By Janice Weinman
Our sages understood that tzedakah is important not only because of the benefits it bestows on recipients, but also because of those it bestows on donors. Hands-on altruism enriches one’s life.
Some of the most profound experiences of my own life have involved volunteering. Through exposure to people of different backgrounds, volunteering has helped me improve my understanding of others and my ability to work with, and lead, different groups of people.
I was a graduate student when I decided to volunteer to help the New Mexico San Juan Pueblo tribe gain independence for its public school from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, which imposed a curriculum that was incompatible with the tribe’s values. For several months, I helped the Pueblo effort, under the auspices of the Association of American Indian Affairs, and in the process learned first-hand about Pueblo customs, belief systems, and present-day challenges. I left with a strong connection to the Pueblo people, and a commitment to their cause that translated into regular donations to organizations working on behalf of Native American self-determination.
Over the years, I have volunteered for other organizations that supported women’s rights, improved U.S./Israel relations and community development. One of the most gratifying experiences was leading the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. The organization’s other volunteers and I developed coalitions to combat anti-Semitism and developed policies with our local politicians to fight BDS. Subsequently, I and the others increased our financial commitment to an organization that allowed us the opportunity to create and impact.
Women, in particular, are known for donating to organizations with which they have a personal connection. Often, volunteers build a personal connection with a cause before deciding to support that cause financially.
As the lives of women change, we, as women, have had to change too.
The last few years have seen a steady increase in women’s participation in the paid workforce – not just in the number of women working, but in the amount of time they spend at work. The average professional woman worked 1720 hours per year in 2018, an increase of nearly one-third from the average 1330 hours a year in 1979. Not surprisingly, this has meant a decline in the amount of time women spend volunteering.
So, what happens when women work more and volunteer less? Given the connection between volunteerism and donating, the drop in the number of women volunteers could mean, as Susan Weidman Schneider cautioned in Lilith Magazine, “a decline in the pool of women donors.”
Today, I lead a large national women’s volunteer organization which, for more than a century, has engaged hundreds of thousands of women as volunteers. To continue that tradition, we at Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, Inc. (HWZOA) are testing out new ways to engage women that are compatible with their busier lives.
While we continue to have hundreds of health and wellness events in communities around the country, Hadassah now offers more on-line webinars that motivate women to address heart disease, breast cancer, diabetes and infertility, among others, in their own lives as well as in society as a whole.
Similarly, podcasts on issues of the day – from American-Israeli relations to co-existence of Israelis and Arabs in Israel, to scientific breakthroughs in preventing and treating diseases – are fostering interaction, education and follow-up action. The opportunity to learn through online discussion guides, to debate and address problems personalizes electronic experiences and helps listeners feel engaged with the mission and impact of our organization, thereby wanting to support it.
want to be heard in the halls of government nationally and locally.
We’ve found that for women who can’t carve out time to visit
policymakers in Washington, DC, coordinated actions closer to home
are essential. Our “Day in the District” and “Date with the
State” programs provide in-person opportunities to educate
legislators about issues of their concern in their local offices.
Women who participate in such national or state advocacy efforts at local more convenient locations often follow up afterwards with online advocacy tools, signing our letters to Congress and state legislators. The satisfaction that comes from taking a stand to support policies that align with our values – like fighting anti-Semitism and speaking out for women’s rights – motivates participants to donate too.
Whenever women do carve out non-work time it is often related to their own health and wellness – exercise programs, involvement in child rearing classes and programs and self-wellness opportunities. To accommodate these life-style choices, Hadassah has partnered with JCCs around the country to offer health and wellness programs. These accessible programs provide a resource about prevention and treatment of certain diseases to which women are more prone and exposure to the organization offering these programs establishes a relationship that may generate an interest to support it financially. True, webinars, podcasts and the like are not the same as hands-on volunteer work.
As women increasingly participate, for example, in on-line rather than in-person programs, the direct sense of commitment and joy associated with helping others may elude them. The subsequent generosity that we have experienced as a result of volunteerism will become more precarious.
In this environment, the burden will rest with our organizations to offer alternatives to the kinds of volunteer work women did in the past. And, when the goal is a subsequent donation, the organization needs to provide strong and compelling messages for giving, immediate personal and on-line follow up and ongoing exposure to the organization’s achievements. It will require careful tracking of individuals’ interests and reactions and engagement to on-line offerings and individualized electronically delivered stewardship.
Volunteerism may never hit the levels of decades past. Yet at the same time, we welcome the opportunity to create a new era of engagement – one involving a less intimate but more accessible form of participation without minimizing the financial support essential to our efforts to lead the world.
Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, Inc. (HWZOA) is the largest Jewish women’s organization in the United States. With 300,000 members, associates and supporters Hadassah brings Jewish women together to effect change and advocate on critical issues such as women’s health equity and the security of Israel. Through the Hadassah Medical Organization’s two hospitals, the world-renowned trauma center and the leading research facility in Jerusalem, Hadassah supports the delivery of exemplary patient care to over a million people every year. HMO serves without regard to race, religion or nationality and earned a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 2005 for building “bridges to peace” through equality in medical treatment. For more information, visit www.hadassah.org.
Janice Weinman is Executive Director/CEO, of Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, Inc. (HWZOA).