UNPOPULAR OPINION: Volunteering Can Actually Be Destructive To The Causes You're Trying To Support

The problem with volunteering is that good intentions don’t always lead to good outcomes.
Publish date:
November 28, 2014
unpopular opinion, volunteering

64.5 million Americans volunteered last year. Volunteering helps people. Helping people makes us feel good. But sometimes, volunteering doesn't help. If you’re not careful, volunteer service can actually hurt the organization you want to support.

People know volunteering will make them feel good, but they don’t have a lot of time to commit to volunteering, or they’re not able to come in regularly. The solution? One-day projects. Come in for a few hours, feel good, leave. This is a huge trend in volunteerism. Volunteers are more interested in a one-time commitment of several hours, not a long-term commitment to come in every week. People want to help, but they're less interested in committing to help over the long haul.

One of the biggest drivers of this short-term volunteer trend is corporate volunteerism and Employee Volunteer Programs. Broadly speaking, corporate volunteerism is service supported by the volunteer’s employer. Some companies use a mandatory one-day service project as a team-building exercise. Others give all their employees a certain day to participate in an approved volunteer activity. Still others give employees paid time off to volunteer any day of the year, at any project they choose.

Corporate volunteerism varies from firm to firm, but the driving idea is that it's a win-win-win for employers, employees, and nonprofits. Employers get great publicity from their employees helping the community, and can benefit from higher employee retention rates. Employees get a day off from their regular jobs, and can experience the satisfaction that comes with helping others. And the nonprofit gets a huge infusion of labor.

The problem? Paid time off to volunteer is typically eight hours, just enough for a one-day project. If all an organization needs is a lot of people working on one project for a short period, this really does work for everyone.

But consider the needs of a nonprofit, especially a smaller one. Nonprofits need volunteers to help them with the unglamorous work like data entry, accounting, and marketing. This is because nonprofits, especially small ones, struggle with perennially short staffing and tight budgets. A nonprofit's needs do not usually include building a new facility, painting a mural, or cleaning up a garden.

There are volunteers who don’t want to help the organization with these daily needs. A lot of volunteers will say, “I do accounting every day, I want to do something different.” When the volunteer’s wants don’t align with the organization’s needs, the organization has to do more work to accommodate the volunteer. The organization’s staff is charged with creating a project for the group, purchasing supplies or finding donations, and supervising the volunteer team.

Even when a volunteer's wants and an organization's needs align perfectly, there are third parties to consider. For example, a favorite one-day project is painting schools. Sounds perfect: a school’s needs for maintenance align with the volunteer group’s needs for a fun group project. Everyone gets good publicity, the volunteers feel good, and the school gets painted.

If someone pauses to ask, “Who usually paints the school?” the perfect project suddenly looks a little less perfect. Paid custodial staff usually paints schools. The volunteers do the work that is usually done by paid people, and actually takes away hours from custodians.

Volunteers have good intentions. The problem with volunteering is that good intentions don’t always lead to good outcomes. Before you sign up to volunteer somewhere, it’s worth considering the people you might hurt.

It’s also worth considering other ways to help. Making a donation to an organization you care about can help it in a way that doesn't make more work for the staff. Making a donation can actually help pay staff to keep doing the work you support, and the critical administrative work that keeps the place going. Including all that unglamorous data entry.

If you’re not in a position to give money, figure out other ways to help. Maybe you can donate goods or services to the organization, especially if they have a big event coming up. If you think an organization does great work, let people know. Write a letter to the editor, a blog post, or even just tweet about it. Convince other people to give if they can.

And if the organization needs volunteers, go ahead and volunteer. Just be responsible. Ask questions. Don’t ask the organization to respond to your needs. And don’t commit to things if you won’t follow through.

Volunteering can be a great thing. But if volunteers aren’t asking questions, it can become destructive.