Skip to main content

Questions of Public Policy

Questions of Public Policy

Volunteering is intricately intertwined with many areas of society and public life, some obvious and some that should be better recognized. In this issue of “Points of View” we discuss public policy arenas that relate to volunteering.  For each arena, we pose some philosophic and practical questions designed to provoke deeper thought. 

You’ll note there are no answers here, since our goal was to brainstorm the issues.  However, any question below could – and probably should – become the focus of academic or government research, or the subject of an article in e-Volunteerism (hint).

Linda Graff started this conversation via e-mail and the rest of us just decided to pile on our opinions and questions.  Feel free to join in with us….

Government/Voluntary Sector Policy

  • What is the appropriate role of government in encouraging volunteer involvement?  How can this role be undertaken without dominating voluntary agencies through financial incentives or controls?
  • Who speaks for volunteerism in negotiations with government and what happens to the negotiation process when peak bodies receive significant government financial support?
  • If government invests heavily in supporting volunteering, is it then appropriate for government to consciously “shape” volunteering to fit its own ends?
  • How will the involvement of government affect the historical advocacy role of volunteers, much of which involves advocating against government decisions and actions?
  • Are volunteers so essential to community involvement that we should require government agencies to involve volunteers as representatives of the community?
  • If volunteering is seen as so important for the voluntary sector, should government at all levels be required to include volunteers in its own workforce?
  • If volunteerism is faltering, should the government intervene?

Social Development Policy

  • How do you build a civil society and democracy and what can volunteering contribute to these goals?
  • How can volunteering serve as one route to social inclusion, including involvement of the disenfranchised in politics, community affairs, economic opportunities, etc?
  • If volunteering is vitally important to both a civil society and social inclusion, should government consider some form of required community service for all citizens?
  • Does volunteering allow government to avoid addressing pressing social needs such as hunger and homelessness?

Health Policy

  • What are health benefits (physical, psychological, etc.) of volunteering and how does volunteering contribute to a healthier life?
  • How does volunteering contribute to work/life balance?
  • If volunteering is shown to promote both mental and physical health, should we require it or remunerate expenses related to it as a form of wellness/prevention?  Should those who volunteer be given discounts on health insurance?  Can employers discriminate in favor of hiring those who volunteer, just as they sometimes now discriminate in favor of those with other healthy lifestyles?
  • What is the role of volunteers in delivering health care and in what ways do current restrictive practices in hospitals and other healthcare institutions inhibit performance of this role?
  • Given cost-cutting concerns and practices such as limiting days of in-hospital care, what should be the role of volunteers in post-treatment follow up and should this require special training, underwriting, and coordination?

Tax Policy

  • Should government provide tax deductions/credits for volunteering as a means of encouraging more volunteering?  Does this discriminate against those with lower incomes who will probably not benefit form such efforts?
  • Should we provide tax breaks to corporations who develop volunteering as an employment benefit for staff?
  • Are tax “work-off” programs (e.g., allowing seniors on fixed incomes to volunteer time in municipal government programs in lieu of paying real estate taxes) a good or viable idea, and in what circumstances?

Employment Policy

  • In what ways does a “volunteer” equate to an “employee” for the purposes of employment law?  Are/should volunteers be provided with protections such as those provided employees against age discrimination, disability discrimination, etc?  How does this balance with the rights of free association that are at the heart of membership groups?
  • Is required community service volunteering, quasi-employment, or what?
  • Is stipended community service volunteering, quasi-employment, or what?  At what level of remuneration do enabling funds become a stipend, and then a stipend become a poor wage?  Why is a benefit package amounting to more than the minimum wage considered a “stipend” when paid to such programs as AmeriCorps while considered a living wage at McDonalds?
  • If volunteering is a route to paid employment, then should labor agencies monitor its fairness as they commonly do with volunteer groups such as firefighters?
  • What should be the role of volunteers during labor disputes – do they primarily serve the needs of clients or support the rights of staff?  Do they represent the community at large if this third perspective is warranted?
  • Should there be standards for collective bargaining with unions that delineate whether volunteer opportunities can be limited or restricted, and how?
  • Should we impose restrictions on the types of organizations that may involve volunteers or should individuals be able to volunteer for whatever type of organization or cause they choose, regardless of whether it is for- or non-profit?  Should private, for-profit companies be allowed to "use" volunteer labour?
  • Should we impose restrictions on the types of work that can be performed by volunteers rather than paid staff?  If volunteers make charities and government agencies more economically efficient and able to better serve more clients, why shouldn’t volunteers replace paid staff?
  • If volunteering is shown to be important for both society and individuals, should organizations be prohibited from instituting employment practices that inhibit the involvement of volunteers, especially if those policies are simply designed to protect the roles of paid staff?
  • Should worker's compensation benefits be universally available/mandatory for volunteer workers, and who will pay for this?

Immigration Policy

  • Should new immigrants or visitors to a country be allowed to perform volunteer work when they are not allowed to seek paid employment?
  • Should volunteering experience be included as one of the evaluative characteristics for those seeking rights to immigrate?  Does this discriminate against countries with no history or structure for volunteering?

Legal Policy

  • What, if any, legal protections should be provided for individuals who volunteer?  Why should they receive protection not commonly provided to those involved in other activities beneficial to the community?
  • At what point will legal requirements designed to protect clients negatively affect willingness to volunteer, thus actually doing greater harm to those they are designed to protect?

Public Benefits Policy

  • Should government impose community service requirements on those seeking public benefits such as subsidized housing, welfare, etc?  Are these requirements any different from previous requirements of training and education?

Educational Policy

  • If volunteering is vital to a well-operating society, should schools be required to teach it? Should students be required to practice it?   Might this requirement change volunteering and, if so, for the better or the worse?
  • Should our educational system make a sustained effort to assist in the training of community volunteers?

Military and Foreign Policy

  • Should some form of full-time community service – domestic or international – be instituted as an alternative to military service?  Should participants receive equivalent salaries and benefits as military personnel?
  • What roles can volunteers play in assisting under-developed countries?  How can this be done in a reciprocal fashion?
  • Can knowledge about volunteering (especially as practiced in the English-speaking world) be exported to other countries without destroying their own cultural approach to community involvement?
  • On one hand it's great to see Asian governments really noticing, valuing and supporting volunteering, but when mainland China explicitly makes volunteering an integral part of its next 5-year plan, won’t the capacity of the sector to advocate for or in any way shape (keep some semblance of control over) itself alter dramatically and will volunteering disappear over night?

Privacy and Information Policy

  • How deeply can/should we investigate the backgrounds of potential volunteers?
  • How do small (or large) volunteer organizations protect the privacy of information about their volunteers?
  • With whom can organizations share information about their volunteers, and for what purposes?

Our Professional Perspective

All of the above starts with the perspective of government.  But there are also questions from the perspective of those of us in the volunteer field, particularly how we see the interrelationship of volunteering and public policy.  For example:

  • Who is the appropriate public policy voice for volunteering (in the US? in Canada? in other r countries?)?  Many national organizations such as Points of Light, Volunteer Canada, Volunteering Australia, etc. are so interconnected with government funding and delivering mutual obligation programs that their role as spokesperson is affected.  Are they willing to take any risks in being an advocate for volunteering?  If not, who should?
  • When should volunteers not rush in to address a social problem? For example, perhaps the institutionalization of food banks has let the government off the hook from dealing with hunger as a pressing problem, or providing shelters for the homeless may remove urgency from building appropriate housing.  Since the world needs both attention to immediate needs and long-term solutions, maybe the question is:  how do we assure that volunteer work in response to immediate needs consciously includes work to solve the underlying problem?
  • Under Legal Policy above, the question was raised:  “At what point will legal requirements designed to protect clients negatively affect willingness to volunteer, thus actually doing greater harm to those they are designed to protect?”  If things get to that point, how do we assess our ethical and legal duties?  And which of the two duties, ethical or legal, should be most compelling?

Want to join in with more questions?  Please do!

To add or view comments