Government, Politicians, and the Use of the Word "Volunteer"

By Susan J. Ellis

All sorts of news items have recently surfaced in the US that have gotten me thinking about the nature of volunteering, particularly as the government relates to it. I'm not sure exactly what it all means, but let me share the information and ruminate about it and then ask you to join the discussion.

First, I just learned from colleague Reenie Marshall that there has been a bill sitting in a Congressional Committee since early last year to reinstate the military draft: H.R. # 163, Universal National Service Act of 2003. The Act calls for drafting both men and women, with very few exemptions, into either military service or community service (if a conscientious objector to war). Amazingly, there has been very little press about this. Reenie learned of it through a newsgroup to which she subscribes (see the provocative article at
) and I did more research. The Common Cause Action Center gives more details (
?billnum=H.R.163&congress=108&size=full ) and I also checked with the staff of the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Total Force, where the bill still lies after almost a year.

Since the end of the Vietnam war, the United States military has proudly called itself The All-Volunteer Army meaning, of course, that soldiers are not forced into service, not that they don't receive pay. They have not yet changed their marketing approach despite the obvious fact that the many National Guard volunteers now serving in Iraq were required to go overseas. The term volunteer soldier has a long history in the military, and is often used to legitimize uprisings such as the American War of Independence. But if a draft is indeed reinstated, we'll see the disappearance of the volunteer label.

Second, with little fanfare, new California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declined to accept the $175,000 salary that goes with the job (see With this he joins an impressive list of government officials who have done the same thing, including John F. Kennedy and Nelson Rockefeller. Surprised? Most people have no idea that one label they could use for these well-known people is volunteer. The Sacramento Bee article just referenced also notes that California 's new Secretary of Education, Richard Riordan, is a multimillionaire who didn't accept a salary as mayor of Los Angeles (though apparently he will take money for the new job).

Funny, isn't it, how no one questions the legitimacy or competence of such unpaid public servants? But note that, in some cases, individuals choosing to forgo their salary must legally go on the books as employees and accept a token $1 per year. Maybe this is another manifestation of resistance to volunteers by the civil service and its unions. What is the implication of not allowing someone to volunteer his/her time? I don't know, but it seems worth pondering.

Colleagues in the former Soviet Union talk about how the Communist government misused the concept of volunteering by linking it to mandatory and unpaid days of labor on behalf of the state. The same concern is raised in many countries now by those who strongly oppose any mandated service, especially student graduation requirements or court-ordered alternative sentences coercion without financial remuneration.

The opposite argument -- freely chosen, but paid -- is used to question whether Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, UN Volunteers, and similar sorts of programs should be considered part of volunteering. Some want to stress that the payment involved is mainly a stipend or living allowance, not a true salary. But where is the line between enabling funds for a volunteer and a really low wage? The combined value of all remuneration and benefits brings some Corps members to minimum wage level. If the government considers minimum wage to be a living wage clearly open to debate why do we insist on extolling programs such as AmeriCorps as voluntary sacrifice? What does this mean both to volunteering and to the poverty line?

Embracing volunteers is politically easy. Public officials (everywhere in the world) make speeches about how valuable citizen involvement is, although ironically, much of what volunteers really get worked up about is what government is not doing for the public good! Governments often embrace citizen volunteer projects to make up for the deficits of poor economies and failing public safety nets. Linda Graff articulated this extremely well in her essay, Genetic Engineering of the Volunteer Movement, which she wrote for our Rants and Raves Anthology last summer (still available for free at
). While we can applaud efforts such as the USA Freedom Corps or the UK 's Millennium Volunteers, and the emerging national volunteer centers in places such as the countries of the former Soviet Union , is such government interest in volunteering a wolf in sheep's clothing? You decide.

Here's what I'm wondering about:

  • What effect, if any, does the use or neglect of the word volunteer in these situations have on those of us in field of volunteerism?

  • Which concerns us more: forced but unpaid or paid but freely chosen? Why?

  • I take it as a given that some participants in these sorts of programs will eventually make their way into regular volunteer opportunities. Clearly many students contribute more hours than their minimum school requirement; a percentage of offenders end up staying with agencies after their official hours are served; AmeriCorps and Peace Corps members develop a lifelong commitment to service, etc. So how do we make sure this happens as much as possible?

  • Should we be trying to illuminate invisible examples of volunteering such as Schwarzenegger's unpaid service? Would this raise the bar for expectations about who volunteers and why?

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Comments from Readers

Submitted on
Nick Levinson, New York, NY, U.S.A.

Politicians who give up their pay should not be counted as volunteers, but you can if you want a broadly inclusive definition of volunteer, and, either way, they'd still be donors. I think they generally donate their pay to charities (in Trump's case, to a government agency, and maybe add Jimmy Carter for a post-Presidential paid project). By donating, they control where the money goes, exactly as if they bought necessary groceries or unnecessary art collections for themselves, and it's still taxable income. They're generally forbidden by law from refusing the pay because the employer can't refuse to pay them for work in which there's an expectation of compensation, and a paycheck announced in advance by law creates that expectation as strongly as can be. The main difference is that while a business could tell an employee who refuses pay to go away (fire the person), to do that to an elected officeholder or to someone appointed for a fixed term of time or who can't be fired except for limited cause may reveal an unclear legal issue for litigation, but that doesn't change whether the person is a volunteer and/or a donor.

One night, I got an increase in agreements to volunteer by not using the word. I expressed the concept in equivalent terms. Also, a museum developed a whole volunteer program by not using the word.

At a house of worship, giving your time and skill, whatever its theology may say (@Caroline Buchanan's comment), is, in secular terms, volunteering.

A tax benefit for volunteering is proposed by a commentator (@Sandra Lyle). I disagree unless someone can create a volunteer-value accounting system that would persuade the IRS (the US's main tax collection agency) that most fraud would be squelched. With few narrow exceptions, I don't think someone can. And widespread fraud would mean the rest of us, including volunteers, would pay more.