I’ve been a volunteer for years. It was a way for me to learn basic human skills like working with people as well as a way to stay in touch with some aspect of society when I was out of a job. It looked good on my resume and so on.
So I’m not saying that there is anything intrinsically wrong with volunteer work. Society could not run without volunteers. However, there is a flip side.
The flip side is dependence. When we work for money there is an equal exchange: I do something, you pay me. If I don’t do it well, you fire me. If I find someone who pays me more, I ask for a raise. It’s the market in action, but it’s also a way of establishing my worth and making me independent: the money I make enables me to pay my rent, go on holiday, save etc.
Volunteer work on the other hand is dependence. Dependence on the partner who does make a living, for instance. It’s weird that it is so – after all, it’s also work that you can leave at any point. However, because you’re a volunteer, the organisation doesn’t have to invest at all in order to keep you. No money involved. It’s very easy to take volunteers for granted. And people who are taken for granted are not generally taken seriously.
I just quit my last bit of volunteer work because it no longer fit the ‘me’ I’m becoming. The weird thing is: there is a guilt about quiting, knowing the hole I leave in the organisation (though I’m still volunteering to train in anybody willing to take my place). However, that’s precisely the problem: why should I feel guilty about leaving a job that didn’t actually pay me a salary?
Do people feel guilty about leaving their job?
Why did I call this post the tragic volunteer? Because it seems to me that sometimes it becomes a career of sorts: being a volunteer. That’s great if it’s the sort of volunteer work where one has responsibility and grows on the job as it were. Not so great if you get stuck doing routine work that’s boring but needs doing – at least so the organisation thinks.
The presence of a volunteer for certain work can become a barrier to organisational change: Mary does that work, she would not stand the routine being changed, so let’s not install more efficient software just yet, or create more efficient work-routines.
I know people complain about reorganization: it generally doesn’t bring the promised rewards. Or rather, it does, but the down sides are usually not so easy to see in advance. The flip side of that is that in many cases change is necessary. How does one do this in a volunteer organisation? I’m sure there are people who’ve studied the problem in more depth.
I’m just saying: what would you do if you were Mary and you were aware of these considerations? Would you quit? Isn’t it tragic?
[‘Mary’ is of course not the name of the person I had in mind when I wrote this.]