Volunteer or “Voluntold”

Volunteering is an interesting concept. It’s doing a task or a job for a company or an organization willingly and without getting paid.

Volunteering – both time and money – seems to be a uniquely American concept. When disaster strikes around the world, Americans are first in line to go to the disaster site to provide whatever help is needed and generally first to start donation drives for money and items to send. That’s not to say that other nations don’t volunteer but it seems that Americans are front and center in any discussion on volunteerism.

In recent years, volunteering has become more woven into the fabric of our lives as Americans. Is it because we are becoming a more altruistic society? Is it because we feel an obligation as one of the more developed nations in the world? Is it because we want to polish what may be a tarnished image in the world?

The simple answer is that in the last decade or so, high schools and colleges began to require that students perform a certain number of community service hours in order to graduate. And now there are companies that are strongly encouraging their employees to perform community service. In some companies, the encouragement is simply a message from senior management. In other companies, the encouragement comes in the form of an evaluation category on performance evaluations.

This raises the question – if it’s required, is it still volunteering?

The company I work for is one of those that has an evaluation category on our annual performance evaluation forms. It doesn’t ask about general volunteerism, it asks about volunteering for the university specifically. When I fill out this evaluation for my employees, my answer is rather passive aggressive because I don’t believe that it’s an appropriate category for an employee evaluation. It’s self-serving and frankly, irrelevant. It calls into question the employee’s loyalty to the company. That would be fine if we rewarded employees for their loyalty. But we don’t. There have been no raises for four years – no cost-of-living adjustments and certainly no merit raises. I feel uncomfortable evaluating an employee’s loyalty when I know that the company isn’t rewarding that loyalty.

If it’s required, is it still volunteering?

This weekend was commencement. When I first started working at the university, there was never a problem getting enough volunteers to staff the event. This could be because our commencement ceremonies were simpler in those early years. But I think it’s also because people felt more valued in those early years, they felt like they had more of an impact in the daily workings of the university, and they wanted to see the results of their work – commencement.

About four years ago they began to have problems getting volunteers to staff the event. They made do that year but the next year, they resorted to strongly encouraging management employees to volunteer for the event. The following year, all management employees were contacted by their managers to volunteer for the event. This year, the pressure intensified with HR providing lists of management employees to the event organizers who in turn provided senior management with lists of management employees who had volunteered and who had not yet signed up to volunteer for the event.

If you’re coerced, is it still volunteering?

In the current employment environment, that kind of pressure can be likened to coercion. People are afraid to lose their jobs and so they will do what they need to do in order to keep their jobs. Knowing that they will be evaluated on their spirit of volunteerism, they sign up to volunteer for commencement. It was so bad this year that we coined the term “voluntold” in that we were told to volunteer.

Volunteering is doing work willingly and without the expectation or anticipation of getting paid. I do quite a bit of volunteer work in my hours away from work. I enjoy volunteering. But I want to choose who I give my time to away from work. The organizations that I volunteer with appreciate my time and my skills and I know that I’m helping them further their mission.

When we require high school students to work a certain number of community service hours as a prerequisite to graduate from high school, when we require college students to work a certain number of community service hours as a prerequisite to graduate from college, when we evaluate employees on the basis of volunteering either for the company or outside of the company, it takes away the spirit of volunteering.

The thought processor churns on . . .

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