Mixed Messages from Government: Lessons from Minnesota

By Susan J. Ellis

What a difference a month makes! Thirty days ago I reported good news from Minnesota about the formation of MAVA as a wave of the future for our field (http://www.e-volunteerism.com/quarterly/02oct/02oct-mava) Now, unfortunately, Minnesota is center stage for some bad news. After 27 years of true leadership in our field, the Minnesota Office of Citizenship and Volunteer Services has been summarily closed by Governor Jesse Ventura in his goal to cut 10% of his budget. Its last day was the 31st of January. 

Executive Director Bonnie Esposito was blind-sided by the news, having received absolutely no warning. Further, Ventura axed the Office purposely during the holiday break of the state legislature, making sure that no politician could interfere with his "executive" decision. MOCVS staff had exactly 4 weeks to close shop and all lost their jobs. All prior commitments have been cancelled, including the offering of office space to MAVA. One of the many casualties of the closing is the extensive lending library of several thousand volunteerism materials that the Office had amassed over the years. A home needs to be found for the collection and we can only hope that Minnesotans will be able to retain access.

Since Minnesota has such an active network of volunteerism folks, they sprung into action. Despite the immediacy of the deadline, MAVA and its members wrote and called the Governor and everyone else they could think of. Protests were sent from outside the state, too, by myself and numerous other supportive colleagues. But to no avail. (Given Ventura's in-the-limelight style, he probably enjoyed the attention.)

The only reason given to Bonnie for the termination, apart from the need to save money, was that Ventura felt "it was not the role of government to deal with volunteering." And therein lies the Hot Topic!

Mixed Messages

We are living in a climate of mixed messages from government. On one hand, government officials extol the virtues of volunteering and express their wish to encourage active community engagement. Increasingly this desire is echoed around the world. On the other hand, all too often this is political lip service hiding the actual desire to divest government of service functions. Regardless, if the public sector wants the private sector to carry more responsibility for community building, it needs to be done in partnership, not through government abdication of any role in the process.

In the United States we have a new Office of Homeland Security that is openly discussing ways that citizens can get involved (after praising the outpouring of help after 9-11). We have a President who exhorts Americans to volunteer in his State of the Union address and wants to mobilize "armies of compassion." We are increasing the budget of the Corporation for National Service. So why does one Governor think it's wrong to have a state office of volunteer services?

Just before we posted this essay, reactions started to fly to the new USA Freedom Corps. See my addendum to this hot topic....

The mixed messages run deeper than that, of course. Despite all the call for volunteers to come forward in the nonprofit sector, volunteers who work in government settings are generally ignored. Yet the scope of volunteer service on behalf of government is staggering: schools, prisons, libraries, courts, parks and recreation, firefighting, etc. This is absolute fact, yet too many government officials must assume these contributions occur by spontaneous combustion, not by plan. Clearly Governor Ventura doesn't think his state departments need any help at all in this area. Would he have eliminated his personnel department?

The U.S. federal government does the opposite. They fund the Corporation, but then do not allow volunteers to work in federal government offices! Yes, this is true. Only the Departments of Agriculture and Interior have specific exceptions voted by Congress for certain programs. Volunteers are good enough for everyone else, I guess, but not for national government work.

What Can Government Do for Us?

There are many successful models around the world for national government involvement in volunteerism, with Canada and the UK at the top of the list. In the July 2001 issue of e-Volunteerism, Steve McCurley and I discussed what various international governments are doing now and what they might do to support volunteerism (http://www.e-volunteerism.com/quarterly/01sum/pov4). Although we were dealing with the national level, it seems to me that state or provincial government has a number of vested interests in the work we do - and some key roles to play. For example:

  • Data gathering and research: Who else is in the business of collecting information on the life of citizens? We expect government to count us, track labor and industry data, measure student achievement, and other items of public records. Why not contributed services?
  • Policy setting and enforcing: Issues such as insurance coverage, legal liability, equal opportunity and accessibility, tax incentives, and other concerns are squarely in the government domain and need to be interpreted/formulated for their impact on volunteering. Volunteerism is a specialty needing informed legislators and other officials.
  • Assuring that citizens who volunteer on behalf of government programs are welcomed and appropriately coordinated.

What Do We Want?

So the questions this month are:

  • Do we feel that government (in general) and state/provincial government (in particular) has a role to play in supporting volunteering?
  • What is that role?
  • How and to whom do we express our wishes for government involvement?

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