Skip to main content

Mandated Volunteering: Oxymoron or Opportunity?

Mandated Volunteering: Oxymoron or Opportunity?

Susan and Steve explore the question:

Are people who are required to do unpaid service really "volunteers"?

A funny thing happened on the way to the Points of View essay for this issue. It grew and it grew until it became a full-blown article!

We knew for some time that we would one day tackle the subject of "mandated volunteering" in this journal. In our preliminary discussions, we felt strongly that we needed to define what, to us, are quite separate categories too often lumped together under general debate about whether it is good or bad to require "voluntary" - or, at least, unpaid - service. So Susan went off and wrote up what may be the first attempt to truly delineate the different types of mandates, including all the terminology and possible variations, and a summary of the issues or challenges involved in each.

Steve has for some time used a survey or quiz in his workshops that asks participants to score various activities along a scale indicating whether the individual described fits their philosophical notions of what constitutes a "Volunteer." He selected ten examples from his survey and gave us a wonderful opening to introduce Susan's list. (The scoring format also allows us to use Internet technology in a new way, since all respondents can immediately see how their opinions mesh with those of other readers!) Steve then added a provocative second section on the implications of mandated service to future volunteer management.

By the time Susan and Steve each added thoughts to each other's sections, it was obvious that we had written a complete article. And so it is offered to our readers. Mandated Service: The Future of Volunteering?

But What's Our "Point of View"?

Observant readers will note, however, that by focusing on the facts - and just the facts, ma'am - we neatly avoided what is usually the heart of the controversy: Are people who are required to do unpaid service really "volunteers"?

To which we answer: Who knows? And then add: Does it matter?

Every academic study ever done on the motivations of volunteers concludes that there are multiple reasons people choose to contribute their time and talents in unremunerated service. We can't look into the heart of every volunteer to determine purity of motive or degree of enthusiasm for the cause. In practice, we are behaviorists. What matters is how well people perform their work, their attitude or tone, and their dependability and commitment. Just as occasionally a volunteer without any external requirements to give service may prove undependable or may depart without fulfilling a commitment made, so can someone who came to us through a mandate end up providing extraordinary service.

It is traditional to define a "volunteer" from the perspective of the person giving time. But there is another way to look at the issue: from the perspective of the recipient organization. Is it not true that a "volunteer" is someone who serves an organization by doing necessary work without having to be put on the payroll? In other words, if the agency does not pay wages to the person, that person is a volunteer. Using that frame of reference, it becomes clear that volunteer management is really community resource mobilization. It allows us to find and enlist as wide a range of help as possible, focused on meeting needs effectively, whatever we might label the help.

The only argument supporting a separation between "pure" volunteers and "voluntolds" (continuing thanks to Anthea Hoare of Canada for that term), is that it may send a negative message to those people who freely choose to give their time if they are equated with offenders, welfare recipients, or students. Not to mention the "volunteering is punishment" implications! But this is only an issue if anyone knows why or how program participants joined in the first place. And why should they?

Self-fulfilling prophecy is at work here, too. A volunteer program manager who approaches mandated workers as coerced and disinterested is more likely to offer minor assignments, formulate lots of restrictions, and expect the workers to be temporary. The manager who approaches such workers as an opportunity to build positive relationships will clearly try to offer interesting work, pay attention to the individual, and invite further participation. This may not always work, of course, but which attitude has the greatest chance to succeed?

Isn't it more important whether and why people remain committed to their service than what made them start in the first place? As our article shows, large numbers of those required to do a minimum number of hours of service remain at their assignment for much longer. Do they magically transmute into a "volunteer" at that point? How are they different in the first hour of their voluntary service from the last hour of their requirement?

As has happened before in this journal, authors coincidentally address similar themes. Colleen Kelly, in her reflections on the Canadian Volunteerism Initiative, mentions in passing that she will never be able to consider mandated service workers as volunteers. So the best people in the field still disagree! It's legitimate for us to question the philosophy and vocabulary of our work. The real issue, however, is what we do in practice.

If you are still bemused at this issue, ask yourself: Under what reasoning would you turn away a source of legitimate help to your organization? You can and should do appropriate matching of applicant skills and interests to available assignments - which includes not accepting an unqualified individual, regardless of the referral source. But after that, isn't it of highest priority to meet needs and further your mission? That's why you recruit volunteers and why you should welcome whatever sources of help are available.

To add or view comments