Isabel Jonet – The secret in volunteering is to work as if you were paid

by alrou on April 17, 2011

Isabel Jonet is one of the leading figures in the Volunteer work in Portugal, to whom credit is given for the success and reliability of the Banco Alimentar Contra a Fome  (“Food Bank Against Hunger”). The fact that the project Volunteerbook, together with the Facebook page supported by the Volunteer Board, have been chosen by the European Commission to represent Portugal in the European Year of Volunteering 2011, and this was the stepping stone for the conversation.

What is Volunteerbook?
We launched the Bolsa do Voluntariado (“Volunteer Board”) in 2005, the largest Portuguese volunteer site, with 21,000 subscribers and over 1200 institutions. The Volunteerbook was created because social networks are an inevitable phenomenon. There are 2.8 million Portuguese with a Facebook account, mostly young, to whom we wanted to ingrain the need for volunteering. These are people who are having a first hand experience in volunteering.

Meaning that volunteering is taught?
We must inculcate that volunteering should be part of the every day life, because we are co-responsible for others. Teaching people that being a volunteer is not just being ‘nice’, but making sure that you can change the world.

And what is the content of the site?
It is a platform where good ideas are shared so that they can be replicated by individuals and by institutions, thus creating social value. I am sure that Volunteerbook was also chosen because it is an easy idea to replicate in all countries.

The Volunteer Board has candidates for volunteers, but are you really aware how many actually end up working as such?
What we do is to directly ask institutions how many people have they found through the Volunteer Board. I cannot produce the exact figures, but I know that all these institutions already selected people from the Board. We have an example of an institution that supports homeless people that has already obtained 140 volunteers only from there.

Is it a type of job board?
The site was designed by PT – Portugal Telecom, and layered on Sapo’s job site, so the concept is very similar, and it was funded by Caixa Geral de Depósitos (a Portuguese state-owned banking corporation), who believed that the project had the potential to change something. The aim was to attract qualified volunteers in order to enable institutions that need to be managed more professionally because of their limited resources (almost totally dependent on state aid), and have each time more requests. In times of crisis, the load that has to be carried by charities is huge.

The general complaint of those who work with volunteers is that more often than not they aren’t committed…
There are two major bones of contention in matching volunteers with institutions: one is the commitment of the volunteers, and the other is the difficulty that the institutions have to integrate them, sometimes because the technicians are afraid of losing their place, others for fear of losing power, or simply because it is not explained beforehand what is expected of each volunteer. You need to balance the expectations of the volunteer with the needs of the institution, because if you don’t, frustration will be generated on both sides.

What is the profile of the Portuguese volunteer, is it defined?
In the Board, most volunteers have between 20 and 40 years, access the Internet and approximately 70% are from the Lisbon area. They have qualifications and many are employed and want a volunteer work on weekends or outside working hours (which is difficult because the institutions need volunteers daily). By contrast, people who work in the Food Bank, or who seek a more intense form of volunteering, have a different profile: they are retired or preretired who do not know what to do with their extended available time, but who are very capable and with a lot of willingness to help. Women are always in majority.

Does it make sense a contract between a voluntary and an institution that defines the expectations, duties and rights?
There are institutions that have this contract, but we see no need on our part. The solution, we believe, has to do with the awareness of the work produced by each volunteer being essential for the results of the whole.

The Entreajuda (“Mutual Help”) project which you created, inspired on the Banco Alimentar (“Food Bank”), bridges the gap between those who want to give and those in need. Will you launch another new project now?
We will be launching next week, together with the Portuguese association of banks, a program that is called Dar a volta (“Get Around”) designed to help institutions to optimize resources, especially on how to manage volunteering. We also want to teach technicians to help people in need to apply for microcredit loans. These people do have an idea but don’t know how to create a business plan. We will help them out in this regard, with volunteers coming from the Board.

You arrived at the Banco Alimentar (“Food Bank”) 15 years ago. Do you feel that much has changed in volunteering in Portugal, since then and that the Board contributed to this?
The difference is staggering. Back then, volunteering was closely related to the Church and seen as a charitable supplement. Today it is considered as an intervention for active citizenship. The Banco Alimentar has a fundamental role, because it is an organized volunteering that creates value and has a multiplier effect. It engages schools, students and families, it is tangible and leaves good footprints behind. We also must not forget that volunteering also exists in sport, environment and in culture. The success of the massive garbage clean-up campaign Limpar Portugal (“Cleaning Portugal”) was extraordinary, but it is unclear why it was not continued.

The last food gathering of the Banco Alimentar surpassed all the records and puts it in the lead of the European food banks. Does crisis makes us more generous?
My mother would light the stove with a used match, lit on the boiler. She lived in a time of war and matches were a scarce commodity. In recent decades the value attached to goods has changed, because many consumer goods prices dropped. Now people are going to have to live in a more frugal manner, and this will force us to reassess our needs of consumption.

What is your education level?
I have a degree in Economics (by Universidade Católica Portuguesa – Portuguese Catholic University) but the secret is to work here as if in a company in which we were paid. It is this commitment that makes the difference in the results.

Is it still common knowledge that people who do volunteering don’t need a salary?
Sometimes people must be remembered that you don’t need to die the richest person in the cemetery, what you need to take with you are those moments that made you happy and fulfilled, including the compassionate deeds that you performed. This is why we can manage to go without further monetary needs considering that a minimum for survival is assured. As long as this work makes them happier. To me it does.

You have five children, and have a 14 hours-a-day work schedule. How do you manage it?
With the ability that women have to accommodate everything! I have a tight but organized schedule. For example, I always have dinner with my children, take them to bed, and then I work at night. These are choices people make.

(translated by under permission of the author, Isabel Stilwell | | )
Image credits: RSH from

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