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The Difference Between ‘Volunteering’ and Volunteering

For some years now I’ve been involved with a small community group. It’s a shoe-string organization that depends entirely on volunteers. These curious creatures have a predictable life-cycle. It begins when someone shyly asking if the group needs help, then hanging about trying to be useful and not get in the way. This is followed by more and more engagement in work that needs doing, until one day you notice that your work for the cause is taking up a significant amount of your life. It’s an old American story. But lately we’ve been approached by an entirely different kind of volunteer.

A corporation, school or club will send an email saying it wants to help us. The corporation wants good publicity for a “day of service” for the community. The school wants its college or high-school students to punch their community-service ticket. The email explains that there are 20, or 30, or 40 people available, and that they can come on one of two or three dates. Gee, we explain, we’re too small an outfit to make use of 20 people all at once. And by the way we aren’t working on the dates proposed. Might the group send fewer people, at a different time?

Nope, and nope. Take it or leave it, says the group that supposedly wants to help.

Now, I don’t blame anyone for wanting to find volunteer opportunities that match their resources. If you have 34 college students eager to work hard for one day, you should find someone who needs a barn raised and not a tiny soup kitchen that can fit three people in front of the stove. But what strikes me about these offers of “our way or no way” volunteering is how inflexible they are, and how indifferent to the supposed beneficiaries of the good works. These proposals say, in effect, “we want to do the work that suits us, in the way that suits us, when it suits us.” The contrast with the way individuals approach a group is pretty stark.

Volunteer organizations function only because their members let their efforts be shaped by the needs of the group. In contrast, the brute-force “volunteerism” I see from corporations and universities is about getting good publicity and the cheap high of telling yourself you did good, without putting yourself to much trouble. Granted, there is an element of self-congratulation in many volunteer experiences. But there’s also an element of self-sacrifice. Experiences that lack that element ought not to be called “service” or “volunteering.”

As recently as two or three years ago, our particular group didn’t get these kind of self-serving offers. This may be because we weren’t yet on the map. But I wonder instead if it’s because this kind of corporate, ticket-punching approach to “service” is becoming more common.

I hope not. It would be a shame if an experience that has always been tied to individual passions and interests should be turned into a systematic factory of insincere token efforts.

So, I’m curious. Readers, have you seen an increase around you in “non-volunteer” volunteerism? Does your office nudge employees to do community service—but only while wearing company t-shirts, and only on a day during the slow season when it won’t affect business? Does your local bird club or history society get requests from high school students who barely know what the group is about, and just want to put in their time? Do we need a new word for this ersatz form of “community service”?

Illustration: An old-fashioned barn-raising. Note absence of corporate logos.

Follow me on Twitter: @davidberreby


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