Why Should the Poor Volunteer? It’s Time To Re-Think the Answer

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersIn 2006, I was invited by Mary Merrill to write a column about the ethics around asking poor people and chronically unemployed people – those desperate for funds – to volunteer. It was in response to an article on the United Nations World Volunteer Web.

Below is an archived version of my 2006 article for Mary:

Why Should the Poor Volunteer? It’s Time To Re-Think the Answer

In an article on the World Volunteer Web in December 2005, a university student in Yemen asked, “How can you volunteer if you have no income, no money and are concerned about the means to provide your kids with something on their plates every night? With all due respect to those calling for Yemenis to volunteer, I say, ‘Please be serious!'”

In an article from the BBC, reposted on the same web site, Tom Geoghegan said, “the prospect of unwaged employment might not be so appealing if you’re a cash-strapped school leaver who wants to help mum put food on the table.”

When volunteering is so often presented just one way — as a state-sanctioned free labor activity — these responses are completely justified.

Current promotions of volunteerism, whether in rich or poor countries, are focused primarily on government-endorsed or state-driven activities: the state or large corporations, through their sponsorship of such campaigns, encourage people to work without pay to address community and social needs, the gain being a better community, improved self-esteem for the volunteer, and less money needed to pay for such action, as volunteers aren’t paid. It’s an appallingly-limited view of what volunteering is and its true importance and power, and it’s no wonder that the unemployed and the disenfranchised scoff at such campaigns.

The world and its history are rife with examples of volunteering by the unemployed and disenfranchised to positively affect people and the environment in confrontation to or outside of the state or other power structures. These activities have sometimes empowered the volunteers as full citizens for the first time. Those who organized in the Southern USA in the 1950s and 60s to register voters, to shine a blinding light on social injustice and to stop Jim Crow, the American version of apartheid? They were volunteers, often socially-excluded themselves, working against local power structures, in order to improve American society and to change their own destinies for the better. Local people engaging in campaigns to counter the practice of female genital mutilation or to improve women’s rights, often in direct opposition to community leaders or long-held traditions? Again, volunteers and, often, people who do not enjoy full employment and perhaps, in the case of women, who do not enjoy full rights as citizens. Yet, most volunteerism campaigns and conferences ignore these passionate volunteer campaigners working outside “the system,” whom Mary Merrill calls both “vigilantes” and “entrepreneurs.” Talking about volunteering as a way to challenge the state or other power structures, or to empower people and communities, would probably be quite appealing to that earlier-mentioned Yemeni student, or others who are unemployed and disenfranchised. However, mainstream campaigns continue to promote volunteerism as just a feel-good activity and a way for the state or others to not have to pay people for work — a message that just does not resonate with so many.

There’s also a tendency by such campaigns to equate all community service with volunteerism. However, if a person is paid to provide a service to the community, he or she is no longer a volunteer. That isn’t to say he or she, because of the receipt of money, has less dedication than a volunteer; I’ve certainly encountered UNDP and NGO paid staff members who are every bit as committed and heartfelt in their work as people providing unpaid service. But “volunteer” should mean the person is unpaid, or at least, giving up his or her employment for a significant period of time in order to provide full-time community service. In certain situations, volunteers may be the most appropriate to staff an initiative, while other situations may call for paid staff — and these situations often have nothing to do with whether or not there’s a budget to pay people.

If governments and donors want volunteerism campaigns in poor communities to actually lead to more volunteering, they must radically update their message. They must be prepared to show why volunteers, rather than paid staff, are best for a particular task, beyond that there’s no budget to pay such people. They must show how those whom they are trying to entice to volunteer will benefit directly in terms of potential employment or an improved life and a greater voice. They need to point out that volunteering can give a person a first-hand view of the work of the government or others, and a fact-based perspective and voice to endorse or oppose it. They need to explain that volunteers can also have their own agendas for their service, just as those promoting volunteerism do. They need to say, point blank, that one of the primary benefits of volunteering is that it can create the platform for “ordinary people” to become decision-makers, even leaders, regarding their communities and the environment, and that it can allow a diversity of voices to be heard regarding a diversity of issues. And governments and donors need to put the individuals in charge of defining their own volunteerism goals and activities, and to be prepared for those activities, at least sometimes, to be counter to the volunteerism campaigner’s agendas.

NGOs need to talk about and to volunteers as investors. They need to think of volunteer involvement as a way to build trust among community members and those whose support they need. They must learn how to translate volunteer involvement into long-term and consistent support. Volunteerism should be viewed as a way for local people, including youth, to influence policy-making. And NGOs must be explicit in their message to youth regarding how volunteering can help young people, if they so choose, to pursue their future educational and career endeavors.

VENRO, the Association of German development non-governmental organizations (NGOs), says on its web site that “NGOs are described as the core of democratic civil society. NGOs protest and interfere, they are dedicated to dialogue and cooperation. NGOs reflect the will of socially and politically responsible and committed citizens who, to a large degree, work on a voluntary basis.” It’s a much more powerful view of volunteering that what is being promoted by so many mainstream organizations, and one that would certainly appeal to that university student from Yemen.

It’s a challenging proposition for the mainstream promoters of volunteerism to think and speak so differently. But without meeting this challenge, we will turn generations and groups all over the world off to volunteering. What a tragedy that would be.

Note: Mary Merrill was a consultant regarding volunteer engagement, a dynamic, provocative speaker, a skilled facilitator, and a frequently-cited source by other consultants and volunteerism researchers, including me. Her company was called Merrill Associates, and her web site, merrillassociates.com, is archived at archive.org. Mary served as a consultant to numerous nonprofit organizations, non-governmental organizations, charities and professional associations in the United States, Canada, Russia, Armenia, Venezuela, Mexico, Brazil and the United Kingdom, and consulted with the United Nations Volunteers programme based in Germany. She taught the Institute for Community Leadership and Volunteer Administration at Ohio State University. She coordinated international study abroad projects for Ohio State University Leadership Center and North Carolina State University 4-H. She was editor of the Journal of Volunteer Administration. She was a featured speaker at three World Volunteer Conferences. She was also a licensed social worker. She received the Distinguished Service Award from the International Association for Volunteer Administration, a Lifetime Achievement Award for dedication to Volunteerism in the profession of Volunteer Administration from Volunteer Ohio, and an Award for Excellence from the Volunteer Administrators’ Network of Central Ohio, she was named Peacemaker of the Year by the Interfaith Center for Peace, and received the Walter and Marion English Award from the United Way of Franklin County. She was a graduate of Ohio State University. Mary died in February 19, 2006. She was my dear friend and colleague and mentor, and the resources on her web site, merrillassociates.com, archived at archive.org, are worth your time to read.

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