Keeping an Eye on Things in the Year Ahead

By Susan J. Ellis

What is percolating in our field as this new year of 2005 starts? As always, my crystal ball is not necessarily more accurate than anyone else’s, so I shy away from making actual predictions. But I’m willing to peer into the future and share the things that I plan to watch carefully in the coming months – sort of the “trends in the making” from my perspective. The following list is not in order of importance, but does include some possibly big issues and some tiny items of note that might, like the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings on the other side of the earth, evolve into something unexpectedly important.

Volunteer Vacations

More news stories seemed to appear this past year than ever before about the concept of “volunteer vacations,” though the idea has been around for a long time. In some ways this seems a logical extension of episodic volunteering, coupled with the continuing reality of large numbers of single people (of all ages) looking for innovative ways to spend their free time.

With baited breath I await the planned reality TV show (I’m not kidding!) called Voluntouring, self-described as “ an inspirational television series that documents the challenges, successes and failures of a small group of adventuresome volunteers, who will travel to Cusco, Peru to donate their time and considerable energy to teach life skills

to and care for deaf orphans. This show is about everyday people seeking to put meaning back into their lives by helping other global citizens in need.” 

Then there are two new organizations with very similar names: Voluntours, offering “travel with purpose,” and VolunTours, which ambitiously is mobilizing the travel industry (tour operators, travel planners, and convention bureaus) to partner with nonprofits and service-learning programs. A major Voluntourism Forum is scheduled for February 2 in Washington, DC.

Backlash to Community Service Requirements

Thanks to Google Alerts, I track Web postings (including online versions of newspapers) that contain the term “community service.” What’s hilarious (or depressing) is the mixture of news stories this term presents. Just a few recent headlines alongside the usual Lifelong Volunteer Gets Community Service Award sort of thing were:

Polygamist Gets Community Service Sentence

Drunk Taxi Drivers [in Paris ] Required to Help the Community

Man Kills Dog; Must Do Community Service

And we wonder why people don’t understand what we do. The general public all too often remembers these applications of community service and consider the concept as punishment – and as easy punishment, at that.

Further, my antennae sense a slow change in attitude about the value of student service graduation requirements and the costs of running programs such as alternative sentencing. Just a few examples of what’s percolating out there can be read by clicking here. Some of the issues are:

  • Parents really disliking the student community service requirement for graduation, largely because they see it as time-consuming without much educational value.
  • Too many school systems watering down the concept to include “service to the school” as “community service” – so things that used to be considered student government, extra-curricular club projects, and other activities focusing only on students themselves are being accepted as fulfilling the requirement.
  • Nonprofit agencies offering only limited (boring) roles to students and still resistant to working with court-referred or public assistance placements.
  • Attempts to charge a fee to either the mandated worker or the unit of government requiring the service, to cover the costs of administering these programs.
  • Giving offenders the option to “pay their way out” of community service labor by donating cash to charities instead.

Just this past week I saw the quirky new Bill Murray movie, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. In it, a marine scientist goes on an expedition with very little funding and so recruits student interns as free labor. He never uses their names (“hey, intern”) and asks them to do things like steal equipment from a rival. After being attacked by pirates (this IS a comedy), the interns want to leave. He lets them, but says goodbye like this: “I’m disappointed in you interns for leaving. I can’t give you credit for this time. I won’t give you a failing grade, but I will give you incompletes.”

Ridicule of internships in popular media is not a good sign.

New Vocabulary

A colleague in London directed me to a new publication titled The Pro-Am Revolution: How Enthusiasts Are Changing Our Economy and Society by Charles Leadbeater and Paul Miller (Demos, UK, 70 page PDF, 2004).  It’s available for free download at (link updated 2014). These English authors take the sports concept of pro-am, in which professional athletes and amateurs compete and also work together, and extend it to what they call a “new” approach to social improvement. They want to encourage more “enthusiasts” with strong expertise and time to give to work side-by-side with a wide range of paid professionals.

While they use the term “volunteering” freely in their book, they clearly want to convey Pro-Am work as something innovative. They may well attract more men and business people that way, too.

Yet another approach to grabbing the attention of prospective volunteers – this time youth – is also British. YouthNet’s “Attract-o-Meter” (, no longer available 2014/) poses real and silly questions in a short quiz and concludes that someone is more attractive to the opposite sex if he or she volunteers! Then it links to, the volunteer opportunity registry.

Unanswered Questions

Finally, we start 2005 with many pending situations, all of which can have an impact on volunteerism. I’ll give you my list and you can share yours in response:

  • What will be the effect of the second Bush administration? Will it mean more or less volunteering…and the need for it? Will faith-based service emerge as something new? Will the perceived equipment lacks of the US military in Iran promote even more private fundraising projects to send over things like body armor?
  • The divisive presidential election drained many long-time and newly-recruited volunteers of all political persuasions. What’s the fallout of burnout? (And this may repeat itself in the UK later this year.)
  • Will anything concrete happen in response to the UPS study concluding that volunteer program managers are vital to the success of nonprofit organizations? Will AmeriCorps train their young people to do volunteer coordination? Will funders offer grant money for volunteer management positions? Will academic take volunteer management seriously as a field of study?
  • What will the Year of Volunteers 2005 bring about in the UK?

So I better polish my glasses and keep the lights on. The new year, as always, is ripe with possibilities. The only safe prediction is that volunteers will be where the action is.

What are YOU keeping your eye on this year?

What unanswered questions do you have about future events and volunteering?

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