Here are a few examples of what I’ve learned from other countries about volunteer administration:
1. In the United Kingdom, I realized that there are other ways to look at the interrelationship between government and volunteers. While we see it as a badge of honor to proclaim "accepts no government funds," in the UK and in other parts of the world, the role of voluntary organizations is to demonstrate the social concerns with which government ought to get involved. "Success" is being integrated into a formal, ongoing, consistently-funded government program. Americans will not embrace socialism, but we are going to have to determine collectively what we expect of our government in terms of basic citizen services.
2. In Ecuador, I saw that volunteers in government-run hospitals were activists as well as patient care providers. For example, one volunteer group purchased new blankets for the patients, only to see them stolen by the staff. So the volunteers had to buy more blankets while advocating with administrators about greater concern for patients. This was intellectually interesting to me in 1988. But in 1998, with hospitals in the US undergoing changes daily, I now realize the applicable question for American hospital volunteers will become: how do we take action on the things that we dislike about "bottom-line"-driven health care?
3. In Sweden, I observed in amazement how Chapter 1 of my book From the Top Down had been operating for fifty years. Here was a society that had decided to tax itself enormously in order to provide universal services to all its citizens: free health care, free universities, etc. So, within this "utopian" arrangement, volunteering (except for recreational, political or religious causes) was deemed unnecessary. If something needed to be done, the Swedes created a paying job to do it. By the 1990s, they discovered that they had raised several generations of Swedes with a "it’s not my job" attitude. This made it hard to cope with unexpected social issues such as AIDS, frail homebound elderly, and even homelessness (due in part to Sweden’s open door policy for political refugees). Being a friend to a stranger, offering a sense of community, and taking ownership of problems must all be re-taught.
4. Two years ago I participated in a Wingspread Conference for the leadership of national service clubs: Junior Leagues, Soroptimists, Lions, Rotary, etc. The theme of the weekend was rediscovering the relevance of these organizations in American society today and addressing almost universal declining membership. But a fascinating fact emerged. Membership in the United States may be declining, but a large number of these organizations are experiencing major growth in Asia. A few were even establishing branch offices in Japan or Korea. What is driving this popularity of volunteer service clubs in the Pacific Rim? What are the implications for any of us?