even if some like Fábio play the lead role. Fábio expressed this sentiment well in his own remarks.
If you want to make great things happen, play your role and help others play theirs and let something emerge bigger than the sum of the parts.
John Matel is president of the Virginia Tree Farm Foundation. Previously he was president of the Fulbright Commission in Brazil, senior International advisor at Smithsonian Institution, and a State Department fellow at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy. With over 16 years of experience at the State Department, Matel has worked to understand societies, information and behaviors, and shape strategies to engage networked publics.