OPINION The Power of Volunteering: By Professor John Gear
For anyone who donates their time, money or skills to a worthy cause, it’s tempting to wish that it was possible to fix the world. For some, there are so many problems to overcome - many of which are so overwhelming - that it’s difficult to know where to begin.
At the Tshemba Foundation, we have a different view: small things can make a big difference with a slow but exponential impact over time. You just have to find the right levers.
Find small changes for a big impact
After many years of working in primary healthcare, I have been privileged to conclude my career with the Tshemba Foundation, a medical volunteer programme that gives medical professionals from around the world the opportunity to share their knowledge, skills and experience with primary healthcare providers.
The foundation was launched as a direct result of the founders recognising that there was a need - specifically within the primary healthcare system in rural areas - and a belief that that they could find a way to contribute positively to improving rural health care by adding real, meaningful and measurable value to the deep and often systemic issues that our local healthcare system faces.
The founders engaged with the Mpumalanga Department of Health and the volunteer programme was established to collaborate with Tintswalo Hospital and the surrounding clinics in the area. Through a process of mutual learning and engagement, the programme has been fine-tuned since it was launched in 2017.
Finding the right ways to make a sustainable impact
The challenge with any volunteering programme is to have a sustainable impact, however. It’s important to be able to recognise the difference between big interventions that do not have longevity and the interventions that will measurably improve patient care and the lives of the nurses, doctors and staff in local hospitals and clinics.
This is a lesson I learnt for the first time four decades ago, but it’s as relevant today as it was then. In the 1980s, there was a passionate doctor who lived and worked at Tintswalo.
He revamped the clinic and to secure a regular supply of medicines to every clinic in the area, he had a schedule that nurses had to follow each week to ensure timely delivery. When everything works, morale goes up. It was an incredible, cohesive team.
Unfortunately, within six months of that same doctor leaving, everything went back to the status quo. It was heartbreaking, but there was a clear takeaway - changes need to be sustainable. They can’t rely on a passionate champion who drives the entire initiative personally. It also gave another key insight - not every intervention needs to be huge and sweeping. Sometimes, it’s the small changes that can make the most significant differences.