Turning the tides on child drowning
Rebecca Wear Robinson
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Why Do You Work For Free?

by Rebecca Wear Robinson on March 20, 2013


Drowning is not a little issue. It is a global public health epidemic and we need to treat it like one. I know of only 5 organizations in the field that have a decent balance sheet – and their primary purpose isn’t even drowning prevention. Where is our Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation? Our World Wildlife Fund? Until we start treating drowning prevention as a business that is based on data, marketed effectively, with measurable results and a healthy bottom line used to hire the best people, support wide-reaching, cost-effective and effective programs, AND engage volunteers, we are not going to end drowning, or even make a serious dent. As Melinda Gates said recently, non-profits need to learn from Coca-Cola.  Yes, we do. Now. So what is holding us back? Why aren’t we on the global stage with our global issue?

I see a couple of prevailing attitudes in the drowning prevention field that are holding us back. Overall, the attitudes are incredibly positive and inspiring – passion, commitment, determination, energy, a love of water, a deep understanding of aquatics and water safety, and a sincere devotion to the cause. Then there are the far less flattering traits of fear and the ‘aw shucks syndrome’. Fear because stepping onto the global stage takes serious cojones, not to mention having a big spotlight on your best-intentioned efforts. Also fear of giving up your bit of turf, something that few organizations are willing to do when so many are scrambling for crumbs of funding and volunteers. People don’t see that an organized business approach to the issue will raise awareness, which generates demand for programs, which attracts funding and more awareness, and ultimately drastically reduces drowning. Looking at ending drowning with a business eye means there will be a whole pie to work from, not just crumbs. The ‘awe shucks syndrome’ exists because of the attitude that if you aren’t working for free for the greater good, suffering for the cause, operating on a shoe-string, having trouble getting people to listen or to donate money, that you somehow aren’t REALLY serious about ending drowning. Also known as the ‘we must suffer for our art’ anguished artist syndrome. Last time I checked, that just resulted in an ear being hacked off, not in social change on a global level.

Volunteering itself is a wonderful, noble and fulfilling occupation that strengthens our society and enhances our humanity, but it’s manifesting itself in the self-defeating attitude that I hear over and over again, the hint of ‘aw shucks, I do this work for free’, like it’s somehow better, more noble, accompanied by a suspicion of people and organizations who are not scrambling for funds. You know, those money-grubbing organizations like AIDS Red, except guess what? They have managed to shift the needle on AIDS education and transmission through an amazing and successful integrated business approach to a public health issue. ‘Fear’ and ‘aw shucks’ are the attitudes that are holding us back. Our goal should be to create organizations which are financially viable so that dedicated professionals in the field, and especially tireless volunteers who wish to devote their professional energies to drowning prevention full-time, can be employed to create and administer effective drowning prevention initiatives.

Am I saying that people shouldn’t volunteer their time and talents? Absolutely not! I descend from generations of devoted volunteers for any number of causes and have spent thousands of hours myself volunteering, and yes, many of those hours have been in the drowning prevention field. But there is a difference between a person volunteering their time and talents and an organization operating like an ‘aw shucks’ volunteer. For years I volunteered for a major teaching hospital that tracked over one million hours a year in volunteer time – they couldn’t have operated without that commitment – but they sure didn’t provide services to save lives without an eye on the bottom line that enabled the organization to compete and provide world-class services. They may have been a not-for-profit, but they operate as a thriving business, so they can save lives. The problem is, operating entirely as a ‘we love what we do and we’re just doing what we can on a shoestring’ is like filling a bucket with a hole in the bottom one drop of water at a time. Yes, we are making a difference, but on too small of a scale to ever fill the bucket, to ever significantly reduce drowning.

I’m seeing a shift in attitudes – the most important is the new Global Drowning Tracker just introduced by International Surf Lifesaving Association (ISLA) which leverages technology, social media and unilateral engagement of drowning prevention organizations AND the public to put a spotlight on the issue of drowning. More on that exciting initiative when I’m back on April 3, but in the meantime, check out their video on YouTube.

Until we make a decision to end drowning as a business and not a ‘feel good’ operation, hundreds of thousands of people will continue to drown every year. Screw that. Time to change how we do business. Who’s with me?

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