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Developing a Rational National Approach to Issues Affecting Volunteers

Developing a Rational National Approach to Issues Affecting Volunteers

We have been privileged to travel internationally during the past few years, which gives us a very different perspective on volunteerism than anyone working only in their home country. Unfortunately, we admit to being close to despair about what is - or, rather, isn't - happening in the United States right now, particularly in comparison to other countries. The total lack of interest by the American federal government in the International Year of Volunteers is only one indicator of the problem, but before we simply complain, we need to determine exactly what we need and want from government to assist in our efforts to promote volunteering.

Attitudes About Government and the Role of the Voluntary Sector

Most people in the world have mixed emotions about their government, and humor mocking political figures and government officials is pretty universal. But it is unique to the United States for organizations to proclaim proudly on their literature: "We accept no government funds." Americans see independence from government "interference" as a sign of legitimacy. In other countries, meanwhile, it is considered a sign of success when the government acknowledges the value of something that has been pioneered by a nonprofit and/or volunteers by either funding the program or even making it an official service of government.

The first European colonists came to the New World to escape government, as well as official state religions and domineering aristocrats. After the War of Independence, the new federal government was assigned to quite limited roles of military defense, regulation of trade, and international relations. What has come to be called the "voluntary sector" arose in the United States as a clear preference for self-reliance - services developed and controlled by private individuals. As so often happens, however, over time we have developed contradictory views and have blurred the lines between sectors. Ironically enough, much of the growth of the voluntary sector in the United States is a result of governmental actions - the granting of "tax exempt" status and the allowance of charitable deductions in our Internal Revenue Code. And much of the funding of volunteer programs is provided through government contracts for delivery of social services.

Despite this connection, however, the relationship between government officials - whether legislators, agency employees, judges, or others - and volunteering is marked by misunderstanding and indifference.

Government Support for Volunteering

In Along the Web in this issue, Steve provides the URLs of significant government policy statements and legislation affecting volunteering from a range of countries. For example, Canada is in the midst of an impressive re-examination of the role of government and the voluntary sector, with an entire task force devoted to the subject of volunteers. In England, Parliament has issued new policies articulating its commitment to the fundamental importance of citizen involvement.

It seems to us that national governments have a role, and an obligation, to play in the following three areas:

1. Understanding What Volunteering Is All About

Like motherhood and apple pie, volunteering is a subject for which legislators and government officials will almost universally express support. Unfortunately, this support is based on a great deal of misinformation about what volunteering is all about, how it happens, and what is necessary to make it work successfully. Given that most political campaigns rely on volunteers, this ignorance is quite strange.

In discussing the possible role of government in support of volunteering, it is almost impossible to keep legislators, academics and even nonprofit executives on the subject of "volunteers." Over and over again, the language used moves from a focus on volunteering to consideration of the "voluntary sector." As an odd consequence of this, you will find both legislators and nonprofit executives who are quite happy to discuss how the government should assist the voluntary sector through actions that involve monetary resources (direct funding, taxation changes, etc.) but who seem baffled when the issue of government support of donated human resources such as volunteers is broached.

This is a serious problem. Issues important to the support of volunteers are both more specific and more far-reaching than issues affecting the nonprofit field as a whole. "More specific" in that we want to deal with things that facilitate individuals in engaging in participatory democracy and that help any setting welcome such involvement productively. "More far-reaching" in that volunteers are not limited to nonprofit organizational settings - they work in government, on behalf of businesses, in self-governed associations, in informal groups and even as lone mavericks.

The best example of the consequences of not understanding the nature of volunteering is evidenced in the adoption of legislation and policies which, while tendered with good intentions, may actually do more harm than good. The most prominent recent example of this was the much-praised Volunteer Protection Act, enacted by the federal government and 48 states to provide liability protection for volunteers. What you probably don't know is that some versions of that law enacted by various states suffer from severe shortcomings, excluding many organizations from coverage, because the drafters failed to appreciate the wide range of agencies that involve volunteers. Some of these shortcomings are still on the books.

Very often the consequences of not understanding volunteering result in legislation that simply acts as though volunteers don't exist. Much of the equal employment legislation of the last decades is notable because it uses the term "employee" to indicate who is covered by the legislation without defining whether that applies to both paid and unpaid workers. As a consequence, it remains unclear whether significant legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act protects volunteers. Recent legislation requiring criminal record checks for volunteers is another example of the problems caused by not understanding logistically how volunteer organizations actually manage volunteers. The requirements are almost literally impossible for some types of volunteer settings to fulfill.

Volunteers are too integral to the social services system of our country to be misunderstood by those who are charged with enacting or implementing legislation.

2. Developing an Overall Policy on Volunteer Involvement

Both Canada and the United Kingdom are leading the way in trying to develop a written statement of the relationship between government and voluntary programs, working through the difficult task of determining how the two sectors should interact in providing social services. In both countries, the role of volunteers is being addressed, and ways in which the government can be supportive of volunteering are being considered.

The United States has nothing in this area. In fact, a close examination of the nearest thing we have to a "national policy" on volunteering would suggest an attitude as far away from positive as possible - an absolute ban on the involvement of volunteers.

One of the most significant ironies of the subject of government backing for volunteering is that the US Federal government specifically prohibits volunteers from working in its own government offices! This prohibition was originally established in the 1800s as a safeguard against political patronage workers sneaking their way into government jobs, something which, through the well-known "Schedule C" job classification, has now become an accepted part of federal employment. Nonetheless, the prohibition remains on the books and is interpreted to prevent the general acceptance of volunteer workers by federal agencies and programs.

An agency of the federal government wishing to involve volunteers must seek specific statutory legislation exempting itself from the general prohibition. Occasionally it has taken years to get the approving legislation enacted. Volunteers are part of the National Park Service, the Department of Agriculture, and other specific programs because of individually created legislation exempting these from the practices of the rest of government. For decades, ACTION and now the Corporation for National and Community Service have been prohibited from placing volunteers in their own administrative offices, at the same time that those offices urge nonprofits to recruit volunteers!

National governments can be role models for welcoming citizen participation - way beyond the window dressing of various unpaid advisory councils and commissions. And national governments can, and should, work collaboratively with voluntary organizations to develop protocols and accords outlining how they will work together to foster citizen involvement and build social capital.

3. Providing Concrete Support for Volunteering

There are numerous ways that governments can provide support for volunteering. Here are a few possibilities:

  • National Center for Volunteering
    It's hard to be supportive when you don't have a central agency whose mandate includes volunteering. Alas, the United States has never had a central governmental unit which focused on the voluntary sector, much less on volunteering. At various times, the White House has had a section which dealt primarily with the voluntary sector (or with, in the current period, faith-based organizations), but that office has always dealt with the subject in a purely political fashion.

    We cannot think of any truly national volunteer center that does not derive its legitimacy from government mandate, even if some or most of the funding must be raised elsewhere. There are also numerous national centers supported entirely by government money. While the Points of Light Foundation is incorporated as an independent nonprofit organization, it is an approved component of the legislation mandating the Corporation for National and Community Service and receives operating dollars from tax money. However, Congress has not provided any direction or sense of mission to this program, nor did it do so for any of its predecessor organizations (see Susan's Voices from the Past historical chart in the last issue). Nor does the Points of Light Foundation act to provide leadership in this area, since it lacks any internal unit that focuses on either government volunteering or legislation. The Corporation for National and Community Service, while a governmental entity, is focused almost entirely upon its own programs.

    The question of national volunteer centers was the subject of the Global Perspectives Keyboard Roundtable in the last issue, for those interested in the experience of other countries with such a government program.
  • Research
    The very first national study of the extent of volunteering in the United States was conducted by the US Census Bureau in conjunction with the census of 1970. But this pioneering effort turned out to be a dead end. Since that time, all studies in this country have been privately funded. One way to demonstrate that volunteering is valued is to learn about it accurately. Not only is this something that ought to be funded by the government, but it ought to be included as an element in normal reporting to the government: on nonprofit tax reports; as part of the documentation showing how federal grants were used; as part of program evaluations of all sorts.

    To see why we feel the US is so far behind other countries when it comes to volunteerism research, just take a look at the remarkable list of studies presently underway in England and Wales, as described elsewhere in this issue by Prime.
  • Regulations That Are Sensibly Enforced
    Under the previous Democratic administration, the US Department of Labor took some very strange actions that were harmful to volunteering. Perhaps the most famous of these was telling a nursing home in Pennsylvania that it was unlawful to have a 14-year-old volunteer deliver water pitchers to residents because this was an employee "job." It ought to be possible for the government to delineate the difference between unfair labor practices and legitimate service by volunteers. Organizations should not have to fear enforcement of rules that stifle both genuine community involvement and what is best for recipients of service. It is also possible to support labor unions and volunteers, without elevating one over the other. The Office of Personnel Management has for decades convened occasional task forces to study "barriers to volunteering," but none of these has resulted in any action whatsoever to rationalize government regulations affecting volunteers.
  • Modeling the Value of Volunteer Involvement
    To its credit, the US government is modeling one type of volunteering, through encouraging federal employees to volunteer. Since the Clinton administration, the Office of Personnel Management has encouraged agencies to facilitate means for federal employees to become workplace volunteers. Whether the Bush administration will continue this effort remains to be seen.

    Of course, one could question why the government allows our tax dollars to be spent underwriting individual federal employees to do volunteer work for nonprofit organizations when it fails to allow volunteers from non-public work sites to offer their services to government.

    As pointed out above, the federal government is failing in modeling the utilization of volunteers within its own programs. One way to remedy this is to repeal the general prohibition against acceptance of volunteers by federal agencies, but showing support for volunteer involvement goes beyond this. Our favorite example of the abysmal attitude of the government bureaucracy toward volunteers is that federal employees (as well as state and local ones, by the way) who manage volunteers receive no managerial credit. Currently staff who oversee hundreds of volunteers aren't considered supervisors, receive no credit or compensation for their work in managing others, and can't even qualify for supervisory training, let alone salaries. It's as if the volunteers they lead don't count as human beings.

We could go on with our list, but these illustrate what might be done. In their absence, volunteering continues to grow despite, not because of, government actions.

Civil Society, Social Capital, and Other Political Rhetoric

It is currently fashionable for government officials everywhere to extol the virtues of what has been coined a "civil society." How can anyone be against such goals as general civility, greater participation in the democratic process, and renewed neighborhood strength? But too often this is a smokescreen raised to cover government withdrawal from the provision of social services - leaving communities to do for themselves what their taxes ought to buy. On the other hand, if volunteering is not an indicator of a strong civil society, what is? And now the Bush administration is pushing American "faith-based initiatives" - without acknowledgment that this is hardly anything new and out of the misguided hope that churches will mobilize volunteers to do things for free. (For a discussion of faith-based initiatives, see July's Hot Topic on the Energize site.)

As this issue of e-Volunteerism is posted, the International Year of Volunteers is half over. Even a brief visit to the IYV website reveals that this Year is generating the most activity in countries where the government has taken an interest. Conversely, in the United States, IYV is practically invisible.

Alas, that invisibility is just one aspect of a much more significant problem.

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