Thursday, October 25, 2007

Volunteering: for pay and/or for community

Volunteers in Florida during the 2004 election.

This week the New York Times published a very interesting article, "For Love and a Little Money." Here's the author's conclusion in a nutshell; we are becoming a culture of:

paid volunteerism. The phrase may sound oxymoronic, but an ever-growing number of retirees and nonprofit executives say it is an apt description of the way modern retirees view nonprofit work. And while no one has gathered statistics on the tendency, experts say there is a good chance that the automatic link between doing good and working for nothing has been permanently severed.

A lot of reporter Claudia H. Deutsch's observations seem astute and worth sharing.

  • "Even a small check is a symbol that what they are doing really makes a difference," said Ben Rosen, a management professor at the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School. Mr. Freedman thinks that is particularly true of women. "Volunteer work used to be considered women's work, so it is not surprising that career women reject the concept," he said.
  • Greg O'Neill, director of the National Academy on an Aging Society, suggests yet another reason: paid workers are less likely to be assigned to licking stamps or ladling soup.
  • "Savvy people have learned that they are used more intelligently when they are paid."
  • Many retirees have learned, to their irritation, that what they give free is discounted as fluff. Ten years ago, Fabianne Wolff Gershon, now a retired public relations executive, did a pro bono marketing plan for a local botanical garden. It was never carried out. "I made a mental note: If they had paid for the report, they would have taken it seriously," Ms. Gershon said.
  • There is, of course, a potential downside to the trend. Once payment becomes the norm, fewer people are likely to volunteer their services free — which could be a problem in a budget crisis. ...[And] "attaching payment to a job turns it into work."
Deutsch is writing, largely, about retired, economically comfortable, older "volunteers". These folks are no dummies.

Something similar goes on in "youth leadership development." To be sure about this, yesterday I checked with a friend whose nonprofit organizes young people to do political advocacy; he reports, yes, foundations, are willing and consider it customary to fund stipends for participants in youth programs. (My friend would want me to mention this practice is not universal; his group works with scores of young "leaders" who are unpaid.) So the "link between doing good and working for nothing" is under strain there too.

What does this trend mean for political campaigns? A great deal I think. Democracy depends on citizen participation, but media and professional campaign consultants treat campaigns as spectator sports. Not surprisingly, so do most citizens. In many circumstances, recruiting campaign volunteers can feel like pulling teeth. Once we get them, we need to make sure we treat them respectfully and enable them to feel their work was useful. And then the money issue comes in.

For some years now, I've been training community groups on how activate their memberships in political campaigns. Many of these groups are hesitant about electoral work, fearing that elections distract them from their own priorities and place them in an arena that's unfamiliar and corrupt. Most of these groups work with low-income people. For training, I've come up with an exercise in which trainees are asked to develop a skit illustrating their response to a situation I've actually seen in a campaign. I've got quite a few situations, but recently I've always included this one:

You've done your planning, you know your organizational goals for this election, members have been recruited and trained, and THEN you confront this situation:

You've been out talking with voters for a couple of weeks. Your members are learning to doorknock effectively about your election issues. Suddenly "Canvass/Victory in 2008" is offering $200 a day to your members to canvas for them. Not surprisingly, many of your members who need the money want to go get paid instead of working on your organization's canvass. What do you do?

To be honest, groups don't usually come up with very creative responses to this hypothetical situation. There aren't a lot.

And yet historically political activity that changes the national trajectory has come down to people acting out of some combination of passionate belief and personal necessity. Votes for women, racial equality under law, gay rights -- these things were not won by paid volunteers and campaign consultants. Not only won't the revolution be televised -- it won't pay most of its activists either. In our consumer society, we need to cultivate an understanding that the most vital social activities are those we do "for nothing," for preservation and extension of the hope for community.

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