Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Volunteerism is fine … when the volunteers are really volunteers

I have seen a number of articles extolling the wonders of working for free at nonprofit agencies if you’re unemployed.

I suppose it’s a good thing, although I can recall a number of cases where nonprofits would lay off their paid staff when they realized that there was a huge pool of free labor out there. Money saved could be used for more important things, like executive compensation and fundraising galas.

On one occasion, the paper I worked at on the east coast of Florida got a call saying the local office of a major national nonprofit had just fired just about its entire paid staff, save of course for the executive director and top assistant, and had announced “new and exciting volunteer opportunities.” It’s interesting that these same nonprofits would then wonder why no one would choose a career with them and try to advance to a management position. Well, seeing others get the heave-ho is hardly an inducement to bet your career on an organization that may toss you overboard.

Then again, look at where I’ve been.

But there is another level of nonprofit volunteerism that has kept me from giving of my time. Truthfully, I’d rather devote my time and effort to searching for a paid job, which I think will benefit society more.

Back in my days in Lake Worth, I was a regular volunteer at the public broadcasting station, WXEL in Boynton Beach. Since I was majoring in communications and journalism in college, I thought being there would offer me at least some chance to be in proximity to professionals in the business, and in some ways it was an invaluable experience.

I worked on fund drives, stuffing envelopes, answering phones during those very enjoyable (for me) pledge breaks and my fondest memory is of an auction where I had to stay on the phone for almost an hour with a bidder as an item was auctioned off. I waved to the camera from the volunteers’ area so she could see who was representing her.

For the radio fundraisers, I even served as – if you’ll pardon the expression – “on-air talent” – talking up the benefits of giving to the station. But I usually ended up answering phones. I have a face for radio and a voice for newspapers. But it was fun being on the air, at least until the station started scripting all its pitches.

The work lost its glamour when the station had an employee revolt and a number of volunteers walked out in sympathy. At first, new management seemed to be moving in a new direction, but they were merely trying to get rid of those workers who had led the revolt, and the volunteers’ treatment deteriorated.

As if being locked in the building was not bad enough – you were stuck there until someone could swipe a card to let you out – the station began using people sentenced by the courts to community service as “volunteers” and things got a bit touchy for me.

I had always been one of the youngest volunteers amid retirees, and enjoyed being with the retired folks and talking to them — but then these people my age and younger began to show up for volunteer shifts. I thought it was just a burst of community spirit until I realized that every one was telling stories about having been required to volunteer as part of community service. Most of them would launch long descriptions of how they had parked in a spot reserved for the handicapped and had been caught, but it seemed that while parking in such a spot was a bad thing, community service was a bit much.

One fellow was a real charmer, and fun to talk to, and the older ladies were trying to fix him up with their daughters and granddaughters. I had no problem with that, but then he revealed that he could not drive and rode his bicycle everywhere, and that his offense was a DUI. It all made sense, then. The station was taking people who were doing community service for DUIs and having them represent the station on fund drives. No wonder all the descriptions of handicapped parking offenses were the same. In my view, for a DUI, answering phones at the public broadcast station didn’t seem to be really enough.

During one radio station fundraiser, one young lady in her early 20s was brought in, and she described a veritable rampage she went on with a car. “I had my fun, and now I’m paying the price,” she told me and the older volunteers. Her next question: “Where can I smoke?” She was not thrilled to discover that to get to the outside smoking area, a station employee had to swipe a badge to unlock the door to let you out, then swipe it again to let you back in.

Almost the last straw was one fellow who showed up looking like “Joe Shit the ragman” (as the sergeant major in my Marine squadron used to say of anyone, even an aircraft maintenance person, who was not squared away). It was common for folks to call during pledge drives and complain about the endless patter about sending money, but we volunteers would explain gently that we needed to do this to keep the wonderful programming going. Most folks were still not happy, but at least they were given a heartfelt reason.

There was not a formal dress code at the station, but you were expected to look decent. He showed up dressed for the beach, and on his first call, said, “Well, if you don’t like the pledge drives, change the station!” I almost wanted to punch his lights out, and the smirk off his face.

Finally, there was the day when an older fellow, whom I did not know, saw my youngish face from across the table and asked the inevitable and at this point very valid question: “So, what did you do to get sentenced to this?”

I explained that I was a real volunteer, unlike the other people my age, and no judge had ordered me to do community service. I was doing it of my own free will. I don’t think he believed me.

Soon after, the atmosphere at the station got so toxic, I stopped volunteering. It wasn’t just the “volunteers” doing community service, it was the management of the station. The friends I had who worked at the station quit or were fired, and it was no longer a happy place. I didn’t want to be there.

I was making my way after graduating from college, and while I won’t be crass and say I was too busy to work for free, the reality was that I needed to concentrate on paid work.

I suppose if there’s a lesson to all this, it’s that volunteerism is only real when the people doing it are not doing it under some duress, but because they want to do something for their community. Mixing “volunteers” with volunteers cheapens the experience for the latter.

It really soured me on volunteering.

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March 4, 2009 - Posted by | Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , ,

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