Volunteering-Altruism Abused?

In bygone days, volunteers were the wealthy ladies who had the time and financial resources to establish and support causes in need whether they be starving artists, feeding the homeless or supporting hospitals. Today volunteering is an industry in itself; some genuinely want to help, some get involved as it looks good to be associated with a cause, others use it as experience on their resume and those who have little direction in their life and look for a purpose. The contrast in societies of past and present, volunteering was taking time out of one’s life to assist a cause, where as that can be said of today, but also it is a seen a warranted reason for taking a career break, sabbatical, gap year and to give those at a crossroad some breathing space.

Sadly, many institutions are replacing paid staff and recruiting volunteers to work whilst retaining ‘profits’. Do not let the title of non-profit fool you, many acquire the status through association and reap the tax-free benefits. Volunteers should be able to decide how much time they can contribute, how long for and be free to turn down what they cannot do or not comfortable with, after all they are offering their services gratis. The boundaries become blurred when meals and lodging are offered in return, regardless volunteers should be entitled to sustenance given they are helping and saving the institution money. Are they actually working or exchanging labor for lodging and meals?

Exploitation is rife, where institutions delegate the volunteers to do all their work whilst they are doing ’paperwork’ or having ‘meetings’. Many volunteers are treated as free slave labor, working the same if not more hours than actual employees with no benefits and with little thanks or appreciation. Volunteers don’t want thanks; they do it because they care about the cause, but this is when altruism is abused. Is a volunteer really helping by cleaning the bathrooms when the paid member of staff is sitting having coffee and chatting? All a volunteer needs is to be respected and their efforts appreciated. They may not be the best cleaner in the world but as long as they do the best job they can, you get what you pay for.

My parents have been volunteering at goodwill shops since their retirement, however my mother is at times working six full days a week with no lunch break. They know their services are being abused, but as my mother says;” If we don’t help then the shop may close down.” For her the bigger picture is more important than the realization of the system. I explained to her that she doesn’t help the system long term as the institutions need to address procedures. That said several shops have since closed down and my mother chooses her shops with more caution.

I was brought up with volunteering in my blood since I was five years old. Every Saturday my mother would send my younger brother and myself to the Senior Homes to drop off food parcels and to keep them company. My first volunteer job was at the local theater as an usher selling programs and refreshments. I was 16 years old and it was fun and met some fascinating people; my time was appreciated and I learnt a lot about the theatre and was given complimentary tickets and fed during my shift. If I couldn’t make it as long as I informed them there was no animosity, they would just have to rally around and make it work somehow and only use one or two doors.

My next foray in the world of volunteering was working for the homeless at Christmas. I had always wanted to help, however in retail I did not have the spare time or energy. One year when I had the opportunity I applied to work for the week, only to be told I could not do the whole week, not because they did not want me, but because they cared enough and felt it would be too much and set a rule volunteers could only do five days out of the seven. I worked from 7.30 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. each day and helped run the volunteer shelter and also worked in the main shelter. I arranged logistics, cooked and cleaned–never has my time been so well spent; everyone appreciated my time and help nothing was too big or small for me to do. I was happy to help because there was no ‘us’ and ‘them’ everyone was equal and had the same goal; to help the cause and work together. Everyone respected each other.

The demands of volunteering seem to have changed over time; rather than accepting help in the spirit it is meant, institutions choose not only who is suitable, but also with the criteria of how long they can commit. Limiting themselves, they are deprived of potential volunteers that can contribute in ways they may not have even thought of. To be rejected as a volunteer can damage one’s esteem, after all if your free services are deemed worthless how does that make one feel? Not everyone has three or six months to offer, (usually only well of seniors or students) yet more institutions are using the time constraints as a requirement in their applications as volunteering becomes a competitive market rather than what it ought to be; a free and voluntary offer of time and skills to help causes that are under funded. They are actually recruiting free labor. Volunteering should be an addition to the work force, not instead of and to be relied upon solely.

My latest foray into volunteering has made me see things in a different light, more cynical and in some ways harmful to not only the process, but also the volunteers themselves. I saw volunteers told to do tasks they had not agreed to; work unaided as others watched on, work unreasonable hours to suit staff schedules and scolded for not doing the work fast enough. It was indeed a sickening sight, for those who cannot or felt they could not speak up for themselves and who continued on believing in the bigger picture, and watching their self esteem and any confidence left diminish at a rapid rate. To me a community helps each other, people do not stand drinking wine or coffee watching others work.

Slave labor in the guise of volunteering; a modern day phenomenon? My experience was Cinderellesque without the Prince Charming option; volunteers were given the worst rooms and told to use bed linens that had been earmarked for use as rags, community projects used for bonding and helping the community grow were actually cleaning tasks or jobs that the staff had not done or grunt work they did not want to do, kitchen work was compulsory and often washing up was saved up for the volunteers to do rather then others wash up as they went along. It was no wonder volunteers left unannounced, before their time was up or chose not to come back after their initial visit.

Do I feel any of my work was worth it? I know I came with the right intentions to help; however I have learnt institutions only want the help they want, not the help they actually need. They don’t want to know ways to improve or how to be efficient; they just want workers that they have no responsibility for or obligations to. As one of my former inmates said, “The goodwill erodes when the establishment take no notice and do not appreciate volunteers use of time.”
Too many that run non-profit organizations are those they could not make it in the ‘real’ world and the power they hold they cling to, regardless of the fact many of them are running the businesses into the ground.

I find myself changed; my goodwill is selective and where before I would help anyone who needed it, I now exercise my right to say ‘no’. I do not like that trait in myself, however I am not one that allows myself to be taken advantage of either. I found myself working slowly as the tasks given bore little fruit and there was little satisfaction or sense of achievement in the work done. I sat waiting for my shift to finish; reluctant to start anything knowing my efforts would go unnoticed, so why bother? That is not the attitude I was brought up with and the destructive mentality impinges upon the thankless volunteer. I had to ask permission where to sleep, account for my whereabouts; there is little freedom not only literally but mentally too.

Unlike Hotel California, you can check in, but one thing I don’t need permission for is to leave–with my dignity and self-worth and my mind strong and intact. Some don’t have that strength and others feel the faux sense of security it can provide–after all if you are working for a good cause, that’s supposed to be a good thing and it makes you a good person? I became a number, never a good feeling.

Some struggle to acclimatize back into the real world, coming back from the world of volunteering can be like a culture shock. Going in prepared mentally and realistically as to what you can achieve and action may help–unfortunately many of us altruists go in with ideals and come out disillusioned and frustrated.

I still believe I can help change the world, but I may have to find a different route than the volunteering one.


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