Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Great Oxymoron

Ah Mandatory volunteering. I came across it again tonight in my media travels. I do this you know. Each evening I am googling volunteering on the web , on the news on the blogs. Internet technology has allowed us volunteer managers to keep up with what is happening in volunteerism world.

I love the word oxymoron. I like wikipedias definition - An oxymoron (plural oxymorons, or sometimes the Greek plural oxymora) (from Greek ὀξύμωρον, "sharp dull") is a figure of speech that combines normally contradictory terms. They appear in a variety of contexts, including inadvertent errors such as extremely average, deliberate puns like same difference' or 'pretty ugly, and literary oxymorons that have been crafted to reveal a paradox.

To me mandatory volunteering is on the same level as
Definite maybe
Exact estimate
Found missing
Alone together

I do realize that we, in volunteer management have had this discussion before. But the reason I must raise it again now is that forced or mandatory volunteering are terms still utilized by the media and public. Just Google the term.

And what I would like us to start contemplating is this: is it one of our responsibilities, as a profession, to educate the public on what volunteering is? Ah, a big and contentious ask I hear you say. But I propose that we need to think about this because at the end of the day we are the ones coordinating , managing and leading volunteers.

On a bigger picture scale – shouldn’t we have a say on volunteering definitions?

But surely – don’t we all recognize that mandatory volunteering is a no brainer for our profession?

Yes we may argue on where volunteers volunteer and yes we will argue on what is exactly volunteering but surely we can agree that volunteering, no matter where it occurs is always a matter of free choice?

However I won’t bully anyone to agree with my opinion. And I welcome an alternative view. If you can see any justification in calling forced volunteering or mandatory volunteering…volunteering… please let me know. I won’t jump down your throat and will simply examine your view with others!

Some may argue that it’s just semantics. No its not! It is not for our profession. Because when the day comes when we are asked by our agencies, workplaces and/or society to manage a team of mandatory volunteers we need to be able to articulate our concerns and opposition if we are so inclined!

For me it will simply be this – “There is no such thing as mandatory volunteering”

What do you think? And if you are nodding your head in agreement can you let me know how we can change public and media misperceptions on volunteering? If peak bodies for volunteering are failing in this area can we take up the baton? Isn’t it our responsibility as a profession? Is this our opportunity to mature and come of age?

This blog was inspired by another blog by Theresa Walsh Giarrusso who was writing on one incident of “forced volunteering”

Should public schools force parents to volunteer?
6:48 am May 11, 2010, by Theresa Walsh Giarrusso

Some schools in the San Francisco area are creating mandatory volunteer hours that parents must fulfill in their schools. In some cases the parents receive a grade based on how involved they are and in another school, they literally have a set numbers of hours they must meet.

From The New York Times:

“Inspired by Adelante, now San Jose’s Alum Rock Union Elementary School District is at work on a proposal to require the families of all its 13,000 students to do 30 hours of volunteering per school year. Many of the schools in the district, where 88 percent of the students are poor, do not even have a Parent-Teachers Association.
“We are trying to create a culture of strong parent-guardian-family participation,” trustee Gustavo Gonzalez, whose children attend Adelante, told The San Jose Mercury News….”

“ ‘It’s really simplifying what we know about what really helps children learn,’ said Ingrid Seyer-Ochi, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, in a telephone interview. ‘That’s having parents who see themselves as learners and as having something to contribute to their children as learners.’ ”


  1. At my children's school, which is a small private school, parents are encouraged to assist with working bees at the school. Working bees usually involve such activities as gardening, painting or general cleanup of school grounds. These occur on a Saturday, once a term (4 times per year). If parents are unable to assist at a working bee they are charged a once a year fee of $55. Parents need only help at 1 working bee per year to avoid this charge. There is a choice - volunteer or pay $55. What do you think?

  2. You sure know how to construct a good wind-up DJ. But I am not sure if there is much substance to your argument apart from the obvious linguistic pedantry. And you are kinda contradicting the case you made recently re volunteer programmes in private sector organisations. What's the difference between voluntary volunteers in the for-profit sector, and the mandated community sentence volunteering, and corporate volunteering? If my role is about community development and entrepreneurship as well as HR then I welcome all comers, and am proud to turn them into real volunteers. As for the business of paying school fees vs volunteer commitment - that is straight out blackmail!

    I too spend time doing a Google or two and look what turned up in the e-volunteerism archives when I was searching for evidence-based research stuff:
    July-Sept 2002: Mandated Volunteering: Oxymoron or Opportunity? by Susan Ellis and Steve McCurley
    July-Sept 2008: Managing The Non-Volunteer Volunteer, by Thomas W. McKee
    These articles are more relaxed in their views, don't altogether share your purist concerns.

    I would argue that the mandated volunteer still has a choice about which organisation they wish to support, and their experience under the guidance of a skilled VM could be just the spur for further volunteer engagement. And that has to be the real achievement.

  3. Thanks Shindig for the comments. I am totally ok with mandated community service. Gee, I cant ever recall anyone ever calling me a purist!!! So maybe I am with some views! But good challenge Shindig! I am glad that there are people out their challenging views.

    It all comes down to definitions. You ask “What's the difference between voluntary volunteers in the for-profit sector, and the mandated community sentence volunteering, and corporate volunteering?” Choice? (And I am not talking about “choosing” which organisation I am “Mandated” to “volunteer” at!) Isn’t volunteering a matter of choice?

    And can we look at what we are saying here? Voluntary volunteers? Has it come to this – where we will have voluntary volunteers and mandatory volunteers?

    I am beginning to see that many people have a difference of opinion on what “Volunteer” means. Whose definition is the “right one”? Is there a “right” definition?

    I wont stomp my feet and lay claim to having the right definition because I rather like the fluidity of volunteering and appreciate your perspective. It’s given me food for thought.

    On semantics alone we have an oxymoron. In practice we have some potential benefits. I read the articles and thank you for pointing me in their direction.

    I like this answer in response to Susan and Steves answer.

    “I heard enough evidence to convince me that my formerly purist attitude needed updating. It IS possible to involve new individuals. These people would never have found a way to be involved if it weren't for the community service requirement. There are many caveats in the practice of involving "mandated" volunteers, but I am now convinced there is not a "one-size-fits-all" answer.”

  4. And Wendy? that scenario is a bit weird to say the least. I am wondering though if they ever even utilize the word volunteer. Or is it simply - work for us for a day or pay!" Mmmmmmmmmmmm

  5. Oh dear DJ - my long-term memory has just dredged up a mantra from Fritz Perls, a guru of the 1970s gestalt therapy movement. It concluded 'If by chance we meet each other, it's beautiful, and if we don't then it doesn't matter'.

    So we can agree to differ on definitions of a volunteer. You think of 'free will' and I think of service, of contributing to my community - any which way.

    Another pearl from my student experience was the demand to identify my preferred philosophic 'ism'. I could choose between marxism, feminism and existentialism. I preferred the path of Eclecticism - considered a woolly-minded option at the time - because I knew there was no-one-size-fits-all - in volunteering, and nor in managing volunteers.

    I am still woolly-minded, and happy to remain so.


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