Critical Thinking About Volunteerism

This last month I’ve been talking with Emma Margraf, the Director of Special Projects at the Volunteer Center of Lewis, Mason, and Thurston Counties. Our conversation is a critical dialog on volunteerism in American society, and we plan to continue it. Following is the text of the first blog entry from this series, with the intro written by Emma. Go to the original blog to share your thoughts (linked in the title below). – Adam

Bouncing Balls in the Hallway

For the past year, the blog for the Volunteer Center has been about the adventures of our Executive Director, Sara Ballard, as she volunteered her time in the community and got to know more and more about the amazing things that happen here. It’s been a great path for her to travel, but we’ve decided to change it up a little and incorporate all of the different aspects of our work – particularly the things that keep us excited, interested, passionate, and involved in what we do.

Ever since Adam Fletcher, the Director of CommonAction moved into our office, I’ve been having a lot of fun. I find myself in the hallway bouncing big plastic balls back and forth and debating how to make the most impact, how to build the most capacity, and how shake things up. The bouncing ball aspect is important, but I can’t tell you why. It’s how we get to our biggest, brightest, and most impactful ideas. To give you an idea of what I mean, I’m going to transcribe an interview of sorts with him here, and you can draw your own conclusions. Are you ready? Here we go:

Emma: I have a question I think only you can answer, Adam. Are you ready for this? I’m a little concerned that for the most part when people volunteer in their community, they aren’t really accomplishing as much as they could. Do you know what I mean?

I’m not saying it’s their fault, or anyone’s fault at all, just that the precedent has been set for volunteering to be very temporary, where we’d like it to be sustainable. If you were all powerful in the universe, where would you start with that problem?

Adam: Emma, I’m always ready for a nerdy conversation about volunteerism!

To answer your question, I would begin by having everyone look at why they volunteer. See, in order for volunteering to be really effective, people have to be genuinely empathetic with those they want to serve. You can’t be empathetic if you don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing. So the first place I’d start with the problem you stated is looking at why.

But more importantly Emma, I might suggest that you aren’t addressing the right problem.

Emma: Huh. Way to throw out the gauntlet with the open question that has me thinking and thinking. What’s the right problem? (HA. RIGHT problem.) Is it volunteerism addressing actual empathy? I feel like we should recognize that there is a range of emotion within the understanding of empathy. Some define it as the understanding of others’ feelings, some as the ability to walk in other people’s shoes.

I for one was raised within the “there but for the grace of god go I” school of empathy, but that’s not what everyone believes. We were taught that it would take a simple twist of fate to turn our luck and leave us in serious poverty, or poor health, and without that which we needed to survive. And so it was our responsibility to look out for others. We are our brothers keepers, we are our sisters keepers — E Pluribus Unum: Out of Many, One.

And because it was how I was raised, that makes it right. Isn’t that the way it works?

Adam: The problem is that you are assuming that anything, anybody, anywhere needsyour help. That’s easy to do, and volunteers do it all the time. Kids in schools need tutoring. People without homes need that house built. Roadways need to be cleaned. People who can’t read need to be taught how to read.

Now don’t get me wrong: I believe literacy and housing and environmental health are important. However, I don’t think that going blindly into the night assuming that any of those problems needs us to fix them is the right way. The right way has something to do with helping volunteers see that they benefit from giving as much if not more than the recipients of their volunteerism. This truism has been known for a long time in the fundraising field – teach givers that their philanthropy benefits both them and the recipient and they’re more likely to give more money in a more sustained way. That should be the rule with volunteers, too, in every situation, all of the time.

Emma: I have given that fundraising training. During that training you ask the group to tell you who benefits more from a donation to a non-profit, the donor or the non-profit? Those new to fundraising say the non-profit, those who are experienced say the donor, always. What I wonder about, when applying it to volunteers, is how heavy and complicated race and class and sexual orientation and gender and personal history issues will get when you are asking someone to check your motivations.

Adam: You’ve hit the nail on the head Emma, and identified exactly why we are not already asking these questions whenever a volunteer walks through the door: we’re scared of what we might hear. We might find out that someone hurts, or that somebody feels righteously indignant, or that someone somewhere somehow thinks they did something wrong. Often that someone is us, ourselves. Pair that with the intonation that volunteerism heals the soul, and suddenly volunteerism becomes self-help, and self-help saves the day. And that’s the problem.

Emma: You remind me of something that happened to me years and years ago. Right after the Rodney King verdict, I was walking through one of the toughest part of Oakland with a long-time friend. He’s African-American, I’m white (as far as I can tell), and he was angry. His response to the verdict was that the black community should rise up, take California, and kick everyone out. In particular, NO WHITE PEOPLE ALLOWED. My immediate response was to say, “except me, right?” He said no. I might get a visitor’s pass, but he’d have to consult with his people.

I was really offended. The truth about that situation was that he loved me, we had a long time friendship, I grew up in Oakland. But I wasn’t allowed in.

Adam: It was probably that love that allowed him to speak honestly to you. Speaking from my personal experience growing up I can attest to the feeling that used to well inside me whenever somebody foisted assistance onto me and my family. That feeling, which is hard to name, is one part humility and one part inability, mostly because it felt like whenever somebody forced charity onto my family we were obligated to take it. In turn, I felt forced to believe that because we had to take charity we were somehow lesser than those who had given it.

In this same way, well-meaning volunteers often force themselves onto the organizations, communities, and individuals who they choose to serve. I understand your story about your friend to mean that he didn’t want any white person, you included, to force themselves into the fictional country of people of color he conjured up; rather, he wanted people of color to have the right to let in white people as they chose to, rather than as they forced themselves in.

Emma: I’m certainly not offended anymore. I love the people that can speak that way to me, and I love being able to do the same. Every day volunteers ask me why they sometimes their phone calls to a particular group with an offer to help aren’t returned. Sometimes the answer is, we can’t use your help right now. Sometime the reason for that is because people you’d like to help are trying to sort out what they need and how they need to get it. They deserve that time.

Adam: This is the way that our socio-economic system works. We teach volunteers they have something to give and we expect them to give it. The underlying lesson that people who receive this volunteerism learn is that they must accept and appreciate whatever they are given. In this way our society forces every poor, low-income, working class, and middle class person into indentured existences by training them to aspire to lifestyles they simply cannot attain, for whatever reason: credit, education, opportunity… Whatever “it” is, something keeps them from having “it.”

It is through this logic that we actively enshrine volunteerism’s role in our society today. Volunteerism is becoming a defacto way to achieve enlightenment and self-satisfaction for those who volunteer. At the same time the recipient of that volunteerism is bound to the social position they occupy, primarily because the unspoken language of volutneers is that, “I am better than you because I do something for you from the goodness of my heart.” This disables the recipient and reinforces that socio-economic hierarchy which repressed them to the place of needing charity in the first place. It’s a wicked cycle.

Emma: It’s funny that we’ve gotten to this, because the other day I facilitated a conversation between volunteer managers where they were concerned about keeping every single volunteer. They were worried that they were losing volunteers after their orientation trainings, and they were worried about how to keep short-term volunteers involved who didn’t want to be there.

I tried to introduce the idea that they didn’t need everyone who darkened their door. I suggested, fairly directly, that they should be picky about who they let volunteer in their organizations and that they should power through without the folks who didn’t show up. They didn’t agree.

Later on, I brought this subject up with the director of a local program who recruits volunteers for long-term, high demand work with court-dependant children and she said, “oh no, I say thanks for stopping by! And let them leave. People who drop out in the middle of a training are people who, if I’d successfully talked them into staying, would most likely be back in my office a few months later having a conversation about how it’s not working out. Self-selection makes my job easier.”

I bring this up to say this: it’s a partnership.

Adam: Yes, a partnership – in a mechanistic, institutionalized sense. I want to aspire to something higher though, and maybe that’s my Achille’s heel. I think that we can ascend, as a society, to utter solidarity in our every action and reaction. We have to reach higher than mediocre, and I would suggest that merely having convenient partnerships throughout our society as mediocrity.

Solidarity, taught, nurtured, and sustained in our every interaction, could allow every person to fulfill their hopes and dreams, while simultaneously defeating our current condition of apathy toward our fellow humans – because through solidarity those hopes and dreams would be as Langston Hughes wrote about in his poem, “Freedom’s Plow”:

“Thus the dream becomes not one man’s dream alone,

But a community dream.

Not my dream alone, but our dream.

Not my world alone,

But your world and my world,

Belonging to all the hands who build.”

Emma: With that, shall we leave this here and post it on the blog? Or are we solving all the world’s problems today?

Published by Adam F.C. Fletcher

I'm a speaker, writer, trainer, researcher and advocate who researches, writes and shares about education, youth, and history.

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