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Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

Why Can't We All Just Get Along?


Steve Reacts to News Items

I was reminded recently of how easy it is to develop strange ideas about “volunteering,” a word that I am convinced causes mental fog in the minds of many. The reminder came from reading two articles. Since news articles have a tendency to disappear from the Internet I’ll briefly summarize both:

1. “Shelter Walker Gets Boot,” The Noblesville Ledger, January 16, 2004

A volunteer dog walker and cage cleaner with the Humane Society of Hamilton County is terminated. The reason given for the termination is that she has “developed a relationship with a former employee of the shelter who now is trying to undermine the shelter and make it look bad.” The “undermining” concerns allegations by the previous public relations and community outreach coordinator of the shelter of agency mismanagement and animal mishandling by the current top staff of the shelter. The bulk of the articles relates some of the allegations and then discusses the termination of the volunteer, giving the perspectives of other shelter volunteers about her usually excellent attention to caring for the animals.

2. “A True Volunteer,” Strait Times Interactive, August 1, 2004
(This one has already disappeared from the Web.)

This is an interview with Sanjit Bunker Roy, founder and director of the Barefoot College in India. Barefoot College ( trains the illiterate poor to become solar engineers, hand-pump mechanics, teachers and health-care workers in their own villages. The major subject of the interview is accountability in the social sector, and the main focus is on the salaries paid to workers in charitable organizations. Mr. Roy proposes that no one in the voluntary sector should be paid more than the minimum wage of the state. He applies this principle already to himself and to the other 400 employees of the Barefoot College, which enables them to do a lot of work on a budget of US$2 million per year.

Both of these stories provoked some strong reactions.

The first is a sad but all-too-typical tale of a volunteer being terminated from an animal shelter for reasons that don’t have a lot to do with the work performance, behavior or intentions of the volunteer. There are a lot of interesting issues, but what struck me was the comment toward the end by David Sanders, the Board Chair of the organization under discussion. When asked about the firing of the volunteer he is quoted as saying: “I really don’t know anything about that. As a Board we don’t work directly with volunteers.”

Excuse me?

Not to impugn Mr. Sander’s intelligence or dedication, but it is instructive to try that comment again, substituting a number of other words in place of “volunteer”:

  • “As a Board we don’t work directly with finances…”
  • “As a Board we don’t work directly with program…”
  • “As a Board we don’t work directly with the animals…”

One is left wondering with what exactly the Board does work directly, although in this case, assuming the facts in the newspaper article are correct, the answer could be “very little.”

But to Mr. Sanders, the notion of not working directly with volunteers is a reasonable one. After all, why should the Board be concerned with something that Mr. Sanders obviously considers as peripheral to the operation of the organization?

It’s not, after all, as though volunteers had anything real or important to offer. And it’s not like we pay them real money.

Sanjit Bunker Roy in the second article has devoted his life to helping others in India, doing what seem to be some very amazing things. Mr. Roy not only does these things, he also obviously thinks a lot about the conditions under which they should be done and the ethics of the voluntary sector. As part of that thinking he has imposed a salary limit on those in his organization, starting with himself. And in his mind, there are strict limits on what one can take and still be in the spirit of volunteering:

A volunteer gets a living wage instead of a market wage. I can volunteer to work for life on a living wage that way. How much do I need to make my ends meet? That much I'll take. If I take what I'm worth, I cease to be a volunteer. But if I'm worth $20,000 and I take $500, I'm a volunteer.

If you read between the lines of the article you’ll note that Mr. Roy has a degree of scorn for those in the voluntary sector who take anything more than a living wage. We could debate this for any length of time, but I’ll confess at the start that it bothers me somewhat to see this disrespect for people who choose to work in the charitable sector, most of whom easily fit within the category of underpaid. Personally I’ve always thought that the aim of the charitable sector was to make us all equally rich, not equally poor, but that’s just my opinion….

Now I suspect that Mr. Roy came to his conclusion following a great deal more thinking that Mr. Sanders brought to his, but I’m not sure that his conclusion is any more rational. Each distorts a realistic look at volunteering, one by undervaluing it and the other by over-valuing it. Each seems struck in the interesting mindset that what a person does can only be valued by what they are paid to do it. People who have this mindset have a hard time thinking reasonably about volunteering, and they generally end up either putting it on a pedestal or else treating it like a momentary aberration of the slightly deranged – one that should be tactfully ignored in a politely capitalistic society.

Susan Adds Her Thoughts

As I read Steve’s ruminations, I thought of another mindset issue that relates to who volunteers and why. That’s the concept of the best volunteering being “selfless,” a descriptor generally applied reverently to altruistic behavior.

One of the most prolific sources of writing and training about selfless volunteering is offered by what is now called The Center for Purposeful Living (formerly the Human Service Alliance and also known for the University for the Study of Human Goodness, ) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Their 1996 book is entitled Better Than Money Can Buy: The NEW Volunteers. Here’s how it’s described on

Human Service Alliance (HSA) volunteers have been described as "angels" and HSA has been called "the next best thing to heaven," yet it is the true story of a group of ordinary people who perform extraordinary, selfless deeds in daily service to others. Hundreds of volunteers at this unique Winston-Salem organization care for adults who are dying, children with developmental disabilities, and people who suffer from chronic pain. The organization and its efforts have been described as being similar to the work of Mother Teresa, with an American, nondenominational approach.

It is, of course, Mother Teresa who epitomizes the selfless ideal. Proponents of this school of service believe that only when one’s ego and personal needs are suppressed in the face of human suffering can true help be offered. A variation on this theme is the attitude that “true” (close cousin of our favorite term “pure”) volunteers come forward of their own accord and that the concept of recruitment – asking people to help – somehow negates the voluntary offering of service.

I realize that I am now in danger of alienating some readers, but I honestly have never understood the goal of selflessness. It makes me wonder:

  • Given the conscious intention to be selfless, isn’t there the danger of selfishly using the person in need for the volunteer to feel spiritually holy? Thereby ending up as the opposite?
  • Why is it necessary to “leave one’s ego at the door” in order to serve? Isn’t it more genuine to bring yourself fully into the relationship with the person to be served? To share your skills and talents generously?
  • Selfless-directed volunteers are usually focused on care giving and rarely on advocacy or activism to deal with the causes of the problems faced by the people to be served. It is enough to be there to accept and deal with the needs and, if those continue forever, that may be the way the universe meant it to be. Injustice, if recognized at all, is viewed sadly but without desire to take action – which would mean drawing attention to the volunteer’s “self.”

This last point is why I see red whenever a political figure suggests that citizens ought to “go help in a soup kitchen” or some similar activity. In my opinion, a political leader should be more concerned with ending hunger than perpetuating food as charity. But, in truth, few presidents or prime ministers would go on record urging citizens to agitate for change. They prefer to view volunteers as helpers, not as activists.

Coincidentally, I just visited a very interesting project in Austin, Texas called Mobile Loaves and Fishes ( ) that prepares and delivers meals with catering trucks to the homeless and the hungry on the street. It has a religious base, involves 2200 volunteers, and is quite impressive as an episodic volunteer management model. See one of the articles on their Web site for a sense of how the project presents itself: .

The core belief of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, however devoted they are to feeding people in need, is that the importance of their work is to give volunteers the chance to serve – having the long-term ripple effect of engaging mainly middle class volunteers in loving outreach. The founder is opposed to any “dilution of our mission to serve” by collaborating with other community agencies or becoming active in dealing with the fight for affordable housing or any such activism. He believes “the poor will always be with us.” Isn’t that great for the middle class volunteers?

One final rant: Can’t we once and for all stop referring to all volunteering as addressing only “serious social problems” or as only assisting paid staff in human service agencies? What about all the critical volunteer support for the arts, the environment, education, youth sports, politics, and all the other things that create a community? Money (or lack of it) and spirituality are hardly the only issues at play in all participation in a civil society.

Curmudgeonly Principles

Now that both Steve and Susan have sounded off, and since we’re both tired of people thinking strange thoughts about volunteers, we thought we’d start a list of Suggested Universal Principles of Volunteering, to which you can feel free to add your own Pet Peeves:

  1. Volunteers are normal people and tend to be just like the rest of us a lot of the time. Once you accept this obvious but occasionally depressing fact many aspects of volunteer behavior become much clearer.

  2. Volunteers vary from really nice altruistic people to relatively selfish people. Some are both. People who think that all volunteers wear halos just haven’t met enough of them to create a representative cross section. And, remarkably, both altruistic and selfish people can provide really useful service in the right situation.

  3. The quality of the work done by volunteers ranges from extraordinarily well performed to not very well done at all. Monetary payment, or the lack of it, has less to do with the quality of work performance than character, motivation, knowledge and support. That’s why employees, too, sometimes do stupendous work and other times do awful work.

  4. Decision makers in organizations need to start seeing – really seeing – volunteers as integrated with all key aspects of daily work: focused on mission, a financial asset, vital to community outreach and public relations, and relevant to client/customer service.

  5. The value of a volunteer is best judged by what they do, not what they do it for. Don’t spend a lot of time analyzing the underlying psychological motivations of volunteers unless you really think you can understand your own. And if you think that, we strongly recommend therapy.

  6. The reasons why volunteers become involved in their work in the first place are incredibly varied and usually complex. But once they are engaged, the reasons why volunteers remain committed often change. It may ultimately matter less how or why someone enters into service than why she or he stays.

  7. People in need do not exist to give volunteers a good experience. Every organization dealing with social problems ought to be working towards eliminating the need for its services.

  8. While needs still exist, the best service occurs when there is a true exchange of benefits, with the giver and the receiver both coming away with a gain. Otherwise the giving becomes noblesse oblige, paternalistic charity (“we who have so much, give to those who have so little”) that elevates the volunteer above the one in need.

  9. Not all volunteering deals with “Serious Social Problems” and we ought to stop being pompous in thinking that it does – or even should. However, all volunteering does deal with things that matter enough to individuals to devote themselves to that cause, for whatever the reason. Thank Heaven for that.

Your turn now….

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