Response: Inspiring Young People About Civic Engagement

In response to Robert's July 17 post, "Inspiring Young People About Civic Engagement," Janis Foster of Grassroots Grantmakers wrote an interesting piece on the issue of volunteering, quoted below.

"I took some time today to check in on some blogs that I follow and actually began this post as a comment to Robert Thalhimer's Philanthromedia post, "Inspiring Young People About Civic Engagement". I decided instead to come home to this blog when my comment became super-sized and I saw that I was writing about a personal quandary instead of commenting on Robert's interesting post.

When I read Robert's post, I realized that the word "volunteer" has become somewhat of a trigger for me. Here's why:

1. I think of volunteering as optional - as something that extra-nice people do with time that other people use for work or amusement or just goofing off, or at a time in their life when their lifetime to-do list has a lot of checks.
2. I think of volunteering as a "should" and associate it with some degree of guilt that I'm not volunteering enough or I'm not willing to volunteer whenever I'm asked or that I have not enjoyed some volunteering that I have done.
3. I think of the hidden meaning behind the following phrases:

I'm only a volunteer.
She's only a volunteer.
He's only a volunteer.
We're only volunteers.
They're just volunteers.

I believe that "volunteer" and "volunteering" are words that have many meanings. The common denominator among all meanings is "work without pay". But to me, volunteering also suggests a selfless quality; when you are volunteering, you are working without pay AND without personal benefit or gain except the good feeling that comes with doing good. You are selflessly working for someone else - to advance some one's agenda or to help someone else in need.

For this reason, I flinch a bit when I hear people working in their own neighborhoods or playing active citizen roles in their own communities described as volunteers.

When I was most active in my neighborhood - working endless hours without pay - there was a lot of "self" there. It was my life, my children, my house, my street, my neighbors, and my neighborhood that was at stake. Whether or not I was actively involved, I went to sleep and woke up in the same place each day - a place that could get better, stay the same, or decline. There were direct consequences for me if I spent my day on the couch with the soaps rather than at a City Council meeting.

In the years that I've been associated with grassroots grantmaking, I've met hundreds of people just like me who were "volunteering" in their own neighborhoods.

And, I've seen others who could also be described as "volunteers" in these same neighborhoods - the group from the bank who came out to help with a Saturday clean-up, the people from the social service agency who tutored kids from the local school, the group from a church who volunteered to work on a Habitat for Humanity house. With no disrespect to anyone who volunteers, I want to suggest that the volunteering that is done by neighborhood residents is not the same thing as the volunteering that is done by others who go home to other neighborhoods or set of circumstances - people who have a real "opt-in/opt-out" choice when it comes to dealing with that specific set of challenges.

I remember a dinner conversation last summer about the word "citizen" - about how unfortunate it is that we are reluctant to use the word "citizen" now because of its association with legal status and the immigration debate. And, about how uniquely "citizen" describes what is required of us to make our communities work - our day to day unpaid jobs in our communities.

To me, "citizen" is the word that describes my role in my neighborhood. I was involved because it was my responsibility to be involved and because there were consequences if I didn't fulfill these responsibilities. I was not being selfless; I was working from self-interest. And I only described myself as "just a volunteer" when the "getting paid" people in the picture were trying to unfairly unload their work on me in the cloak of citizen participation.

My hunch is that others feel this difference too. And my wish is that we had a different set of words we could use when we're tempted to describe all work-without-pay as volunteering. An expanded vocabulary would help those of us involved in grassroots grantmaking immensely - enabling us to better communicate what we mean when we say we are supporting residents in their active citizenship roles. And, helping us value and validate this type of "work-without-pay".

An expanded vocabulary might also be useful to Robert Thalhimer and others who want to engage young people in civic engagement - making it easier for us to let young people know that it's okay for self-interest to enter the picture. That working from self-interest may be where they find the passion that propels them forward. That this type of "volunteering" may even be noble. That it's expected, not a choice.

What do you think? Is there indeed a difference between "citizen-ing" and "volunteering"?" -Janis Foster

Susan Herr

Posted at 1:00 AM, Jul 25, 2008 in Youth | Permalink | Comments (1)


“Volunteer” does not necessarily mean – “No Pay”, that fundamental fact is being ignored by huge segments of the non-profit sector, who ought to know better. “To Volunteer” means to take on a task that you are not required to do, and in many cases you will not be paid, (e.g. PTA board member, helping at a soup kitchen, being a an adult scout leader, etc. that lists goes on and on.

There are other times however, especially in the workplace, where one “volunteers” to take on a particular task, which the organization believes important, but it is not a direct responsibility of your job. This is also volunteering, and one huge example of this that does help the non-profit sector, are the men and women who volunteer to run the workplace giving campaigns in their respective organizations,whether for-profit or public. Each year in the Combined Federal Campaign has more than 250,000 volunteers across the country helping to raise $277 million for local, national and international charities.

Other examples of “paid volunteerism” include organizations that allow, and actually encourage their employees to go to local public schools for several hours a month to help there. They are not paid extra, but they are allowed the time away from their normal job duties. They are encouraged to do this for their personal and professional development.

The non-profit sector spends way too much time dickering about terminology issues – e.g. does “non-profit have a hyphen in it or not?” To be a “Pure Volunteer” they can’t be Paid) (Can they be reimbursed for gas expenses? Or is that being “paid’?

With 1.4 million non-profits, there is no one right answer as to whether or not that non-profit needs volunteers, but the idea that “volunteer is synomous for “no pay” is wrong.


Bill Huddleston, CFC Expert

Posted by: Bill Huddleston, CFC Expert