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Gotta Serve Somebody

Gotta Serve Somebody

You may be an ambassador to England or France,
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance,
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world,
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

- Bob Dylan, Gotta Serve Somebody (©1979, Special Rider Music)

Over the years we’ve seen an impressive array of attempts to “re-conceptualize” volunteering, or at least to re-name it.  We’re not quite been sure where the dislike of the term “volunteering” comes from, but it certainly provoked an inclination in marketing types to resolve the issue by changing the name of the guilty party.

The most recent of these attempts came last year in the UK when v, the organization charged with increasing youth volunteering, found in a survey that 25% of young people thought volunteering was “boring” and “geeky.” This prompted a decision to advocate for a new word to use instead of “volunteering” to get young people in the UK to view helping out in a more favorable light. Terry Ryall, chief executive of v, said:

We want to show young people that volunteering is as simple as doing someone a favour. We all do it – we just don’t recognise it. We know we have a receptive audience – more 16-25s volunteer than any other age group. We want everyone to volunteer, we want to make it easy and we want to make it a natural lifestyle choice.

The Limelight on “Service” in the US

Last fall, the United States saw a flurry of special events, legislative proposals and media attention focused on the subject of “service.” It came to a head in New York City on September 11-12, at an event called ServiceNation. Both presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain accepted the invitation to speak at the conference and were interviewed for broadcast media about their “positions on service.” ServiceNation posted a policy document and urged site visitors to sign a “Declaration of Service.”  

The momentum for this vocabulary has continued, as evidenced by the Obama Administration’s new United We Serve initiative (see, kicked off in a speech by Michele Obama at the 2009 National Conference on Volunteering and Service in San Francisco. We think it’s one of the most natural, heartfelt and intelligent speeches we’ve seen in the almost 20-year history of that conference. One of the noteworthy things about it is that the First Lady repeatedly used the word “service,” sometimes as a synonym for “volunteering” (which also occasionally popped up), sometimes specifically referring to full-time service programs such as AmeriCorps or military duty, and sometimes vague enough that it was hard to tell.

The First Lady’s speech contained some rather remarkable statements:

  • “The new Obama administration doesn’t just view service as something separate from our national priorities or just something in addition to our national priorities. We have an administration that understands that service is the key to achieving our national priorities.”
  • “Far too long we’ve viewed service in our communities as largely separate from our policies in government.  There is a sense that service is helpful but not necessarily essential. That it is something that folks should do maybe on occasion, particularly around the holidays.”
  • “The story of progress in this nation has always been the story of people who chose in times of trial and struggle to serve it.”
  • “This administration doesn’t see service as just something that transforms individual lives or even individual communities. This is an administration who knows service has the power to transform this nation.”
  • “We are calling on all Americans to make service not just something they do in their spare time but a part of their daily lives.”

It would be easy to dismiss all this as just another keynote speech, from just another political figure, were it not for the other speakers, some of them quite unusual.

Rock star musician Jon Bon Jovi followed Michelle Obama, and he gave his own personal testimony about the importance of being involved in the community, referring to it as “the power of We.”  And he ended with what we think might be the most remarkable statement ever made by a Rock Star:  “We’re going to be the ones who made volunteerism hip.”

Those of you of a cynical disposition – inclined to think that stars will show up for anything that generates publicity – might want to take a look at a small, quiet effort that Bon Jovi personally funded a number of years ago: a study of efforts in the US and Australia to recruit and retain volunteer firefighters. Or you just might want to consider the simple sincerity that Bon Jovi brought to his short speech at the conference; it’s clear that he doesn’t just think of “service” as something that other people are supposed to do.

At the end of the opening session, actor Matthew McConaughey spoke about the multi-year media initiative to support service throught the Entertainment Industry Foundation. Among other things, the foundation has convinced the four major television networks to include “service” as a theme in shows that will air during the week of October 19th – both news programs and fictional series.

It’s clear that you’re going to be hearing and seeing a whole lot more about the concept of “service” as a way to encourage people to volunteer.

By Any Other Name…

As Susan asked in a Hot Topic she wrote after the ServiceNation conference last fall, “What are we talking about?” 

The only common denominator among the terms in use right now (including the UK’s “favours”) is that they all refer to service given to the community, fellow citizens or the general public good. The problem in talking about “service” as a huge mass of effort is that it hinders rather than helps both debate and action. It’s left to the listener to consider the context and the speaker each time “service” is used. The resulting confusion directly affects those of us most concerned with volunteering because it is genuinely hard to tell when someone is advocating for us or forgetting about us.

Here are some of the sources of confusion:

  • In an effort to validate all types of civic participation, proponents of “service” lump together everything from active military duty to running for public office to joining the Peace Corps to mentoring a child. In spirit and philosophy, all these actions are indeed related; in practice, however, they are very, very different.  
  • Is the service unpaid? Volunteering in the traditional sense of unremunerated service is still the norm. But the proponents of government-funded, stipend-based forms of service have just won large increases in the number of participants in the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps and other Federal full-time service programs.  In the past 20 years, these programs have morphed from their original living-allowance-only volunteer status into a low-paid jobs program. Add up the money for expenses, health care and benefits, and end-of-service educational grants, and you’ve gone beyond a minimum wage.  If that’s what we want, fine.  But let’s be clear that this is no longer “Volunteers In Service to America.”  Don’t forget, too, that we have an All-Volunteer Army, which means voluntary (non-draft) but not unpaid.
  • Do we mean service to government (of, for and by the people) or simply paid for by government?  Contradictions abound.  First, we call government employees “public servants” and there’s a proposal under consideration for the formation of a U.S. Public Service Academy, to make the choice of government and nonprofit careers equivalent to aspiring to becoming a military officer. And while local and state governments welcome all sorts of uncompensated volunteer contributions (fire fighting, helping in schools and libraries, parks and recreation activities), the Federal government actually forbids volunteers from working in its offices!  Specific Congressional approval was needed for the big exceptions: National Park Service, Agricultural Extension Service, and a few others. Consider the irony that the Corporation for National and Community Service, which urges volunteering for nonprofit organizations, is not allowed to recruit volunteers to work side by side with their own staff of public servants.
  • Is the service voluntary?  Just think of the endless debates about whether or not student graduation requirements or court-ordered alternative sentencing are volunteering. Yet they are definitely service to the community. If we ever return to a military draft, the Army will have to change its slogan, yet it will still talk about a citizen’s obligation to serve. Some are resurrecting the call for a universal national service program under which all young adults would be required to give a period of time to their country, choosing between the military and other service options (paid).
  • Are all forms of “service” equivalent?  (This question increases in importance if the service is required.) Is giving several years of one’s life as a community organizer on par with the same period of time spent as a mayor of a small town? Is protesting unfair voter registration procedures as important as teaching someone to read or giving a tour at the museum? What about giving time to a church or other faith community?  Who is supposed to weigh all the factors and for what purpose?
  • For more than a century, American civic associations have called themselves “service clubs.”  Their executives belong to an organization called “Service Club Leaders.”  Do a Google search on “service clubs” and you’ll find thousands of links to the Kiwanis, Rotary, Soroptimists, Junior Leagues, etc. For the most part, however, these venerable groups feel totally ignored by the new initiatives that treat them as the “Old Guard,” and have almost never been invited to participate in “service” conferences or policy meetings.

All of the ways citizens can serve their country are important and deserve attention and support.  But if we are going to ask for public policy and tax money to address “service,” what do we mean?  And how does volunteering fit into the picture, since it involves a greater number of people, doing far more diverse things, than all of the other types of service combined? 

“Where Do You Serve?”

Despite our concerns about the frequent subsuming of volunteering under the bigger, vaguer umbrella of “service,” we admit to reacting positively to the vision of the future mentioned by at least four of the celebrity speakers at the National Conference on Volunteering and Service.  In one way or another, they offered this scenario:

That in time to come, when we meet someone and are making conversation, one of the top five things we choose to talk about will be: “…and where do you serve?” 

Matthew  McConaughey said that this phrase “just [needs] to be in our vernacular as one of the. . . things we talk about when we want to meet someone or want to share something in our own lives. That would be really cool.”

Yes it would. 

Sure, we can hear the smart aleck remarks: “Oh, I serve burgers at McDonalds.”  “Wasn’t there a classic British comedy called Are You Being Served?”  “We have services five times a day at the mosque.”  “Ladies of the night give services, too.”

That’s the problem with adopting a word that has so many different applications!  But we’re happy to focus on the positive.

In the context of social conversation, speaking about where, how or whom we “serve” could legitimately include a range of activities – service to kids on a sports team, the hungry, the illiterate, the military, the museum visitor; battling a forest fire; serving on a board, joining a protest march – all these things further democracy and build communities.  It’s indeed worth working towards a future in which the whole range of these actions becomes integrated naturally into our lives and self-image.

Your Turn

What is your reaction to the word “service?”
What words are prevalent in your country (or region or city)?
Do you like the question:  “Where do you serve?”

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