- Blood-Organ and Stem Cell Donation
- Get Involved
- Pioneers Awards
The sun rising in the east on Sunday morning, 7 October, heralded the arrival of Sewa Day 2012. By jingo! What a day! Indeed, what a year! What, with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics, it’s been a bumper summer. On the downside, the banking crisis trundles on as governments muddle their way through the financial mess and the situation in the Middle East (Syria, Iran-Israel tensions) remains volatile. The world is a troubled place. As I write this blog, there are countless, un-named people around the world fighting the good fight against corruption, violence, injustice and poverty. It feels edifying that in our small way, we are part of this revolution to bring about positive change in the world.
Sewa Day 2012 got underway with the Food for Life project in Hong Kong. By the time London woke up, Australia, South Africa, Finland and Denmark were already in full swing (to name but a few of the countries that took part this year – 20 in all). All in all, we reckon over 50,000 people took part in Sewa Day 2012 across the globe (final numbers are yet to be confirmed but early anecdotal evidence underpins our healthy supposition). Due to the large number of projects and associated follow up work this year, it’s taken me a week to get round to writing this blog. So, apologies for the tardiness.
Indeed, sightings of green shirts were coming in thick and fast from all over the UK throughout the day. Green was our chosen colour this year (folks who took part in the first two iterations will have blue and red tees in their wardrobes also – “Sewa Day vintage wear”). Both our Facebook page and Twitter were ablaze with Sewa Day chatter.
But is that what Sewa Day is all about? The volume game? The media buzz? Is that why we do this? Come to think of it, why do we dedicate so much time to Sewa Day given all of us already have busy work schedules and family lives?
Allow me to tackle the last question first – primarily from my perspective (as the reasons why people get involved in volunteering are highly varied and wide ranging). Why have I embarked on this mission with my friends? I guess, as for most people who donate their time to such projects, it has to come from some place within. It comes from a deep seated sense of responsibility. However, I also have to acknowledge those folks who have cultivated this urge within me. The urge to “pay it forward”. Ultimately, we stand on the shoulders of our predecessors – our parents, community leaders and mentors.
Now, I’m a career banker (“booo, hisss!”). I’ve worked in the financial services business for over 20 years and contrary to popular belief, I’ve found that there are a great many banking professionals who are very philanthropic and community spirited. Many of the folks I’ve worked with have been nothing short of inspirational in this respect. Indeed, what one has to remember is that not all bankers are the unscrupulous beings who helped create the global credit crisis (as the media would have us believe) and that not all bankers have run off with millions in their coffers. Now, personally, whether I give back to the community out of a sense of guilt (because as a child of the baby boomer, consumption driven generation I feel I’ve had more than my fair share of the spoils) or because I have the foresight to believe that investing my time in the community now will lead to a healthier world for my children is kind of irrelevant so long as the end result is that I engage in good work. Ultimately, anybody with a modicum of intelligence realises that life is more than just Dollars and Cents (or Pounds and Pence!). Truly, beyond a certain point in one’s life, satisfaction and self-realisation can only come through serving others. I think the Lord Buddha put it most aptly:
“Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.”
So, why the Sewa Day volunteering model? Sewa Day was born, in concept, around three years ago in a loft apartment somewhere in North London. The brainchild of a small collective, the idea was simple. We wanted to make the UK a better place by changing peoples’ attitudes towards volunteering. Now, hitherto, we had been satisfied with just raising money for various charities via the usual activities: organising mass 5 km sponsored walks, jumping out of planes at 15,000 feet, as you do. However, we were increasingly of the feeling that just giving money just wasn’t cutting the mustard for us. Don’t get me wrong. We felt pretty good about donating money to worthy causes but what were we changing? We realised the only way to change the world and have direct impact was to donate time.
As a pre-cursor to Sewa Day, in a previous life where I ran the North London Chapter of Sewa International, we set up an initiative called Sewa Volunteers. The plan was to supply volunteers on a regular basis to four pre-selected London charities. We had some small success with this but truth be told it didn’t really take off. We decided the reason for the limited impact was that we were treating the initiative as a side project. It needed our full attention to be successful. So we spun off as a team and set up Sewa Day as a completely new and independent project. That was over three years ago.
We established three principle aims for Sewa Day: to alleviate human hardship, improve the environment, bring a little joy to those with little to look forward to. To achieve our goals we wanted large numbers of people to give us their time, not their money. This would also help us in our fourth agenda item – the promotion of community cohesion. We wanted to promote the idea of people from diverse sections of our society pulling together to improve the quality of all our lives.
The timing of Sewa Day is probably not surprising, if you think about it. As professionals from various fields, we could see that the unfolding financial crisis was going to have serious consequences for the community here. It was a veritable “social time bomb”. Tick tock. Indeed, around the same time, the Prime Minister in waiting was beginning to talk openly about his ideas for a Bigger Society.
So, is Sewa Day successful? The real measure of our success is in the value that we have added. What have we improved? Who have we helped? Answering these questions is not straightforward however. There are many intangibles involved. When a volunteer feeds a homeless person, it’s not just the hungry person who benefits. The volunteer also gains a sense of fulfilment. How do you measure this gain? An independent analysis of Sewa Day 2011 carried out by the City Hindus Network, tried to gives us some idea of the economic value Sewa Day produces. The report concluded that Sewa Day provides approximately £4.40 of net benefits to Britain for every £1 of expended on it, which equates to a conservative estimate of approximately £400,000 of monetised benefit. Given the scalability of Sewa Day, we believe that there is a large multiplier effect on this benefit the more volunteers we manage to attract.
Recent endorsements from HRH The Prince of Wales, UNESCO, celebrities and politicians are further indications that our work is going in the right direction.
So, what will I remember most from year three? Some personal highlights:
Living the life of a homeless person for a few hours and realising we have so much to learn from this section of our community – not just about the challenges these poor people face but also about our capacity to deal with situations outside our own comfort zones. I would encourage people to take part in future workshops – you’ll be better for the experience;
The huge turnout of young people: 2012 really felt like the year we connected with the next generation. The fantastic pictures posted on our Facebook page over the last few days, of the many bright young faces who took part this year, has been a great source of encouragement for us. In the UK, I believe we certainly benefitted from the volunteering wave that was created by the Olympics this summer. In addition, The NHSF (National Hindu Students Forum) were instrumental in getting the university population engaged;
Hitting a critical mass (ok, I said it wasn’t about the numbers, but….): Our social media, outreach and PR campaigns finally hit the jackpot. Last year, we had around 15,000 people take part in 15 countries. A decent number but it still felt like Sewa Day had yet to hit a critical mass. That all changed this year. Mobilising between 50,000 and 100,000 people in over 20 countries meant that our volunteers could take on more substantial projects. Every project I visited on Sunday had 100s of volunteers – some projects reportedly had to turn people away the interest was so great. As an example of projects, I visited the Keech Hospice in Bedfordshire where our volunteers were painting large day rooms and tending to landscaped gardens. In Hong Kong, Sewa Day volunteers prepared food for and served 1,000 under privileged people. Real work. Valuable work;
Sewa Day Schools programme: We launched our schools programme this year. Where better to change society than in the hearts and minds of the next generation. Maybe they’ll do a better job of running the planet than the last two generations. Almost 100 schools around the world took part in the week long scheme. A UNESCO endorsement for the programme was an added vindication of our efforts;
Royal recognition: 2012 was a special year for us as a famous volunteering icon, HM The Queen, celebrated her Diamond Jubilee. I was honoured to meet her on behalf of Sewa Day in February and more recently, HRH The Prince of Wales endorsed our efforts to promote good citizenship and community values;
New friends: Linking up with Amnesty International provided projects that people could take part in without even leaving their homes. Another significant new relationship, Lloyds Banking Group, provided us with 100’s of new volunteers. These organisations truly understood and promoted the message of Sewa Day wholeheartedly (and are already gearing up to support us next year). We will continue to forge partnerships with organisations who share our ethos and mind set;
Local government support: Following our success story in Croydon last year, three other London councils adopted Sewa Day as their charity day – Ealing, Brent and Harrow. We look forward to adding more councils from around the UK in coming years;
Calling all the heroes: Pictures of a regiment of Nepalese Gurkhas wearing our tee shirt while helping clear the area around a village hall in Yorkshire, recently damaged by flooding, certainly bought a lump to my throat. To be honest, I’ve met so many heroes and big hearted people in the last few weeks – uniformed and otherwise – I feel humbled;
The weather: For us in the UK, the weather is a topic of obsession. I’m grateful that the god’s were smiling down on us for a change, as we carried out our work in bright sunlight. In addition, I didn’t see any stormy pictures from our projects in the rest of the world, so I’m hoping everyone enjoyed some warmth on Sunday.
Overall, in a year when it seems that volunteering has suddenly become hip, it was fantastic to see so many volunteers at projects all across the world. Seeing thousands helping others, whether through improving the environment or supporting the vulnerable and less fortunate fills me with great joy. The concept behind Sewa Day is about helping others in need and everyone who got involved has put a smile on somebody’s face.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank our corporate sponsors and partners: Unesta International Property Services, Vascroft Ltd., First International Group, Elite Visions, Lloyds Banking Group, The Big Issue, UNESCO, Amnesty International, British Telecom, Ogilvy Group UK, The Guardian Teacher Network. Thank you also to BBC Radio and to our private sponsors and donors – you know who you are!
I’d also like to thank our team – both central and the regional/schools/ SME/ community co-ordinators. Sewa Day doesn’t have any staff. Period. So all of the above is organised by volunteers in our evenings and weekends. It goes to show that as long as a team is all facing the same way, impossible is nothing (to borrow the tagline).
However, the biggest thanks go to all of you who came out on 7 October in the fields, hospices, homeless shelters, city streets and village greens. You’re part of something special. Actually, YOU are what makes Sewa Day special.
I wonder what colour we’ll pick for next year’s tee shirt? Be safe and of course – be the change!
Arup K. Ganguly