Volunteers are neither saints nor teddy bears.
But you would never know it from the kinds of language so many people use to talk about them.
Back in November 2009, I got a mass email sent out from United Nations Volunteers to several thousand people that illustrates this oh-so-well. It said, in part:
This is the time to recognize the hard work and achievements of volunteers everywhere who work selflessly for the greater good.
And then there are those companies that sell items for organizations to give to their volunteers, with phrases like:
Volunteers spread sunshine!
Volunteers… hearts in bloom!
In a word – yuck.Not all volunteers are selfless! Yes, I fully acknowledge that there are still some volunteers that like to be thanked with pink balloons and fuzzy words – but could we at least acknowledge that there are many thousands of volunteers who do not respond to this way of being recognized?
Volunteers are not all donating unpaid service to be nice, or to make a difference for a greater good of all humanity or to be angels. Volunteers also donate unpaid service:
- to gain certain kinds of experience
- for a sense of adventure
- to gain skills and contacts for paid employment
- for fun
- to meet people in the hopes of making friends or even get dates
- because they are angry and want to see first hand what’s going on at an organization or within a cause, or to contribute to a cause they feel passionate about
- to feel important
- to change people’s perceptions about a group (a religious minority in a community may volunteer to demonstrate to the majority that they are a part of the community too, that they care about other people, etc.)
NONE of those reasons to volunteer are selfless. But all of them are excellent reasons to volunteer, nonetheless – and excellent reasons for an organization to involve a volunteer.
These not-so-selfless volunteers are not less committed, less trustworthy or less worth celebrating than the supposed selfless volunteers.Let’s quit talking about volunteers with words like nice and selfless. Let’s drop the fuzzy language and start using more modern and appropriate language to talk about volunteers that recognizes their importance, like
Let’s even call them mettlesome and confrontational and demanding. That’s what makes volunteers necessary, not just nice.In short, let’s give volunteers their due with the words we use to describe them.
And don’t even try to say volunteers save money, because that starts yet another blog rant…