Volun-told? Volun-tell? I’d Rather Volunteer

By Jason Menard,

If you look at my social profiles or talk to me one-on-one, you might think that I’m not overly involved in my community. Some might suggest I’m not appropriately engaged.

I beg to differ. It’s just that I’d rather volun-teer than volun-tell.

I’ve previously written about my opposition to what I’ve dubbed the high school “Volun-told” policy. I feel it’s a short-term imposition that could result in long-term disenfranchisement from the process of volunteering.

Equally as vexing to me is those who — and I’m going to coin another phrase here — “Voluntell.” I find myself questioning the motivation of those who participate in this process.

I’ve seen the Voluntell process in individuals and corporations. Worse, I’ve seen it manifest itself in the corporate decision-making process when it comes to allocating resources towards charitable endeavours. These companies choose not to support an endeavour not because of a paucity of available resources, but rather a lack of public-recognition opportunities.

When one questions “What’s in it for me?” as opposed to “Where can I best help?” then perhaps it’s time to reflect upon our efforts.

For some, while the motivation behind getting involved in a charity may not essentially be selfish, it can be self-interested. Charity becomes an ROI — my efforts supporting this cause equals better publicity, better public image, and greater corporate involvement.

It’s a game we almost have to play. And its rules are ones we learn early on.

Pre-Voluntold, the motivation for many high school students to participate in charitable endeavours was not out of a deep-rooted, foundational belief that they had an obligation to do so. Instead, it was a matter of ROI — “This will look good on a resume.”

Now that I’m older and have spent the better part of a couple of decades navigating the corporate and media worlds, I see a similar pattern: “This makes me/my company look good.”

There are organizations and events that I actively shy away from now, simply because I found the social environment abhorrent. It wasn’t about the event, or the activity — instead, I found the game of one-upmanship unsettling. Participants would rattle off their charitable endeavours as titles — yet not once was the work done, or the needs of the charity’s recipients ever discussed.

To me, that’s a far-too literal interpretation of the idea of “charity begins at home.”

Corporately, I’ve worked with companies that face the same dilemma as me: they don’t want to toot their own horn, but they worry about public perception.

And that’s sad. Because it’s not like these people aren’t involved in the community. They just choose to do their good work because it means something to them. They’re not in it for the publicity; they don’t want the big awards or the civic accolades. They want to help because that’s who they are.

Yet, in a corporate environment where some choose to lead with their charitable environment, it can be tempting to sway from one’s principles.

Fortunately, we live in a very generous country. As of 2010 statistics, 84 per cent of Canadians aged 15 and up had made at least one financial donation to a charity. Volunteerism is also very high. And many of us do so in relative anonymity.

Why do we support causes? For me, it’s generally a personal reason: family involvement. Whether it’s to pay back Karma for allowing my father to survive a quadruple bypass or to support an organization with which my children are involved, family tends to motivate my efforts. But I also do other work for civic reasons, friends, or, to quote Wilford Brimley, “it’s
the right thing to do.”

I don’t feel the need to share my affiliations. In fact, it makes me very uncomfortable to do so because I firmly believe that it’s not about me. Yes, I’m donating my time, efforts, skills, or funds, but it’s all in support of the cause — and that’s where the focus should lie.

And since it’s the charity that matters, maybe I’m way off base. Maybe a little self-aggrandizing are the means that justify the ends; maybe being used as corporate PR is the coin for which the end results are paid.

I guess as long as those who need the support, time, and effort get what they need, then being concerned about motivation is strictly splitting hairs.

But for me, I’d rather avoid volun-telling. I’ll stick to quietly, in my own way, volunteering.

1 thought on “Volun-told? Volun-tell? I’d Rather Volunteer

  1. 3zigs

    Some great poinys Jay. Working in the non-profit sector, the voluntold scenarios you present like high school 40 and corporate volunteer programs can present real challenges for organizations that are already under resourced. Organizations find themselves diverting staff time to drumming up volunteer roles to fit demands of groups that come knocking for one time or short term experiences. Sometimes there is a value add for the nonprofit but in many cases they are “make work” projects that do little to advance the mission and vision of the organizations. It is difficult for a nonprofit to say “thanks but no thanks” when a board member calls in May panicked that their kid won’t graduate or your largest corporate donor wants to send you 40 people next Tuesday at 2:00 because that’s their National volunteer day. More work needs to be done to ensure that these programs are truly engaging people in meaningful experiences and more importantly that the experiences have a measurable, positive impact for the non profit partner.


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