In 2012 I attended my first prom. A group of other volunteers and I hung up the decorations. We were dressed for the occasion. The theme was ‘Moonlight and Roses.’ As I was in charge of music for the big day, I naturally asked my grandfather to help me design the playlist. He was a fan of Frank Sinatra. Other than Sinatra, I hadn’t heard of many of the other artists he recommended. Neither had my classmates – but the prom wasn’t for us. That is to say, in 2012 my high school classmates and I volunteered to hold a ‘back to prom’ event for the residents of an assisted living facility in Vermont. It had been brought to our attention that loneliness was an unfortunate factor associated with the progression of age. And so, a group of sixteen and seventeen-year-old high school students set out to combat, if just for a few hours, the adverse effects of loneliness. Now, it may not come as a surprise, given the introduction of this piece, that I would like to talk about volunteering. It’s a complicated subject. Although, perhaps, by definition, it shouldn’t be.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary Online, a volunteer is, ‘a person who does something, especially helping other people, willingly and without being forced or paid to do it.’ The last part of this statement is evidently (sometimes painfully) true. Volunteers often spend their time working for organisations that, in turn, don’t spend a whole lot on their volunteers. Of course, there are reasons for this lack of expenditure and what follows is an exploration of these motives.
Speaking of money, perhaps it is best to turn to a quote that sums up the matter of payment. Goodreads attributes the following remark to the multibillionaire Elon Musk, “you get paid in direct proportion to the difficulty of problems you solve.” (Of course, I realise that there has been a lot of backlash against this comment, and it is important to note that I have been unable to find the original publication of this quote, irrefutably linking it to Musk). Nevertheless, this question of payment in proportion to problem solved devalues quite a number of volunteer efforts in areas involving: hunger, literacy, loneliness, abuse, homelessness, sexual health, sexual equality, social equality, climate crisis, animal welfare, self-image, and hope. These are only a few of the ‘difficulties’ unpaid volunteers strive to navigate.
Sure, total resolution has yet to be found for any of these issues. Loneliness is a quite a difficult matter to solve – if any such thing is solvable at all. Nevertheless, I would argue that when a group of teenagers set up a ‘back to prom event’ for the residents of an assisted living facility, perhaps, if only for a moment, the issue of loneliness is curbed. In other words, something valuable does happen. And perhaps this introduced concept of value as payment allows for a renewed (some may argue generous) application of the previous concept: you get paid to solve difficult problems.
What I am saying is that maybe payment should be measured abstractly. Volunteering is an opportunity to strengthen ties, community, belonging, self-worth, and confidence. So, maybe these are the social currencies we should be measuring, because they are certainly valuable. In other words, when seventeen-year-old me pressed play on the CD player at the ‘back to prom’ event in 2012, out poured my grandfather’s curious music choices and a number of smiles appeared on the faces of our older prom attendees. For me, it was a moment of tangible joy; there is something indescribably fulfilling and wonderful when you can see your own time and effort converted into someone else’s happiness. That much is certain.
What is not so certain is Cambridge’s definitional component which claims that volunteering is done ‘willingly and without being forced.’ I have to ask myself: Is this, in fact, true? Sure, no one has outright told me that I have to volunteer, that I am obligated to do it. But, at the same time, I have also been told that volunteering is extremely important, that it makes your CV stand out, gives you more job opportunities, and helps you meet people in your industry. I often hear that volunteering leads to paid job opportunities, but you have to give your time freely to get them. I certainly understand that there are reasons for this. Perhaps the business you want to volunteer for is independent and too small pay its volunteers. Maybe it doesn’t even need volunteers but kindly offers you the opportunity of experience that you so desperately want. Perhaps the organisation doesn’t have the money to pay you. After all, we all know that important causes do not always generate the monetary revenue proportional to their value.
Just look at the intended budget cut for Vermont’s program WIC (Woman Infant Child), a program that provides care and assistance for new-borns and women in the state. The projected cut for 2020 would decrease funding by 13%. Thus, it is painfully clear that services that should be valued, are often underpaid… and so we return, full circle, to the quote we started with.
It is evident that the simple definition of ‘volunteer’ is not quite so simple. The subject of volunteering is, in fact, a complex matter with many sides and many reasons for the means of work it involves. As for myself, I have no doubt that I will continue to volunteer my time, to seek out the smiles I have seen and content I have felt when organising ‘back to prom’ parties, coaching football teams, or working for the British Heart Foundation. However, I truly hope that one day I can find work that both rewards and pays.
[Reilly Dufresne – she/her]
[Photo credit: Demetris Ballard]