Voluntary sector in Jamaica

by Winsome Wilkins
from Global Newsletter - January 2016

Youth development is vital element of overall development in any country, and Jamaica is no exception. Young people are key stakeholders in the implementation of new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, having a vested interest in its success now and in the longer run. There are numerous crucial areas where youth and development activities are strongly linked, and one of those areas has been the voluntarism and youth nexus—already strong and growing fast.

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Winsome Wilkins is the Chief Executive of the Council of Voluntary Social Services and the United Way of Jamaica.  She chairs the USAIN BOLT Foundation and has served the voluntary sector in Jamaica for over 30 years.  She did post-graduate studies in Social Entrepreneurship at the University College of the Caribbean.

The voluntary sector has been an important segment of the Jamaican social landscape since the early 1900s and has contributed greatly to social and community development. The sector, notably the section affiliated with the Council of Voluntary Social Services (CVSS), comprises over 110 agencies offering services across the spectrum of social development disciplines. The disciplines include child rights, education, health, gender and community development and environmental education.

The Council of Voluntary Social Services has been in existence for 75 years and has demonstrated its capacity in project management in such areas as technical assistance for the child sector; training for early childhood institutions; support of the project to scale up HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment; institutional strengthening, capacity building and management training for non-governmental organizations and other activities.

In trying to broaden the existing evidence-base on youth development, the Council of Voluntary Social Services organized in Kingston, Jamaica, in October 2015 a Community Research Day, the third in a row, making it an important tradition. The theme of the Research Day was “Youth Making a Contribution through Change and Development.” The sessions explored the impact of voluntary organizations on the development of youth in communities and, by extension, country, along the lines of involvement in agriculture, leadership and volunteerism. The forum provided the opportunity to gather primary research data from youths and young adults (14-35 years old) in the thematic areas of youth volunteerism and youth in agriculture; which will be used as a catalyst in future programme planning and delivery. The presentations and other activities sought to determine the why's or why not’s of youth involvement in different areas of emphasis and how young people can be motivated to be more involved and contribute to community and national development.

Why the Research Day?

While the contribution to nation-building has been significant, specifically youth volunteerism/leadership, youth in agriculture and the voluntary sector’s role in strengthening family and parenting, evidence is lacking to substantiate the impact on national development. Research on the sector itself has been sparse, and much of the work conducted has been in the nature of programme evaluation, specifically looking at the achievements of specific project targets, institutional reviews and other aspects of project management. Not much research evidence exists to support trends, employment benefits, training, personal development and other aspects of programme outcomes. The voluntary sector is, therefore, lacking in empirical data to better inform and support its planning process. In light of the Council’s 75th anniversary and in keeping with the theme for the year “Treasuring our traditions, innovating for the future,” the Council decided to embark on a Research Day Project, as the sector seeks to build on evidence-based practice, which has become necessary as it is the demanded benchmark for service delivery. Benchmarking has shaped the national development discourse and has demanded that more specific sector-focused research be conducted to identify the needs and demands of the entities and population/clients being served.

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According to the CVSS, the way forward calls for capacity-building at all levels of the sector, making it important for planning and development activities to be evidence-based. To that end, the Research Day Workshop for the Voluntary Sector was an important step in initiating an evidence-based approach to the voluntary sector in Jamaica.

How the objectives were chosen?

The theme for the day was “Youth Making a Contribution through Change and Development”, with the deliberate objective of gathering and collating primary research data from young adults all across the island, conducted in collaboration with two institutions that train social workers, namely, the University of the West Indies – Social Work Unit and the Portmore Community College-Social Work Unit. As noted earlier, the key objective of the Research Day was to gather information that would be used in programme planning and delivery. As anticipated, sharing this information sector-wide has stimulated interest, explored issues, provided additional avenues for inter-agency collaboration and promoted visibility of the sector.

The goal is to strengthen the capacity of voluntary sector agencies to engage in evidence-based service delivery and planning with four key objectives:

  1. To demonstrate the value of evidence-based approaches to service delivery, through guided research resulting in increased awareness among participating private voluntary organizations of the relevance of evidence-based planning; and improvement in the documentary approaches among private-sector voluntary organizations;

  2. To improve knowledge of basic research techniques, through participation in guided focus-group sessions resulting in improved knowledge among participating youth groups in basic research techniques - data collection and the collation and distribution of findings.

  3. To share the findings from research and evaluation into selected programme areas, including an exhibition to showcase research findings and the outcome of evaluative work.

  4. To provide an opportunity for knowledge exchange among voluntary-sector agencies, public and private sectors; share findings from research and evaluation into selected programme areas. The hosting of a research symposium, which would result in increased collaboration among sector players and increase awareness and willingness to participate in national development.

To set the tone for the discussion, Dr. Ronald Blake, Executive Director of the Jamaica 4-H Clubs, the leading youth affiliate of the Council in Jamaica with over 90 thousand members, did a presentation from a study conducted by 4-H International in partnership with the National 4-H Council and the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development, led by Professor Richard M. Lerner of Tufts University.


Other speakers included representatives of CUSO International, which had previously partnered with the Council of Voluntary Social Services to do a mini-research on the “Contributions of CVSS Member Agencies to National Development” and the University of the West Indies.

An additional feature of the Research Day was an exhibition in which twelve agencies: Office of the Children’s Advocate, Ministry of Labour and Social Security (PATH), Jamaica 4-H Clubs, Jamaica Agricultural Society, Rise Life Management Services, Abilities Foundation, Child Development Agency, Uniform Groups, Unite for Change the Planning Institute of Jamaica, YMCA and National Parenting Commission, showcased their goods and services in keeping with the thematic areas for the Research Day: Youth Volunteerism/Leadership, Youth in Agriculture.

The major findings of the research

In response to the question ‘Can agriculture and volunteering become more attractive to youth and the general public?’ numerous responses were provided, and they were very positive. They recommended that agri-centres be established in inner cities and town, and that there be more exposure to best practices and information sharing, emphasizing how volunteerism can enhance job-search prospects and recognition for youth volunteers.

These responses were illuminating, especially when compared with the responses from those who were in the volunteer group. They were asked “What can young people do to get more persons to volunteer?" The responses included the use of social media, more public fora and consultations, engaging powerful persons, and planning special events to build awareness. The medium of music and sports were also powerful tools for volunteer engagement.

According to the full report, it is clear that, although young people feel that others will volunteer, if there were more formal methods of persuasion being used whether by agencies, organizations or government, more persons would become involved in agriculture if they were able to see how it would build their personal capacities/skills/strengths. Important here is the need for public spaces, events, exhibitions and forums, both nationally and at the community level, which shared experiences in agriculture.

The last point made by the agriculture group about “The feeling you get from volunteering, a sense of fulfilment getting recognition for the work done” echoes the sentiment of the volunteer group, when they emphasized that feeling as a benefit they have experienced from being volunteers. Challenges facing both groups include lack of resources. For the agricultural group, that would include (mainly) the unavailability of land, lack of any financing, praedial larceny and drought. The ongoing climate change has resulted in more severe droughts and natural disasters. The provisions for irrigation have been inadequate or non-existent in most farming areas.

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For the volunteerism group, the following elements have all contributed to the negative approach to volunteerism: persons who have had a negative experience may share that with newcomers and dissuade them; new volunteers are being brought up to believe that compensation should be provided for work done; the general acceptance of the feeling that ‘slavery is done’; new volunteers do realize that volunteerism is giving.

In reality, volunteers often have to use their own money to buy the material they need. For them, the benefits from being a volunteer were personal and societal. In terms of the latter, the act of helping others in need was the foremost benefit. In addition, there were unexpected spin-offs that accrue as well as the exposure that they now had working in new environments with new experiences.

Participants called for a systematic programme by the government and other agencies such as CVSS to engage in the promotion and recognition of volunteers. They believe that much can be done through the social media. Further, they recommended that the CVSS develop a training manual with guidelines for volunteer engagement for both volunteers and agencies.

A way forward

The events of the day were rewarding, with many issues relating to the way forward for voluntary organizations and youth involvement made clearer. The consciousness of the Council to recognize the weakness in research relating to the contribution of youth through change and development and the need to not only identify these weaknesses but to make a difference.

It is clear that the need exists for awareness to be created about the activities of voluntary organizations and for youths to see the ‘blessing’ in volunteering. It was noted that many were not volunteers, because they did not know what to do and where to go; for some, it was simply a lack of understanding of the concepts and benefits.

A number of participants expressed the strong desire to volunteer but were constrained because they are unable to afford transportation and the related cost of going out every day to volunteer.

For those who would be interested in farming, the physical resources problems (land, things to grow, lack of finances etc.) posed fundamental challenges, especially for those in urban areas.

In a nutshell, it is obvious, that youth can be an important contributor and a positive force for development when provided with knowledge and opportunities. Bringing young people onboard in the quest for more effective development efforts is part of the solution to both economic and social problems that Jamaica is facing.