(This blog is from the Summer of 2016.)
Merriam-Webster defines volunteer (verb) as, “to offer to do something without being forced to or without getting paid to do it.”
With the rise of corporate volunteerism, I’ve been thinking about how this definition of volunteering is beginning to change. Many companies these days have programs that pay their employees to participate in a service project on company time. From the perspective of the receiving organization, the Oregon Food Bank for example, these groups truly are volunteers, as the food bank is not paying them for their work. Yet on the other hand, these groups are getting paid by their companies to volunteer their time on the company’s bill. In the grand scheme of things, the technicalities don’t seem to be of significant detail; the work that needed to be done at the food bank was done; the corporations are still operating at a net gain; and the food bank didn’t have to allocate any of their funds to get this work done. Those funds can then be put to use for providing more meals to those in need. The need for volunteers isn’t limited to just the food bank either; the other organizations I work with also would not be able to run without their volunteers, as is the case for many non-profits.
But what does this mean for the future of service? If service isn’t done for the sake of service but with the expectation of a reward, we begin to lose our sense of community and accountability for one another—and not just on the individual level. Some of the companies that run these volunteer programs are guilty of human rights violations, labor exploitation, and unsustainable environmental practices. Running volunteer programs doesn’t exempt these companies from having to address their company practices nor does it clear their conscience. Is it enough that these companies rectify their wrongdoings by paying their employees to do good? I don’t believe so, because the magnitude of the company’s impact far exceeds that of the impact created through volunteer programs. Do not misunderstand me—volunteering is still a great way of giving back and necessary for many organizations. But when this occurs on a corporate level—that is, on the company’s dime, perhaps we need to start thinking about why the company is willing to pay their employees to volunteer.