Do people still volunteer for service sake?Published 8:44am Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Column: Notes from Home
Volunteering to serve the community isn’t what it used to be.
Once upon a time, lots of American institutions thrived because of women and men (mostly women) who stepped forward and did what needed to be done without thought of payment. They ran PTA chapters at school, organized Red Cross functions, led Scout troops, made bandages for distant disasters, kept an eye out for children and shut-ins in their neighborhoods …
Don’t I sound like an old curmudgeon? When I was a child … blah, blah, blah. Surely I can’t mean what I say? Surely I see all the teens and adults packaging meals for the hungry, going on mission trips and helping to build houses today? Yes, of course I see them. I’ve been one of them, helping with those tasks.
It’s not that the idea of volunteering has gone away; it’s just that the motivation for serving others seems to have changed. Today volunteering is something most of us seem to be doing for some kind of reward — the public acknowledgement, the free cookies or sandwiches, the line item for a résumé — or because of some kind of pressure, and not because the act of serving another is something we just do because we’re Americans or religious … or human beings.
This is most obvious when you look at the applications for college and the associated scholarships, or rather, when you look at how families prepare for those applications. Teenagers volunteer to serve supper to the homeless for the sake of that college application and then, later, the résumé for that first job.
Families have learned to keep track of these service experiences — our family does now, after the experience of applying for college with our oldest — because it’s something colleges ask about. Organizations that give out scholarships — including colleges themselves — also ask for evidence of volunteering. We try to keep the documentation in the background, but periodically there it is, sitting right in our faces: we need to keep these records to help our kids.
There’s another thing that complicates the concept of service: What happens when we volunteer our time for an institution that uses that service as part of its PR or advertising, helping them profit from what volunteers do? It still means helping people, but volunteering within an institution that’s out to make a profit also means working without pay in a way that benefits somebody else’s wallet.
Consider this, too, as you look at the total picture of volunteering: Some of us are pressured to volunteer through something known locally as Sentenced to Serve. A person is sentenced by a court to serve others as a punishment for having broken the law. Yes, it’s usually some non-lethal kind of crime, but regardless of what they did, they are serving the community — providing unpaid labor to churches or roadsides or Habitat for Humanity or something similar — as an alternative to sitting in jail. What an attractive concept: volunteering seen as a punishment, as menial labor assigned to losers.
This does not mean that there aren’t others who are genuine in their service, and are not seeking anything other than the satisfaction of knowing they have helped the community. Recently I read a story about volunteers helping out county and municipal governments in different parts of Minnesota. Those local governments don’t have enough money to pay people to work in all kinds of areas, so some big-hearted men and women have stepped forward to answer telephones and staff counters. In Arizona, volunteers are camping out in state parks that have been closed because of budget cuts. They’re protecting artifacts from looters because the state isn’t.
One common feature with most of those volunteers is that they are retirees — they have social security and pensions to pay the bills. But they also grew up at a time when sacrifice for the sake of the community and service to others were considered core values. How many of my generation or the generations following me are going to step into their shoes when they’re gone?
Right from its founding, our society has always been concerned about money — making money, saving money, spending money — but lately it seems that money is the only thing that matters. How much will I earn from this investment? How much will I get paid? How can I stop the government from stealing my money? It’s hard to “sell” the idea of service for service’s sake — because it’s the right thing to do — when people are encouraged to focus so selfishly on their own needs.
Albert Lea resident David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea. His column appears every other Tuesday.