The Trials and Tribulations of Volunteerism

By Ruth Gadebusch

Having recently had the privilege—or challenge, depending on perspective—of serving on several nominating committees, I have been forced to think about volunteers in today’s world. There was a time when members wanted to serve on the committee because the chosen nominees would be setting the direction of the organization for the next term. It was fear of a dynasty shutting out all but special friends that prompted Robert’s Rules of Order, the parliamentary authority most follow, to provide for the president serving on all but the nominating committee.

Creating a dynasty is seldom a problem these days, except perhaps in the political world. Even that hardly seems likely with the exception of a few families. It is community organizations, not political entities that get my attention currently. There are so many of them!

Even when the original purpose has been outlived, another cause is taken on. The old March of Dimes comes to mind—no implication that is wrong because the new purpose is also worthy. Then too, why start at zero when an existing foundation exists? I do wonder sometimes why some of the good causes could not reinforce others rather than developing another independent one. Some do deserve to be discontinued, hopefully a proper burial rather than disintegration.

To be sure, this nation thrives on volunteerism more than any other I know of. However, I see more and more, be they political entities or otherwise, paying their participants with “honoraria” or some form of compensation beyond merely the satisfaction or joy of making a difference. One can only speculate if this is due to general economic conditions or the tendency of society to measure success in financial terms. After all, we don’t see many stadiums or theaters named for volunteer work. It is the amount of money contributed and, indeed, society would sorely miss these dollars.

Despite all the good performed, many are finding it extremely difficult to recruit new leadership. There are countless reasons why, but obvious are the many other doors now opened. There are only 24 hours in a day no matter how efficiently allocated.

In this complex society, how do we keep our valuable volunteer system functioning in a healthy manner? As we oldsters wear out, are we failing to teach our young? “Volunteer” contributions are sometimes required in our education system, but requiring destroys the meaning of the word. Already noted above: Is our focus on money so strong that we can’t see the forests for the trees? Are our values changing regarding money or the organizations we choose to support?

In my nominating committee recruitment, I have heard a myriad of valid reasons for unavailable leadership. Almost none due to laziness with most deeply involved in other responsibilities. Working parents already under stress fulfilling their parental expectations are volunteering in their children’s schools in ways not allowed in earlier times, much less expected or demanded as it is today. New graduates are striving to pay off school loans or still searching for paying jobs. Perhaps the economy allows early retirees to travel or they want to spend their time with grandchildren. Then there is health deterioration.

So it goes, on and on. The question becomes: How do we manage? How much do we have to change to accommodate the needs of family and community? Can we have our cake and eat it too? One thing is sure, we must find ways to revitalize our volunteer system.

*****

Ruth Gadebusch is a veteran and a community activist, a former member of the Fresno Unified School Board and the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing and an emeritus member of the Board of Directors of the Center for Civic Education.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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