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Is All Volunteering Created Equal?

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Excerpt from "Steve Says…"

The strangeness began about 20 minutes into the meeting when a number of the assembled academics launched an all-out orchestrated attack on the survey [entitled “A Measure of Commitment – Volunteering for Serious Social Problems.”], contending that it was wrong to single out any type of volunteering as being of more importance than any other. The parent, for example, who volunteered to coach his own child at Little League was building just as much “social capital” as the person who volunteered to feed the homeless. To conduct a survey of just those volunteers who worked with the very needy and to publicize their work would result in denigrating the contribution made by all other volunteers who also, in their own way, enriched society. It might, for example, imply that what they did wasn’t “serious.”

All volunteering is thus equally “worthy.”

I’ve pondered this over the years and about the only thing I can say is that it strikes me as an argument that accomplishes the difficult feat of being perfectly logical while remaining totally irrational.

So, some propositions to ponder – or to disagree with:

Steve's full viewpoint

 

Excerpt from "Susan Says..."

It’s been a while since Steve and I disagreed on a topic enough to warrant a side-by-side “Points of View.” And while I DO agree with much of what Steve says – and applaud his saying it – I also have some different perspectives to offer.

It sounds totally reasonable to want to direct volunteering effort at “serious social problems” (which I refer to wryly as “SSPs”). But who decides what those SSPs are? You may think it’s a case of “I can’t define it, but when I see it I know what it is,” but I wonder. My concerns fall into two categories:

Susan's full viewpoint 

Steve Says…

Recently on CyberVPM there was a brief discussion of the results from a new Bureau of Labor Statistics survey which indicated that about 28% of American adults volunteered in 2002. The discussion centered around why this result was so much different from the Independent Sector (IS) Gallup survey on “Giving and Volunteering in the United States, 2001,” which pegged volunteering at 44%.

The quick answer to that issue is that the two polls counted “volunteering” in slightly different ways and for slightly different time periods. The IS survey is, to be blunt, designed to produce the highest percentage of volunteering possible, since it is partially intended as a public relations tool for the Third Sector. Its intent is to show all the ways that volunteers help in their communities, which explains why the most commonly cited type of volunteer work identified by the IS survey is “usher in a church.”

This all reminded me of a very strange meeting that I attended about eight years ago. It was hosted by the Points of Light Foundation and its purpose was to discuss a new survey they had commissioned: “A Measure of Commitment – Volunteering for Serious Social Problems.” This survey, in case you’ve not seen it (and you might never, since it was effectively buried following the meeting), was intended to count something different from the IS survey: people whose volunteering focused on helping to alleviate serious social problems.

Participants at the meeting – about 25 in all – included POLF staff, a small crowd of academics involved in various studies of volunteer involvement, and a few innocent bystanders (programs managers and consultants). The strangeness began about 20 minutes into the meeting when a number of the assembled academics launched an all-out orchestrated attack on the survey, contending that it was wrong to single out any type of volunteering as being of more importance than any other. The parent, for example, who volunteered to coach his own child at Little League was building just as much “social capital” as the person who volunteered to feed the homeless. To conduct a survey of just those volunteers who worked with the very needy and to publicize their work would result in denigrating the contribution made by all other volunteers who also, in their own way, enriched society. It might, for example, imply that what they did wasn’t “serious.”

All volunteering is thus equally “worthy.”

I’ve pondered this over the years and about the only thing I can say is that it strikes me as an argument that accomplishes the difficult feat of being perfectly logical while remaining totally irrational.

So, some propositions to ponder – or to disagree with:

1 We live in a world with finite resources and a seemingly infinite supply of problems. One of the finite resources is the time available for volunteers to contribute. The rational view of reality is that some community problems are more pressing than others and some members of the community have greater needs than others. A volunteer working in these areas not only contributes to his/her own “social capital,” but may create the only chance for those in need to develop the ability to someday contribute themselves.

The worst violation of this notion is in agencies who place volunteers in positions which staff not only don’t do, but that staff wouldn’t do, because they think it’s just not worth their time.

   
2. Another scarce resource is the time of staff who work with volunteers. If you don’t have the time to do everything, what should you do? Well, if you’re staff of a program, classic time management says to spend your time on what’s important and that clearly means steering volunteers towards work that will make the most difference. You may have played the budgeting game in some workshop where you’re allocated $100 and forced to decide where to spend it. Imagine doing that with volunteers: “If all you have is the time and resources to work effectively with 20 volunteers, what would you involve them in that would achieve the biggest results?”

Not only is a volunteer a terrible thing to waste, but so’s a volunteer manager.

   
3. Referral agencies such as Volunteer Centers might also want to think about this. A Volunteer Center I work with has a secret rating system for agencies:

  • those who involve volunteers in serious work and manage them well (the “A” list)
  • those who at least try to do a good job with volunteers (the “B” list)
  • those who tend to waste the time of volunteers through bad management and irrelevant work (the “C” list)

You can actually be referred to an agency on the “C” list, but only if you bring it up yourself, insist upon it and then manage to resist a sneaky effort to get you to change your mind.

The rationale for this approach is simple: A Volunteer Center isn’t just in business to cater to the needs of the volunteer or the agency – it exists to make the community a better place.

All of which brings me to my final set of conclusions:

“All volunteering is good.”

“Some volunteering is better than others.”

Susan Says…

It’s been a while since Steve and I disagreed on a topic enough to warrant a side-by-side “Points of View.” And while I DO agree with much of what Steve says – and applaud his saying it – I also have some different perspectives to offer.

It sounds totally reasonable to want to direct volunteering effort at “serious social problems” (which I refer to wryly as “SSPs”). But who decides what those SSPs are? You may think it’s a case of “I can’t define it, but when I see it I know what it is,” but I wonder. My concerns fall into two categories:

1. The Problems

Many proponents of SSP-related volunteering focus on symptoms, not causes. So we have an American President who urges people to help out in soup kitchens, but won’t enact any legislation or budget that alleviates hunger. Or we work on teaching illiterate adults to read, year after year, when one might ask why not focus with great volunteer numbers on making sure every 8th grader can read?

Few problems are one-dimensional. So, if we want to create a positive and safe learning environment for children, focusing only on the school is not enough. Volunteers (and paid workers) need to concern themselves with law enforcement on the way to and from school, availability of textbooks, peer pressure not to study, domestic violence, etc., etc. Which one of these is the SSP? Everything is interconnected and we need people working from all sides.

There’s also an argument to be made that countries spend their tax dollars where their interests lie. Navies do not have to hold bake sales to fund battleships. In today’s world-wide economic downturn, is it sensible to keep cutting funds from government programs designed to help citizens in most need (what we used to call the “safety net”)? All while we spend more on military hardware and business globalization? Obviously your answer to this depends on where you fall in the political spectrum. But it concerns me that the most vocal proponents of SSP volunteering are also the ones who deny the role of government in serving these populations and issues. (For the record, we need money AND volunteers.)

Finally, there is other political hypocrisy at play here. It’s generally advocates of “get government out of our lives” who want to define the issues qualifying as SSPs. A national agenda of SSPs may, in fact, overlook pressing problems that differ from region to region. Volunteering is always most effective from the grassroots up, not from a national exhortation down.

   
2.

The Way to Deal with Them

Not only do I think it’s difficult to identify universally-recognized problems, symptoms, causes, whatever, but I then feel there are many ways to attack them.

Given my points above, you won’t be surprised to learn that I would like to see more volunteers in activist roles. Many, many years ago, Neil Karn, who was then the director of the Virginia State Office on Volunteering, wrote an article in their newsletter about volunteers and government budget-cutting. In that article, he gently reminded everyone that politicians come to power because of the efforts of volunteers to get them elected, and that no lawmaker can allocate or cut public funds unless a substantial number of citizens hold similar views. Despite reasonable skepticism of the democratic process, it is nevertheless true that we get what we vote for.

The fact is that volunteers are generally used (and I mean “used”) by agencies for their hands and hearts, not their brains or mouths. One way to alleviate SSPs is to involve volunteers as advocates to do public speaking, talking to donors, lobbying legislators. Note the word “lobbying.” Paid staff is often forbidden from such visits with law makers, but volunteers are always private citizens and can be vocal in their quest for adequate funding for a cause. This is especially effective at local levels, where decisions may well be made by neighbors for neighbors.

Do you think any politician who espouses volunteering as good civic engagement means lobbying or agitating? They mean “helping out.”

Even hands-on volunteer work can be focused in very different ways towards the same goal – depending on one’s point of view of both what a problem is and how it might be solved. For example, the arts community is often defensive about discussions of SSPs because, in many people’s minds, the pursuit of culture and the arts is somewhat frivolous (certainly not a matter of life and death). Clearly, in the middle of a crisis such as the aftermath of an earthquake, we would all want more volunteers rescuing people from under collapsed houses than giving museum tours at that moment. But in a month, might there not be some relevance to such things as giving people in shelters an afternoon of respite in the museum or showing children how they can express their fear and grief through drawing pictures? Remember, it’s bread AND roses people need. (If you’re unfamiliar with this slogan, see http://www.boondocksnet.com/labor/history/bread_and_roses_history.html)

Steve and I agree on one major thing: All organizations ought to be deploying volunteers towards their most pressing and important work. Not every volunteer role is vital and too many are downright menial. Let’s pay for the clerical help and recruit volunteers for – yes, Steve – all the things the staff would love to be able to do, but can’t, whether because of lack of time or skill. But here’s my point: The definition of “pressing and important” work ought to be determined by each organization, based on its mission. Not by a national agenda, whether conservative, liberal, or any other vested interest. Then every citizen can select which organization or cause deserves her or his time and effort, knowing that volunteers will be engaged there in work that means something and makes a difference.

My take on this, therefore, is:

“All volunteering is good.”

“Any volunteer role has the potential to matter greatly.”