Volunteering Doesn’t Make the World a Better Place – Comment

Comment on: ‘Volunteering doesn’t make the world a better place’ 

I write in response to Catherine Walsh’s article ‘Volunteering Doesn’t Make the World a Better Place’ published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 5 January 2018.

Link to original article is here.

At the heart of her article, Catherine Walsh argues that volunteers are enabling a broken system. She believes that, even though the act of volunteering ‘signals you are a good person’, it has a detrimental effect, perpetuating the failure of governments to properly fund essential services such as education.

In response, I would like to challenge many of the assumptions made by the author. I believe that, while volunteering could often be done ‘better’, Catherine Walsh has been fundamentally unfair to volunteers in this article.

Argument 1: Volunteers are not valued, which is evidenced by the fact that they are not paid.

There are some people who believe that the only measure of value is money. They believe this no matter how many people scream from the rooftops about the personal value they give and receive from volunteering. The people who need to ask ‘what’s in it for me’, will never be convinced of the value of volunteering.

Most of us know, though, that the contribution of volunteers goes beyond the tangible. Concepts of belonging and connectedness come into play – coming together for a shared purpose, meeting new people, learning new skills and achieving goals. Building stronger communities.

What would the cost be of paying every volunteer for their time? Think of all the surf lifesavers around Australia – if this function were not fulfilled by volunteers, what would the consequences be? Fewer patrolled areas? ‘User-pays’ for beach visits?

Volunteers also act as role models for their children – to specifically teach them that not everything is about money. I repeat, not everything is about money.

Mel contributed to the discussion on my Facebook page: ‘I volunteer because it makes me feel good. Paying it forward, so to speak. I honestly couldn’t care less if there’s an economic report saying it’s inefficient.’

Kim adds: ‘I spend a lot of my volunteer time in sports administration. The cost of using paid employees to do the work we do would make playing sport far too expensive for anyone but the elite! The same goes for community events.’

Kezia wrote: ‘Pretty extreme way to publicly justify her not wanting to help if you ask me. We have more leisure time than ever before, so why not spend a bit of it helping others? I don’t want to put a $ value on the time I spend helping either. And to be honest the ‘system’ can’t afford to pay for everyone and society can’t afford to pay to support the increased costs of the ‘system’ if an all paid system was implemented.’

Argument 2: We are better off writing to governments rather than filling the gaps in the system.

The next time you are asked to volunteer or fundraise or donate you can say, “I gave at the office” because you pay taxes, or “I’ll write to a politician instead”. Let’s fix the broken systems.

This argument assumes that parents blindly turn up to volunteer without anybody thinking strategically about any big-picture changes needed at a government level. This is simply not the case.

A LOT of advocacy work is done in the higher levels of P&C and P&F associations across Australia. I have worked with most of these representative bodies and the role they play in lobbying for change is hands-down exceptional. Parents aren’t volunteering without a group of passionate advocates who have their back.

In the meantime, are we supposed to let these gaps remain unfilled? Withhold our volunteering efforts and put pressure on resources, to the detriment of our children, until the system reaches breaking point? This would be one twisted form of lobbying in my opinion.

Mick commented: ‘Notice that she advocates perpetuating the victim status by getting someone else (preferably government) to do everything?’

Fiona wrote: ‘My takeaway from her article, is that if we pay more taxes and fees, we could be better organised and therefore not need volunteers? The outcome of this would be fewer people who could afford to participate and a belief that every bit of effort needs to be rewarded.’

Argument 3: Volunteering is inefficient.

At school cake sales, parents bake cakes for sale to the children of other parents who bake cakes.

I believe the author is trying to say that fundraising, rather than volunteering, is inefficient. This has some truth to it but certainly isn’t always the case. There are plenty of spectacularly efficient, creative and powerful fundraisers that reinforce the organisation’s values. The non-aligned fundraisers would be the exception.

As with most things in life, there is almost certainly room for improvement. I encourage fundraising volunteers to think strategically about their ‘why’ and ‘what’ and put together a strategic plan. In this way, they can direct their efforts into the most worthwhile activities to achieve the most worthwhile outcomes.

Coupled with a commitment to ongoing learning and improvement, working to a plan is important to make certain the precious time of volunteers is used efficiently and effectively.

Mally wrote: ‘I think volunteering is important for building strong communities. Having said that, I also think it’s important to always question what you are doing and why – to have a strategy and goals and to make sure that precious volunteer time is used efficiently and effectively.’

Argument 4:  Volunteering takes jobs away from teachers.

Just wow. So not only are volunteers enabling a broken system, but they are taking the jobs of teachers! To accuse parent volunteers of inadvertently causing harm to an entire profession is, frankly, offensive.

Thankfully, I don’t believe that many teachers would share this view and most greatly appreciate the efforts of volunteers to support their work.

Paul Feasey wrote: ‘Volunteers are vital in so many aspects of life. I’m shocked and sad that a teacher is so anti volunteers as I’m sure she and her family would have benefited from volunteers in the past.’

Argument 5: Volunteering doesn’t make the world a better place.

This article, on face value, paints a dim view of society. If everyone shared the attitudes of the author, the world would indeed be a sad place.

Diane sums it up nicely: ‘Some of the points have validity but whenever I have volunteered I have met people I would never meet otherwise, I have given something of myself (I’m basically fairly self-centred), I have watched the children we help light up with gratitude and see a community that grows with involvement rather than sitting back whinging about what they don’t have and would never get from grants or taxpayers money. Unless we are all happy to pay an extra tax (no shirking) to be used for all the things our community WANTS! Taxes will only pay for what we NEED, and who is the arbiter of that? I give because it makes me a better person.’

The Bonus Benefits of Volunteering

There are other factors in favour of volunteering.

First, as our community faces increasing mental health challenges, volunteering is more important than ever. Volunteering offers a unique combination of connection and a sense of purpose, the importance of which cannot be overstated.

Secondly, I have often met people who have found work or business opportunities through their volunteering work. This is rarely the intention but happens naturally as people witness various skills being put to work.

Anthea says ‘I helped source sponsorship for our school fete and from there was offered work in a sales role by a fellow committee member. I had no experience with sales previously and have now happily worked there for 8 years.’

Making the world a better place.

Perhaps I am biased because I engage with volunteers in my everyday work. I see first-hand the energy and passion of thousands of volunteers – solving problems, creating opportunities and building stronger communities. I see volunteers growing in personal confidence, meeting new people, learning new skills and experiencing satisfaction from their efforts.

I would go so far as to say that the writer could not be more wrong. Volunteering is the ONE THING that is guaranteed to make the world a better place.

A recovering lawyer, Mandy Weidmann is Australia’s ‘Fundraising Whisperer’ – publisher of the Fundraising Directory and author of the Practical Fundraising Handbook for School and Club Volunteers. Mandy believes that parent volunteers shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel all the time and is passionate about providing resources to make fundraising easier (and more fun!).


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