I Volunteer! (We get paid, right?)

I doubt that when Katniss Everdeen uttered her now famous words, “I volunteer as tribute!”, she was expecting any kind of compensation other than saving her sister from The Hunger Games. In the real world, there seems to be a disconnect between the use of the word volunteer and its meaning. The simple definition of the word implies that service or assistance will be provided free of charge or free of equitable compensation. However, when used as a verb, you are stating that you will find someone to volunteer but not necessarily for free. This is where things get tricky because universally, volunteering is free but by definition it doesn’t have to be.

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During the better part of 2016, I’ve been involved in many misunderstandings that were caused by the misuse of the word and the misinterpretation of the definition. At my current employer volunteering for a task means that you will commit resources and time to get something done. This implies you will get paid for the job unless you are volunteering for community services or drives. You don’t get paid for these services. If I volunteer on company time I need to get approval to do so. If it is on my free time no one cares. The problem arises when the company sponsors and initiative on hours but tells the volunteers they must do it on their own dime. No use of paid time will be allowed! It can get confusing because people stop volunteering during their work hours and the programs suffer. The company aghast doesn’t understand why. (It has to do with pay!)

The uncertainty of recruiting for and accepting volunteer roles compounds when I am off work. My experience has always been that my friends or neighbors will sign up to work or contribute for free. If people sign up willfully and declare they want to do it for free I don’t compensate the team. If they ask for payment upfront I can clarify that there is no budget assigned to the task other than for materials. I won’t hold it against them if they refuse to help. It is their time and effort they are volunteering and it has too much value for them to give these away for free. Plain and simple. No hard feelings.

Sometimes incentives are offered because no one volunteered in the first place. Is this still considered volunteering for free? That’s where my confusion lies. Is all volunteering supposed to be free? Blame the Susan G. Komem debacle which shed light on the proliferation of volunteer organizations that must hire staff to keep things running smoothly, and others where the staff embezzled or ran away with the cash. Many non profits have salaried employees because they need these people to continue the mission. Outrageously, some of the salaries are similar to CEO and corporate execs rates, and although not paying these volunteers would save money, the organization couldn’t stay afloat without them. Even volunteers for hire can become too greedy, stealing from the mission unabashed. I guess it is now okay to be paid for volunteering instead of doing it for free. Even the political parties recruit volunteers to crash each other’s rallies for pay! These are all jobs mind you but require that you work or identify yourself as a volunteer to indemnify the hiring parties. Smh.

I have heard of volunteers who, after finding out they weren’t going to be compensated as promised or expected, did a horrible job at whatever they volunteeted for and walked away with dignity and pride! Beaming because they stuck it to the man! I never assumed volunteering is something you do when no one else wants to take on the work, much less an opportunity to stick it to someone. I volunteer because I mean it and because I want to do my best. If you half ass a volunteer job you most likely did more damage than good. Why should you get praise and thanks for a bothched job? Because of your magnanimity? Really? You still expect to get paid for doing a bad job because at least you showed up. How messed up is that?

The sad part is this thought is spreading into the workplace. People expect to get paid for not meeting deadlines or doing poorly. Mailing it in has become the new productivity standard. I can’t believe people have to volunteer to do their jobs or how my coworkers call it, be voluntold!

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I think the definition of the verb volunteer hints at the root of this problem. If you volunteer, the definition doesn’t address the expectation of it being for free. The same applies to the action of volunteering someone since this doesn’t automatically guarantee it will be for free either. I was being told by people who volunteered to help me at home that they had assumed they would get paid because a professional would have had to have been paid. Why would anyone assume that when I asked for volunteers this meant I wanted help for hire? When they said they volunteered my first reaction was to apply the simple and most common definition, aka free. You were doing for me the equivalent of a favor. I now have to clarify that any assistance I request has no salary attached to it. I don’t trust the meaning of the word anymore. Too much variability.

Favors are another area of confusion and contention for me. Apparently anything you do out of the kindness of your heart should not be done expecting remuneration. Friendships, in my experience, have expectations of some level of reciprocity. Quid pro quo. I know some of my peeps have differing opinions on the subject and all I can say is that one must be careful when deciding not to reciprocate in time or in kind. If you are not reliable or too critical when offering assistance no one will want to have you in their corner. Make a conscious effort to figure out how your friends tally up the benefits and the loses in your relationship. Nothing in this world is truly done for free and the satisfaction of being a successful volunteer is in a way compensation for your time and effort. For friends, the satisfaction of helping you can be even more so especially if you help them too.

I digress…

You’d be surprised how many times I have heard grumblings from volunteers at work sites because they expected something in return like food, water, a celebrity cameo or at least more than just a well meaning Thank You!. Those extras, although well deserved, should not be provisions or conditions of accepting volunteer work. You should do it because there is benefit in it for you or for the greater good. If the requestor has to pay you in any shape, way or form, you are NOT volunteering. You are offering to perform a service for a fee. A small one albeit but a fee none the less.

We should all aspire to align our efforts to support causes important to us, not condemning what other people choose to stand behind either, so we can wholeheartedly give ourselves to the cause. Volunteering is not meant to sound self serving, to be just a tick mark on a college application or a nicey nice you do only once a year. You have to make it worth it for the causes and organizations asking for support too. Avoid becoming one of those entitled volunteers that give the process a bad rep.

Volunteerism is so much more than a favor; it requires commitment and execution. Unlike a favor, it should be done without the expectation of getting something in return, of being owed. If you find yourself volunteering for hire make sure you understand that not everyone gets the privilege of being paid to support the work and causes they are passionate about. Honor the role you earned and don’t fail the organization and its supporters. If you are doing this type of work for a reduced fee, because it is the right thing to do or you can afford it, thank you. Not everyone can donate their time and effort fully and charities depend on our talents and hard earned cash to stay afloat.

For those who think they are better than the rest because they volunteer, be aware not everyone can volunteer or donate in the same manner. Not all followers of a cause can contribute in the same way that you are contributing. Stay humble and recruit those services and people that can help you be successful without alienating those sympathetic to your plight. Hubris is a dangerous thing for non profit organizations that depend on the kindness of strangers.

I highly encourage all of you to become more engaged in your community if you can spare the time. Maybe if more of us contributed for free, these organization wouldn’t need to spend their money on staff! Wouldn’t this be awesome! In the meantime share your success stories and spread the word when your causes need support. We are all here for each other. The greater good and the world will thank you.

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