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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putting Volunteerism Back to Work

Democratic principles have come a long way in Russia, but vestiges of the old days still remain. Among them is the link between volunteerism and the communist state.


For Russians, it seems, "volunteer" is a dirty word, said the Moscow director of a U. S. -based organization that hopes to promote a strong volunteer sector here.


"Russians were forced to do volunteer work in the past", said Ellen West, director of United Way International's Moscow office. "The people called it subbotnik because they were required to work on certain Saturdays to labor for the state. Russians have a natural instinct to help each other, but if you call it volunteering, they won't jump at it because of the bad connotation of the past".


United Way hopes to change that. On Saturday, the organization is leading a seminar to impart the basics of volunteerism to representatives of 50 Russian charities.


The seminar is a springboard to bigger things: sponsoring volunteer projects for 10 charities, planning a "Day of Caring" next fall using primarily foreign volunteers and creating a Volunteer Center in Moscow, West said. The entire program is being funded by a $182, 000 grant from the U. S. Agency for International Development and a matching grant from United Way International.


United Way seminar leaders will discuss identifying volunteer roles in charities, targeting recruitment to volunteers who have the abilities specifically needed by charities, publicizing volunteer needs and managing volunteers.


Saturday's participants are primarily charities that serve pensioners, veterans, disabled children and others in the sphere of health and human services, West said.


The participating charities will be encouraged to prepare a project plan using volunteers. United Way will review the plans and select 10 charities to implement the projects by next autumn.


"In the past year, we have been inundated with calls from foreigners who wanted to volunteer here but didn't know where to begin", West said.


Though the agency has steered many towards appropriate organizations. West said the group has "been unable to involve the foreign community on a long-term basis".


In the projects to come, she hopes that foreigners and Russians will work side by side to support Russian charities. Russy Sumariwalla, the president and chief executive officer of United Way International, noted that the program is the first of its type to be implemented in the former Soviet Union and may become a model for other cities.


Sumariwalla flew here from United Way headquarters in the United States to speak at the seminar about the American volunteer sector.


"Volunteerism is part of the American fabric. Without it, we would not be where we are today", he said. He estimated the value of volunteer time at about $170 billion a year and said that individuals donate about $100 billion annually in the United States.


West is optimistic that a strong volunteer force of Russians will emerge.


"The instinct of volunteerism is there, and there is a tremendous energy in this country. It just needs to be channeled toward those who can help it get through this period of economic suffering", she said.