Tackling Causes Not Symptoms: New/Old Roles for Volunteers

By Susan J. Ellis

In August, a colleague shared the following provocative snippets. In light of the present world political stage, I thought her thoughts and a discussion about political activism and the role of volunteers would be a great November topic:

  • David Wagner in his book What's Love Got to Do with It? A Critical Look at American Charity (New York Press, 2000) explores whether charity exists as a substitute for social justice and posits that charity signifies inequality and is more symbolism than accomplishment. In a review of the book in the e-zine, Salon, the reviewer starts out:

    Just as I was finishing David Wagner's tightly argued essay on the history of American charity, out came a poll that seemed to confirm everything the sociologist was saying: Religion and its do-gooder stepchild, volunteerism, have all but smothered real political engagement in America.

  • From the "365-Days-a-Year Dilbert" calendar comes a cartoon of temporary CEO Dogbert cutting employee health-care benefits while simultaneously joining the board of the local free clinic. In the last frame he receives an award for having increased the clinic's number of clients during his tenure on the board!
  • A veteran activist observes that what started as a one-page resource sheet for homeless services has evolved in 25 years into a multi-page, glossy publication featuring innumerable such agencies. He ponders that the one-page resource sheet was part of an effort to end homelessness, not to develop services to "help" homeless people.
  • The 1998 Virginia Volunteering survey asked volunteers in what types of work they were involved (as opposed to the need or cause addressed). Advocacy had the smallest percentage as indicated below:

    direct service 47%
    resource development 32%
    leadership roles 30%
    clerical work 22%
    advocacy 14%

To my friend, all of these items raise an important question for the volunteer field:

Are we engaging enough volunteers, enough of the time, in advocacy and activism along with direct services?

As in the parable about the drowning babies floating down the river (if you are not familiar with this parable, you can read it in our Reflections area: Parables), are we simply pulling more and more good swimmers into the water or are we also sending adequate numbers of volunteers upstream to stop whoever is throwing the babies into the river in the first place? Have we in "volunteer management" spent so much time focusing on support roles and helpfulness that we no longer foster activism?

Now more than ever, we as a people and as worldwide citizens need to focus on root causes and prevention of new problems. Advocacy is part and parcel of influencing policies and decisions that will address the complicated issues facing us. Certainly the needs addressed by direct services are impossible to ignore and the services important to continue. But what questions, principles, challenges and resolve do we as a profession need to deal with as we also engage volunteer resources to go up the river…?

There are a number of issues to consider:

  1. Most social agencies and institutions were originally started by pioneering volunteers who focused on a problem and invented creative ways to address it. Many of these same agencies have now become so vested in maintaining themselves that they have lost sight of solving the problem they were created to address. They need to bring back those pioneering volunteers! The power of volunteer involvement is proven by the history of most of our organizations. This potential for what is now called "civic engagement" is always present; September 11th only made it more visible.
  2. Most established organizations want help, not input, from volunteers. But this is an enormous missed opportunity. We need to harness the diversity of perspectives volunteers offer. They are not just like the paid staff - and that's exactly the point! Along with hands and hearts, advocacy involves volunteers using their ideas and voices as well. Are we designing specific advocacy roles for volunteers? When we train volunteers, do we include such skills as how to speak their minds in constructive and persuasive ways?
  3. Volunteer administrators face some ethical issues in mobilizing volunteers as advocates. It is a tenet of a free and pluralistic society that volunteers/citizens may stand on either side of any issue. So, how do we encourage volunteers to be advocates without exercising undue influence on their position or appearing to be motivated by their own or their organization's self-interest? On the other hand, how do we educate volunteers to choose positions that strengthen the ultimate mission of our organizations?
  4. Engaging volunteers in advocacy provides a legitimate "career path" for volunteers. Michael McCabe, in an excellent article in a recent issue of e-Volunteerism, speaks about a "continuum" of service in which volunteers begin by hands-on involvement in direct-service positions and ultimately advance to an intelligent understanding of the causes of a problem and work actively to effect real social change. Advocacy offers seasoned volunteers leadership and teaching roles, with responsibilities that tap and recognize their advanced abilities.

Here's the challenge: As everyone else is paid to conduct business as usual, how do we provide the environment in which volunteers can step out of the forest, see the trees, and prevent fires? How do we enable volunteers to:

  • re-examine fundamental assumptions about why and how we give service?
  • re-determine priorities in a changing world?
  • analyze what is working and why, and what is not working and why not?
  • be political - not in a partisan sense, but in influencing legislative votes on the issues that affect long-term solutions?

The word "war" is again in use. Terrorism, racial bigotry, and fears of many kinds are worldwide concerns. I believe that volunteers can be peacemakers and coalition builders. In fact, only private citizens can do this quickly and locally. We may have to "free" volunteers from some of the direct-service roles they may love to do so that they can advocate for social justice. We cannot limit ourselves to being concerned with "volunteer management." This is a time for volunteerism as a philosophy of community life - the engagement of citizens above and beyond the ordinary.

Receive an update when the next "News and Tips" is posted!


Permission to Reprint