Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Volunteering? What Does That Mean?

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on March 19, 2013


I return to the issue of volunteer teaching, thinking about what the word volunteer, actually means. Clearly, working for no pay is the first association to the word ‘volunteer’. Yet, the second, and sometimes most important association to the word ‘volunteer’ is the notion that one is helping out those who cannot help themselves, like volunteering in an animal shelter, because the animals need the attention. Where is the line between ‘volunteer’ and ‘slave labor’? I wonder. Plus, one can volunteer their time, but expect to be ‘paid’ with appreciation and/or respect. If this ‘payment’ does not happen, resentment ensues. What about love of the work? One could volunteer because they love the task, but committing to a time and place could be a strain, no matter how much one loves one’s work. Then, there is the peer group. When one volunteers along with others, then the socialization is part of the “pay-off’. Many docents, for example, not only love the museum, but they also love their colleagues. So, how does one decide where to put their volunteer chips? Like any decision, it is a pro/con dilemma, along with the opportunity cost of being limited by time and energy. Teaching at a University on a voluntary basis is tricky. It could be a set-up for low-respect and hence high resentment. On the other hand, access to bright ‘young’ things is fun and interesting. Working in parallel with W-2 folks could also be the seeds of ill feelings, but on the other hand, it could give the  freedom of leaving at the end of every class. Volunteers need to be celebrated, both to encourage more people into the field, and to stroke those who choose to put their chips in that particular bucket. To volunteer is to expect to be celebrated, in one way or another. To ask someone to volunteer is to promise, directly or indirectly, to celebrate them. Missing that point hurts the institution asking for volunteers. Nothing is free in the world. That saying, although trite, fits. We give in one way, always with the expectation of reward, but in the case of volunteering, it is not a financial reward, but rather a narcissistic, or self-affirming one. I state the obvious, and yet, sometimes this is missed.

4 Responses to “Volunteering? What Does That Mean?”

  1. Jon said

    While all that you say is true, Shirah, there is another, insidious, form of volunteer – to be volunteered. Here the situation calls for a person to be placed into a volunteer position, not necessary with that person’s consent. When that is the case, the “volunteer” must make a decision about where to say in that unasked for position or not. Here all of your above consideration must be thought through with the addition nuance of “Now that I seem to be placed in this position, is this really what I want?”

  2. Shelly said

    The highest form of charity is giving of oneself and not expecting anything in return. Yes, it is true that in almost every action and interaction, we expect something back. In volunteerism, we expect thanks: even if we don’t expect accolades or verbal thanks, we expect that feel-good feeling we get by doing things for others. I’m not even sure if that constitutes a “mitzva” in the Jewish religion because when doing a mitzva, one is not supposed to expect back anything in return. I wonder if expecting brownie points in our relationships with G-d or the Higher Power above is even allowed.

    • You raise a good point, Shelly, as usual. On the one hand volunteering is supposed to be it’s own reward, a “mitzva” as you say, in which one does something good for the sake of making the world a better place, but on the other hand, given that there are choices about which “mitzva” to do, then one can consciously and/or unconsciously pick the “mitzvas” which both help the world and create a narcissistic satisfaction. There is a narrow path between a “mitzva” and being taken advantage of. Thinking about this narrow path helps, as it is important to be mindful about which side of the path you are on. Thanks.

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