Is the Rising Cost of Gas a Crisis or an Opportunity for Volunteering?

By Susan J. Ellis

In the United States and in other parts of the world, the cost of gasoline for our cars is rising at a staggering rate.  Those of us old enough to remember the gas crisis of the 1970s know that the situation feels very different today.  Back then we were concerned with oil shortages, not necessarily prices.  We endured “odd and even” days in which cars were limited to fill ups only on days their license plates ended with the right number.  It got so bad, in fact, that certain professions and jobs were designated as so necessary to public service that those who did them were permitted fill-ups whenever needed – and volunteers who delivered meals to homebound people were included on that list.

I haven’t really heard much discussion yet about the effect of gasoline prices today, but it has to be an issue that will soon surface.  It has the potential to disrupt volunteer services to some of our most vulnerable populations, especially those who are too ill or too old to leave their own homes and therefore need food and other services brought to them.  Because these are some of our most “traditional” volunteer assignments, it’s easy for the public to take for granted how many people depend on volunteers to drive them to everything from doctors’ appointments to dialysis treatments, or to religious services or much-welcomed recreational opportunities. 

Can we expect volunteers to donate $40 or more in gas costs every time they also donate their time to do this sort of driving?  What’s the magic number at which the pain of this expense becomes prohibitive? 

There’s also important volunteering that requires transportation, but not for reasons of life and death.  Ushering at orchestra performances or giving tours at an historic site, for example, fall more into the category of recreation than social services.  If the audience or visitors think twice about driving to attend the event, how long before volunteers, too, wonder if the cost of gas is worth it?

Keep in mind that most volunteers will wait a long time before mentioning that driving expenses are hurting them and – even worse – might drop out of volunteering rather than ask for reimbursement.  So silence is not necessarily a sign that people don’t mind the cost.  Rather than exploit the charitable nature of volunteers, shouldn’t we be proactive in developing ways to help?

Can we coordinate carpools among volunteers – along with employees – working the same schedules, events or locations?  Can we incorporate clients, too?

How can we raise funds to subsidize the costs of gas?  How can we get official recognition of the critical nature of some volunteer driving assignments and perhaps obtain special rates or reimbursements from government or business sources?

What Might Happen Next

The cost of gas is certainly a call to action.  But it gives us a good excuse to consider what else we may be doing that puts obstacles in the paths of volunteers.  Maybe there’s a silver lining in the cloud of the energy crisis, if some of the following things most volunteers dislike are changed in the name of gas costs:

  • Maybe committee chairs will have to consider carefully whether all those endless meetings are really necessary or productive, if they require travel by each participant.   Fewer but longer face-to-face meetings or online options such as listserv exchanges might be good alternatives.
  • All those requirements for a pre-set number of hours of training might be examined to see if they really do have to occur on site with a group, or instead could be provided individually through at least some use of video or online training.
  • Perhaps the situation will evoke collaboration among agencies (perhaps more shared office space) and more careful coordination of calendars.  Can events be held concurrently or sequentially to allow participants to carpool or at least to make only one trip instead of several? 
  • For a parent chauffeuring children to sports or classes, might the resistance to drive back and forth twice translate into doing some new volunteer work while waiting for the kids to be ready to go home?
  • Instead of recruiting volunteers from anywhere in a community, maybe we’ll get better at looking locally for new people who can walk or bike to our sites, or who are in our area everyday anyway (work or school) and can piggyback time with us onto a commute they already make often.

My point is that the volunteer resources office has to make the rising costs of  volunteering visible.  We need to express appreciation for the extra financial donation every volunteer makes who drives for us without reimbursement of expenses (this should show up on the organization’s donor list!).  We should do whatever we can to find money to reimburse volunteers for gasoline and other transportation costs – whether through a designated fundraiser, a corporate donor, or a line item in the agency’s budget.  We should convene interested people in forming car pools – among volunteers, among our employees and volunteers, and among the volunteers and employees in other nearby organizations.  What a great new assignment for volunteers:  The Gas Crisis Strategy Task Force!

Have you already seen the effects of the rising costs of gas on volunteering?  What have you seen and how are you dealing with it?

What ripple effects, such as the prospective situations I raise here, are you seeing or do you anticipate?

What can/should a volunteer program manager do about all this?

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