What We See, or Don't: Volunteers in Television, Films, and Novels

By Susan J. Ellis

Earlier this week I watched an episode of an American television show called 7th Heaven in which a church needed to raise money for a new roof. Their star fundraising volunteer was a curmudgeonly old woman who was shown working her way through a telephone list of parishioners, strong-arming them for donations with blackmail (as in, give money or I’ll tell your wife who you were with last Tuesday). The word “volunteer” was not used at all in the hour show, but clearly viewers were expected to recognize the scenario from their own past experiences. How might someone interpret the implications here about service or philanthropy?

Occasionally there is some good news for volunteers on the media front. Also this week, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit aired an episode called “Futility,” about a serial rapist. Integral to the story was how rape and domestic abuse victims are supported by many social services, including volunteer counselors, one of whom was important to the show’s plot. In fact, one of the star actresses appeared on the Today Show with the director of the Mt. Sinai Hospital (NYC) SAVI program to discuss the message embedded in the script, and the show’s official Web site provides related links. See: [link no longer available, 2014]

Back in 1979 I wrote an article for Voluntary Action Leadership (the predecessor of what is today Volunteer Leadership) entitled “The Mass Media Image of Volunteers,” the premise of which is still relevant today. Volunteerism suffers either from invisibility in popular culture or from gross stereotyping. (If you want to take a walk down memory lane, click here to read the original article.) Statistics claim that over 40% of the US population volunteers – but you wouldn’t know it from the storylines of favorite shows or films. I doubt the situation is much different in other countries.

It seems fitting to be discussing this subject now which, as I write, is National Volunteer Week in North America. Once again, as I’ve come to expect, the Week is mostly unpublicized and ignored. Perhaps the problem is that the impact of volunteers is so pervasive, it’s hard to raise volunteering into the limelight all at once. Maybe the goal of “recognition” of volunteers is to stop seeing service as something extraordinary and start seeing it as a natural fact of life.

I would love to see volunteering treated to the “product placement” attention so in vogue with commercial advertisers. A consumer product such as a brand of soda or cereal is used within a movie scene by the characters in an everyday way, without comment – but the label is clearly visible. The subliminal message is: These cool characters drink X or eat Y, so you should, too!

Just think what might be the ripple effect if volunteering were similarly incorporated into mass media like this:

  • A popular sit com character is periodically seen on his or her way to a volunteer activity (wearing a uniform or t-shirt, or carrying equipment).
  • A professional or businessperson character serves on a local board of directors, which elicits story lines.
  • Some heartthrob character meets a hot date at a volunteer event in which they are both participating.
  • Shows based in high schools referred occasionally to community service projects.
  • Any character’s “other side” was demonstrated by the passion s/he has for a volunteer assignment.
  • Daytime dramas (“soaps”), which obviously deal in the minutia of their character’s lives, placed some scenes at a blood drive or an environmental center or anywhere volunteers work. (According to an Energize staffer, at least one member of the Quartermaine family on General Hospital does serve on the hospital board!)

Children's television shows and books ought to be fertile ground for mentioning volunteering, including showing families volunteering together. As our Webmaster (with 2 children) pointed out to me, "new kid superheroes like Pokemon and SailorMoon are actually volunteers saving the world from imminent destruction. Hmm... What does that say?"

A New Media Registry that You Help Compile

Given the international geographic spread of our site visitors, and the many variations in ages, tastes, and interests, you undoubtedly already have other examples of volunteering in fiction that I haven’t seen or heard about – both good and bad. So I’d like to enlist all of you in compiling an ongoing registry of all mentions of volunteering in fiction – whether on television or in films and novels (or other places such as comic strips, advertisements, etc.). If we get enough of a response to this Hot Topic, we’ll use those entries as a start for a new section in the Collective Wisdom area of the site and we’ll keep it going over time.

This will be fun, but it’s also an important barometer of public attitudes about what we do. Are we marginal or integral to society? Is our image one of role model, trend setter, or nerd? We expect fictional characters to hold a job, have a family, and enjoy recreational activities (especially sports). Maybe someday it will be so commonplace to also expect them to do volunteer work that we won’t need a registry anymore!

Start sharing your volunteer “sightings” now!

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Comments from Readers

Submitted on
Karen Carson, Volunteer Coordinator, NJ State Library Talking Book & Braille Center, Trenton, New Jersey, United States

Remember that old Seinfeld episode when Elaine, Jerry, and George decide that they've been selfish and need to volunteer? They are disappointed when an agency assigns them to visit seniors in their homes. Of course, Jerry and George are assigned to help a very cantankerous older man and Elaine is repelled by her senior's obvious facial deformity. The writers surprise us by turning the situation into a positive one when the older woman tells Elaine all about her sordid affair with Ghandi! Jerry and George are not so lucky, and volunteerism is not mentioned for the rest of that season.

Submitted on
Susan J Ellis, Energize, Inc., Philadelphia, PA, United States

Excellent example of how volunteering is used in the media merely as a plot device and often for humor. Thanks for sharing, Karen!

-- Susan