Philanthropy, Civic Engagement, and the Lessons of Volunteering

By Susan J. Ellis

All at once a flurry of press releases have surfaced announcing the October 22 White House Conference on Philanthropy: Gifts to the Future. As always, there is little evidence that the organizers of this event considered the subject of volunteering in the planning nor intend to deal with it in the program. I wish that such events were more honest in their rhetoric. If they mean "giving money," say so. But how one obtains financial donations without first involving people is a mystery to me.

My surprise at learning of the Conference led me to ruminating about other recent activities that I think fall well within the volunteer world’s interest, yet in which we are absent from the table. All the discussion about “civic engagement” and a “civil society”--terms coined by academics--begins from the premise that Americans are becoming increasingly uncaring and uninvolved. If you are reading this from another country, rest assured your political leaders worry about this, too! Several factors are cited as evidence of un-civil behavior, among them:

  • The decreasing number of people who vote in elections, particularly those under age 30.
  • The decreasing membership in traditional civic organizations such as service clubs and fraternal organizations.
  • Less participation in adult team sports and leagues (Robert Putnam’s now infamous “Bowling Alone” article) in favor of individual recreational activities.
  • Reduced expectations of longevity in where we live, for whom we work, and even for our marriages--all of which tend to lessen community loyalty.

While I probably agree with some of these indicators of major social change, it puzzles me that volunteering has not been more closely examined as a counter trend. After all, how can one reconcile the thousands of volunteers working on behalf of the environment, people with AIDS, or Habitat for Humanity (just to name three relatively-new causes) with the "doom and gloom" scenarios?

Further, the discussions about civic engagement tend to place blame on citizens. It’s the familiar “people are apathetic” attitude. As so often happens, the same data can be interpreted in different ways. Maybe conclusions drawn from the list of social factors above ought to scrutinize the institutions people seem to be avoiding. Consider:

  • Has the behavior of government officials in the last decades elicited trust? When publicity highlights the disproportionate influence of PACs and major financial donors on candidates, can we blame voters for doubting the effect of their one vote?
  • Have venerable organizations kept up with changes in society or have they prided themselves in being bastions of tradition? With time at a premium for everyone these days, why is it a mystery that people avoid “joining” an organization or even a sports league in which the internal politics or the (useless} meetings become an obstacle to the more important goals of service and fun?
  • If we keep honoring volunteers for 25 years of service, without also finding ways to acknowledge the contributions of those who accomplish an important task in short-term service, why is it surprising that people view “traditional” volunteering as a bottomless pit of commitment that doesn't match their lifestyle?

We in the volunteer community have some important things to say about why and how citizens get involved. We’ve had to adapt to volunteers’ time pressures, family demands, need for lifelong learning, desire for safe social contacts. Institutions unable to adapt will die. But new forms of interaction will replace them. Despite the hot debate about potential evils of the Internet, most devotees will tell you that they do feel “community” online--and who are we to question that feeling? City Cares programs and other one-time volunteering sponsors have discovered a strong need of people to take action together. Is this necessarily any less meaningful than a routine, every-week-for-years shift by volunteers elsewhere?

Every time someone volunteers in your program it is evidence that “engagement” happens when the service opportunity is visibly meaningful and meets the needs of the giver as well as the beneficiary. True “community” occurs when citizens perceive themselves as equals--when “helping” isn’t charity, but mutual exchange. Isn’t that what we, as leaders of volunteers, have been trying to facilitate for a long time? can we participate in the public discussion of creating a civil society? Can we offer our services to those politicians using this rhetoric in their election campaigns? Can we work with academic researchers to study the links between volunteering and citizenship? Can we attend conferences that never mention the word “volunteer,” but clearly mean what we do? Can we speak at these events? Can we invite proponents of “civic engagement” to speak to us at our conferences?

Regarding the White House conference, if anyone knows of someone in the volunteer field who has been invited, please let us know. However, waiting to be invited will not work. Since we all self-evidently believe that a civil society is a worthwhile vision, how do we take action to make volunteering a part of the discussion (at the White House and elsewhere)?

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