National Volunteer Week: Does Anyone Care?

By Susan J. Ellis

April brings National Volunteer Week (April 22-28) in the USA and, as I feel every year, I wonder if anyone cares. Certainly just about no one outside of our field has ever heard of National Volunteer Week. Why? Consider how we systematically undercut this celebration.

It is my anecdotal experience that very few volunteer programs plan their own agency recognition events to coincide with the national week. This is reasonable because the Week is badly timed (the dates change confusingly each year because of Easter and Passover--you can find a list of the dates in our Special Days pages) and there is no intuitive logic to April as the start or end of a period of service. However, just because an agency's volunteer recognition event is scheduled at another time doesn't mean directors of volunteers should ignore National Volunteer Week. It is possible-and nice--to participate in both. Internal agency events say thank you for specific service; National Volunteer Week celebrates the value of volunteers to the entire community and the nation.

Meanwhile, the very national bodies that are supposed to lead the celebration of the week have systematically undercut it by allowing-even encouraging--other commemorative events to be scheduled outside of the week. This began several years ago when National Youth Service Day was announced for the Friday BEFORE National Volunteer Week--effectively allowing students to distance themselves from the "ordinary" volunteer. Two years ago, National Family Volunteer Day was started-in November. If you go to the Points of Light Web site, National Volunteer Week is not even mentioned on the home page and only appears in a list of POLF "Programs and Activities."

Our Canadian colleagues elected to go along with the American dates for their National Volunteer Week, but I believe that no other country does. The United Kingdom chose the first week of June as their recognition period. Despite the comparative neutrality of the United Nations, its declaration of December 5 as International Volunteer Day has not been universally adopted, particularly in English-speaking countries where it is pretty much invisible.

If we in the field cannot find the will to work together to celebrate volunteers once a year, why do we expect others to care?

The point of an annual week or day focused on volunteers is to make a cumulative statement in the most public way possible. Yet we have no national publicity for National Volunteer Week because no one is pursuing it. Officially, National Volunteer Week is coordinated by Points of Light, the White House (the President issues a Proclamation each year), and the Corporation for National Service. After years of press disinterest, it is clear that self-fulfilling prophecy has taken hold. We expect no media coverage, so we do little to engender it, and then we get none.

All the "stuff" available for National Volunteer Week is aimed at the individual agency: mugs, pins, and other gifts for the luncheon. Where are the tools for celebrating the week publicly? Why no large, across-Main-Street banners (how about parades)? Why no billboards or magazine ads? Why no celebrity endorsements? Why are we not:

  • Working with greeting card companies to create commercially-available volunteer thank you cards (so that maybe a recipient of volunteer services might do some personal recognition of the volunteer they know best)-in print or online? Funny how National Secretaries Day (designated about fifteen years ago and coming right in the middle of National Volunteer Week) is seen as a card-buying opportunity, but "thank a volunteer" is not.
  • Offering speakers to the wide number of television and radio news shows (morning, noon and night)-even now when there are 24-hour news services yearning for time fillers?
  • Designing clever and memorable public service announcements about volunteering?
  • Developing "year-in-review" photojournalism reports? These would be wonderful locally as well as nationally. If I were doing a recap of the impact of volunteers in the last 12 months in the United States, I'd remind people of things like:

    - volunteers were the ones who recounted the votes in Florida
    - volunteers were present at every major national disaster scene, doing the hardest of all kinds of work
    - volunteers made sure that drinking and driving weren't part of countless prom nights
    - volunteers provided support in communities with school violence and prevention services in others
    - volunteers saved beached whales, oil-covered birds, and other creatures affected by human environmental damage

    Bet a review like that would get attention!

The thing that's hardest for me to accept is that we don't seem to expect this type of leadership from our national organizations. As individuals, we can express our disappointment, complain to the organization of which we are members, offer our services to do it differently next year, or show how it CAN be done in a local community. Everything I just listed can be "brought home," if a local Volunteer Center and/or a DOVIA decide to do it. But it will never happen if we don't value the importance of annually celebrating volunteers OUTSIDE of our own agencies.

This year, this depressing state of affairs is compounded by knowing that April marks month 4 of the near-invisibility of International Year of Volunteers in the United States. This year's National Volunteer Week theme is "Change the World-Volunteer!" but there is absolutely nothing to connect our annual event to IYV. Volunteer program managers will never become what we ought to be unless and until we advocate, not just for ourselves, but for volunteers-and not just for the volunteers in our own organizations, but for volunteers everywhere.

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