If you don’t know Wael Ghonim’s name and face, you at least know his impact.
In January of this year, the Dubai-based computer programmer and marketing executive asked his employer of two years, Google, for personal leave to return to his native Egypt. There were protests underway there, and much of the activity was being organized and communicated from a Facebook page Ghonim had set up about opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei.
What happened next has become volunteering history.
On January 27, as protests against corruption and brutality reached a new climax, Ghonim was snatched by police and taken into custody. While his family reported he was missing, Google issued a statement confirming his disappearance. Word reached other bloggers who spread the news. With casualties mounting, everyone feared the worst.
Eleven days later, following huge outcry from international organizations, Ghonim was released from prison, where he was interrogated for his role in the uprising. But if the authorities thought Ghonim would be quietly grateful they were wrong. Upon his release he told a fearful but hopeful crowd: “We will not abandon our demand and that is the departure of the regime.”
A Volunteer, and a Symbol
Ghonim was on his way to becoming a powerful symbol. With his emotional appeal to unity, his compassion for brutalized protesters, and his willingness to explain the position of Egypt’s millions of young protesters to local and international media, he soon became a symbol of the change sweeping through Egypt – change that was capped a few days later with the resignation of Hosni Mubarak and the dissolution of the parliament.
Ghonim has also become a symbol of the volunteers at the heart of social change in the Arab world. From online protests sparked by younger Egyptians like Ghonim (as well as Asmaa Mahfouz and many others) with experience using the internet, to the crowd of more than 2 million that packed Cairo’s Tahrir Square on February 10, the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 has been like all revolutions – a volunteer-led effort to make the world a better place. Messy and sometimes even violent, these upheavals are the punctuation in history’s textbook that the work of volunteers can be deathly serious, abundantly social and wildly victorious.
The Changing Nature of Volunteering
Beyond the circumstances in Egypt, Wael Ghonim’s story tells us a few interesting things about the changing nature of volunteer engagement in our times:
1. Wael Ghonim was an unaffiliated volunteer.
Like many of today’s volunteers Ghonim wasn’t associated with any specific institution or NGO. He simply acted on his own passions. Increasingly, many of today’s most impactful work is being done by individuals or groups who are working as free agents. History shows that many free agent movements coalesce to create or change institutions that will last.
2. Wael Ghonim is a Millennial volunteer.
In the West, the Baby Boomers helped defined contemporary protest in their youth. Today organizations have been told to be on the lookout for their progeny – a huge “Echo Boom” of young people with technical skills and a desire to be part of the solution. Although Egyptian by birth (not American, like his wife), Ghonim’s age, skillset and approach to social good identify him as part of the cohort.
3. Wael Ghonim moved up the ladder of engagement.
Ghonim’s involvement started somewhat modestly and deepened with time. Initially focused on his support of a Facebook page, it became more immersive when events changed his perspective. Eventually, faced with incarceration and possible death, Ghonim was willing to put everything on the line for the cause he believed in (now that’s real engagement).
4. Wael Ghonim was a skilled volunteer.
Few other volunteers could have done what Ghonim was able to do – and not only from a perspective of passion. With his computer skills, his ability to speak both Arabic and English, and his comfort with communications and marketing, Ghonim had the right toolset for the job. Those skills also helped him recognize and articulate the nature of the uprising for others’ sake.
For instance, he told 60 Minutes:
Our revolution is like Wikipedia, okay? Everyone is contributing content, [but] you don’t know the names of the people contributing the content. This is exactly what happened. Revolution 2.0 in Egypt was exactly the same. Everyone contributing small pieces, bits and pieces. We drew this whole picture of a revolution. And no one is the hero in that picture.”
5. Wael Ghonim benefited from a corporate culture of involvement.
How would this story have been different had Ghonim not received permission to step away from work? What if Ghonim had helped Egypt win its freedom only to lose his job? Total downer, that’s what.
Ghonim told CBS News that he was excited to return to work, “if I’m not fired.” Imagine his joy on February 14 when none other than Google CEO Eric Schmidt told the NY Times that the company was proud of Ghonim.
It was one of the first comments from his employer about his involvement – and an amazing show of support for a company with business at risk but a real commitment to corporate citizenship.
The Changing Face of Volunteering
Only time will tell if volunteers like Wael Ghonim become enduring symbols of the power of individuals to make a difference – but he’s certainly a symbol both of what endures and is changing in volunteering. What are your thoughts about the role of volunteers in the social change movements in today’s news? Share them with us.