Shaping Public Opinion: Volunteering, Government, and News Reports

By Susan J. Ellis

There must have been something in the air last month because the intersection between government and volunteers made the news in all sorts of ways during April, and in different countries, too. The news stories were not related to National Volunteer Week, which (as always) created nary a blip on the media radar screen. Each article in itself could be discussed and dissected in positive and negative ways by volunteer program managers. That’s not what I want to do here. Instead, I’d like to step back and think about what members of the general public might think after reading these sorts of stories.

A Sampling of the News Stories

The “Breaking News” item on the Energize homepage for the week of April 11th (/hot-topics-and-news) concerned a recent California state labor ruling requiring anyone who does any work on a watershed restoration project to be paid. What started as a legitimate attempt to stop contractors from avoiding the costs of expensive labor has become a blanket restriction against any involvement of volunteers in an arena with decades of volunteer participation history.

On the other side of the world, The New Zealand Herald ran the following story on 8 April:

Red tape halts volunteer taxi

Bureaucracy is driving a Whangarei volunteer transport service for the disabled off the road.

Northland Parafed Trust president Ian Irvine said Whangarei Parafed had been operating for 29 years but would finish tomorrow because of new regulations and compliance costs.

To carry on, the 11 volunteer drivers would have needed special licences, medical tests, first aid certificates and personal liability insurance.

"I'm not expecting that of our guys. As volunteers it's just unfair to ask."

Whangarei Parafed ran seven days a week, 365 days a year and never had a serious accident. 1

An amazingly similar story made the KCRG-TV9 news in Iowa City, Iowa (19 April) about screening requirements for Veterans Administration volunteer drivers. 2

A different volunteer incident made the news in the Sun-Sentinel in Broward County, Florida (3 April):

Lauderdale volunteer program questioned

The interim city manager, who touts "business as unusual," is advocating an "executive volunteer" squad that would include people like himself, who would "work" in City Hall for free and be able to dodge Government in the Sunshine laws. In internal e-mails obtained by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel under open records law, Silva proposed the executive volunteer idea as a way to take advantage of business, budget and other expertise in the community, without sticking to the rigid open government laws that keep discussions of advisory groups open to the public. 3 (read full article...)

This time, a possibly creative idea for citizen engagement is caught in the middle of a political power struggle. Volunteers should never be exploited for the political ends of an official nor to circumvent government rules. But, on the other hand, if a government leader is able to engage the help of qualified volunteers to serve the municipality, is there a problem we can’t see?

This theme is echoed in the following two news stories, also written in April. The Laurel Leader ran a local story about its Maryland town. In this case, deploying volunteers to give parking tickets is seen as a plus by the police department, the storekeepers, the shoppers, and the volunteers – though later in the article there is some griping about the parking regulations themselves.

Volunteer parking ticketers draw praises, criticism

If you have exceeded the two-hour parking limit on Main Street in recent years, you may have noticed that the city was lax in enforcing the restriction.

Not anymore.

If you have exceeded the two-hour limit during the last few months, chances are you got a $25 parking citation, thanks to a group of volunteers for the Laurel Police Department who have been authorized to write tickets.

"We're having fun," said Pat Walsh, owner of the Something Special coffee shop at 504 Main St. and a founding member of the Laurel Citizens' Police Academy Alumni Association. "You get a feeling of truly helping." 4 (read full article…)

On April 23rd, politicians in Malaysia questioned community service mandates in their country, in The Star Online:

Reps ‘feeling the burden of NS community service’

An Assemblyman questioned the effectiveness of some of the national service (NS) programmes, particularly community service, and asked the state to give its feedback to the Federal Government.  

Philip Lasimbang (BN –Moyog) said elected representatives were feeling the burden when they have to allocate funds for gotong-royong projects such as the building of houses in villages only to have inexperienced NS trainees come and “bang a few nails.” 

“Some of these trainees have never even held a hammer before, so how do you expect them to work?” Lasimbang asked in his debate on the Yang di-Pertua Negri’s speech at the opening of the state assembly sitting on Tuesday. 

He said certain facilities have become inaccessible to the public as they were being used by NS trainees and officials.  

“For example, some athletes who are preparing for Sukma have been denied training facilities because part of the Likas Sports Complex is occupied by NS trainees,” Lasimbang said. 

He said feedback from the state would enable future NS programmes to be carried out more effectively.  5

This seems to be the eternal debate over mandates, qualifications, and mission. Is the goal to serve the public or to give NS trainees something to do? One of the elements here is also the differences and similarities between “community service” and “volunteering,” an issue highlighted in this April 15th New York Times article:

In Public Housing, It's Work, Volunteer or Leave

For Shaleema Malave, a resident of the Lillian Wald Houses on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the letter arrived unexpectedly about two weeks ago, and it read like a kind of draft notice.

To keep her public housing apartment, the one-page letter from the New York City Housing Authority said, Ms. Malave, a stay-at-home mother of four boys under the age of 18, would have to perform 96 hours of unpaid community service over the next 12 months. Volunteering for the Police Department would do, the letter suggested. So, too, would Habitat for Humanity, or a library, or the Parks Department.

"I'm not free to be a mother?" asked Ms. Malave, 42, as she sat with her husband and sons. "We're not breaking the law."

Starting next month, New York City will be the latest city to begin enforcing federal legislation enacted six years ago that requires all public housing residents who are not working full time, studying, disabled or over the age of 62 to perform community service every year. 6 (read full article…)

This story hits readers on various levels: Is some required community service fair recompense for publicly-supported housing? Should people in public housing be given less right to choose to volunteer or not than other citizens? Is this a huge fuss over 96 hours a year (less than 2 a week)?

Conversely, some government entities don’t even value volunteering genuinely offered as good citizenship, such as the school board in Mapletown , Pennsylvania , whose April public meeting was covered by the local newspaper, the Observer-Reporter:

Board asks volunteer to "back off" study

MAPLETOWN - Southeastern Greene School Board asked a resident who is preparing a transportation study for the district to halt his work after parents unaware of the project called the school to report a driver following school buses.

The board earlier granted permission for Joe Zalar to conduct a study of bus routes in an attempt to save the district money. Zalar volunteered to do the study at no cost to the district.

Board members said Thursday that Zalar was asked to halt his work after parents and bus drivers, who saw Zalar following buses in his car, called the school to report what they believed was suspicious activity.

"Parents called and said their kids were afraid," said board member Jeff Duranko. The board last Thursday asked Zalar to halt his project, he said. [section deleted]

One district resident, Tom Fox, complained to the board about Zalar's treatment, saying Zalar had volunteered to help the district but had received no cooperation and was even threatened by a board member. 7(read full article…)

I wonder whether the reporter – or most of the citizens of Mapletown – also realize that the school board members themselves are volunteers?

What Message Does the Public Receive?

None of these news stories is all that special alone and few people would have seen all of them in one month as I did. But I think we in the volunteer field have to pay attention to the effect of the mixed messages government sends to the public about volunteering, particularly through the news media.

The average citizen has no context within which to understand most of these stories and so take their cues from the reporter in each case. So if the issues are presented simplistically (or not at all), or if volunteers or employees are slightly ridiculed, how does a reader know that there’s more to know? To me, the key issue is whether or not the cumulative effect of a stream of news stories like these (even if over a longer period of time) ends up flavoring the reaction of people to things like agency recruitment messages.

What do you think the answers might be to questions like these:

  • Do mixed message news stories work against our recruitment messages to “become a volunteer”?
  • Is volunteering understood (and valued) as an expression of good citizenship or not?
  • Does the public think of community service and volunteering as synonyms? How closely connected is the term community service to alternative sentencing of law breakers?
  • What is the general perception of how volunteers are treated once they take the step of offering their services?


Because news stories online often disappear after a few weeks, we have posted the full text of the longer articles here on our site. They are linked from each excerpt within the Hot Topic above.

1New Zealand Herald, 8 April 2004.  Online at

2KCRG-TV9 News, Iowa City, Iowa, 19 April 2004, online at:

3Sun-Sentinel, Broward County, Florida , 3 April 2004 . Found online at:,0,484546... (no longer posted)

4 Laurel Leader, Maryland, April (day unknown) 2004. Found online at:
NewsID=539567&CategoryID=5845&show=localnews&om=1 (no longer posted)

5Star Publications, Malaysia, 23 April 2004. Online at:

6The New York Times, 15 April 2004. Online at: ttp://

7Observer-Reporter, Mapletown, Pennsylvania, April (day unknown) 2004.  Found online at: (no longer posted)


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