Why Can't We Make Progress on Public Perceptions about Volunteering?

By Susan J. Ellis

Last week I was listening to a National Public Radio interview with the artist Christo who, with his wife and collaborator Jeanne-Claude, is in the midst of erecting “The Gates” project this month in New York City’s Central Park (http://www.christojeanneclaude.net). When the interviewer heard that the artists had hired 1100 workers to complete the installation and then to remove it after 16 days, she asked whether volunteers would be involved, too. Christo answered, “of course not, because there is no way to insure volunteers.” This outlandish statement was not challenged and the interview moved on.

Now there are many reasons why Christo might want to pay his workers and certainly the burst of employment is good for New York. So I did not react to the fact that he did not want volunteers (in this case, the artists do not accept donations of money either). But why did he think that volunteers could not be insured and why did the interviewer accept his statement as reasonable?

There are two things that might have occurred: Christo may have simply assumed that volunteers could not be insured and never checked it out, or he did contact an insurer with no previous history in this area who turned him down without knowing – or without bothering to research – that there are indeed many types of insurance policies available to cover volunteers who are appropriately recruited, trained and managed. [If you want to learn more about this important topic, start at Volunteers Insurance Service (for the U.S.) http://www.cimaworld.com/htdocs/volunteers.cfm and also use Google to search on volunteers + insurance, which gives international resources, too.

Regardless of the source of Christo’s information, I am convinced that the statement “volunteers can’t be insured” is based largely on the persistent stereotype that “volunteer” means “unskilled.” Followed in this example by the assumption that volunteers, by definition, would be incapable of doing the work properly or would vastly increase the risks.

I’ve encountered this infuriating problem hundreds of times in my career, as undoubtedly has everyone reading this essay. Yet I never get used to it. What is it about volunteering that causes such thinking – even now, despite decades of serious attempts by our field to alter the public’s perceptions?

When the word volunteer is heard, why don’t the following images come to mind:

  • Doctors and nurses giving up personal vacation time to travel to the poorest parts of the world to do life-altering surgeries?
  • First responders to emergencies, from tsunami recovery efforts to avalanche search and rescue, not to mention most local ambulance services?
  • Literacy tutors?
  • Members of the school board?
  • The people who maintain the Appalachian Mountain Trail?
  • Habit for Humanity home builders?

I don’t need to preach to the choir here, but there are so many examples of highly-skilled volunteering out there that it is increasingly irritating to see the world continue to think only about “envelope stuffing” and “Candy Stripers.” Thirty or forty years ago people could get away with hearing the word “doctor” and assume a male would appear, or could humorously denigrate women’s abilities without consequence. We’ve made progress. We’ve managed to educate ourselves and others to change our assumptions (generally) and respect both genders. So why are we still living in the 1950’s when it comes to volunteers?

Volunteers are as skilled and as unskilled as are paid workers. In fact, they are frequently the same paid workers, giving their time outside of their jobs to other organizations. In Christo’s case, what would have happened if he had asked the various craftspeople and construction workers to volunteer the exact same skills to his art project as they normally are paid to use on building jobs? In principle, would this not have resulted in the same workforce that he was “able to insure”? What made the difference if they were paid or not? [Again, I am not making the case that he was wrong to pay them, just that he or his insurance company was wrong to assume he could only recruit volunteers who would be unable to do the job right.]

On the other side of the coin, there is so much incompetence out there in the employment world that it sometimes makes me laugh to hear people put faith in someone simply because he or she is paid. The old joke that the Titanic was built by “professionals” and Noah’s Ark by an “amateur” does ring true.

It could be argued that volunteering often involves the young and the old, both groups outside the standard age of paid employment, and therefore attitudes about volunteering reflect this wide pool of workers. But “employment” in and of itself does not automatically imply “skilled,” either – after all, it encompasses nuclear physicists and street cleaners. There are volunteers who excel and, yes, there are volunteers who are witless. Just like employees! (And in both cases it might be fair to blame the people who recruited/hired them for not doing a better job.)

Unlike other Hot Topics, I have few suggestions to offer here nor good answers to the questions I’ve raised. But I believe it is absolutely central to the challenges of our field. Until someone who makes a silly public statement about volunteers is corrected by the media or by a political leader, the misinformation will continue. Until it becomes important for any sort of application to list and describe one’s community service as well as one’s employment history, the public will continue to think these are done by two separate groups. Until organizations feel compelled to record and report the contributions of time and talent with the same attention as they report the contributions of cash, volunteering will be seen as “nice” but marginal.

Why do you think the stereotypes persist?

Why do you think our past efforts have failed to change the misperceptions?

Is there something we can do about it?

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