When I was growing up, my father was a volunteer in several non-profit and community organizations. He instilled in me that civic duty is the responsibility of every citizen and that volunteers are essential to a healthy community and a means of promoting the safety and moral development of the children in a community. He also repeatedly taught me that volunteering is seldom convenient, especially when you are raising a family; therefore, it requires intentionality and being disciplined with one’s time management. As a result, these are values that I have adopted in my own life and am trying to pass along to my two sons.

I have a friend (we now live in different states) who lives by a completely opposing set of principles which is reflected in one of his often quoted replies whenever I attempted to get him involved or recruit him for various organizations and events, “Volunteering is for suckers.” His principle is based on two personal corollaries: 1.) Anything worth doing is worth doing for money. 2.) While some volunteers are sometimes acknowledged for their service, all volunteers are guaranteed to receive aggravation and criticism as the rewards for their good deeds.

Unfortunately, there is truth in his second point, but it is not a good argument against volunteering, it is simply a fact of life. It is true that the less engaged you are with other people, the less of a chance others can aggravate you. Also, the less you attempt to accomplish anything (whether for pay or on a volunteer basis), the less of a chance you will be criticized. Thus, the only way to avoid criticism or to be less aggravated is to isolate yourself.

Money should not be the only motivator in life, for when it is, it can lead to greater dissatisfaction (Eccl. 5:10) or become the avenue to many other evils (I Tim. 9-11). There are plenty of personal and societal benefits provided by volunteerism. For example, many scientific (medical, psychological, and sociological) studies show that people who are generous with their time and money are generally happier, healthier and live longer.

Further, communities with higher volunteer participation rates benefit from what social scientists call “social capital” or the assets, resources, and benefits associated with the network of social connections that exist between people in a community that encourages and creates mutually advantageous social cooperation. Robert Putnam explains it this way, “…a well-connected individual in a poorly connected society is not as productive as a well-connected individual in a well-connected society. And even a poorly connected individual may derive some of the spillover benefits from living in a well-connected community.”

Unfortunately, volunteering is not an esteemed value in American Society and is on the decline in our civic, political, and religious organizations, including churches throughout the U.S. This fact is well documented in Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Putnam discusses how technology, two career families, suburban sprawl, television and the pursuit of entertainment, and changes in generational and societal values in America are related to the decline in volunteerism. He explains further that decreased participation in political, religious, and civic organizations is strongly associated with decreased civility in a society, increased crime, a lack of trust between neighbors, and greater disparities between the rich and poor.

Dan LaValla is Director of Library Services and Development Associate at Biblical. He is Chair of the Endowment Committee for the American Theological Library Association and is very active in his church and community, coaching youth baseball and football and has served on several community boards. See also http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/daniel-lavalla.


0 # R. Todd Mangum 2013-09-27 07:20
Really well said; nice piece, Dan. I don't know if this inspires me to volunteer more . . . :-); you definitely give a realistic appraisal of what volunteering inherently entails. At some point, we rely on "the Father who sees in secret" taking proper reckoning of what we do for altruistic reasons but end up being just another thankless job. (Is that too cynical sounding? . . . Hey, you're the one that started with the Ecclesiastes references. . .. ;-) )
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0 # Daniel LaValla 2013-09-30 14:03
Thanks for the reply Todd. While I tried to be objective in tone, I hadn't thought about using the piece to inspire others to volunteer. I wrote it in response to a heavy conversation I had with someone during our local high school football game a few weekends ago. This guy was very down and frustrated by his volunteering involvement on the executive committee for a local community organization on which I once served with him.

He remarked how difficult the last couple years had been recruiting volunteers and how parents of the youth being served by the organization were very critical and increasingly uncivil to one another and to those volunteering. In addition, there seems to be a general lack of personal desire for the parents to "give back" to the organization in any way.

The organization has had to implement new rules of conduct to address the issues. While the rules have helped curb the bad behavior, it has been a drain on the committee members and hasn't helped improve the congenial atmosphere once experienced around the organization.

For my next blog, maybe I will follow up with a more inspirational message to encourage volunteering.
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0 # Robderto 2015-08-15 19:18
I absolutely have to agree that volunteering is absolutely for suckers - like me! I am in my 70s and have been retired for several years now. During this time I have followed much given advice to do something useful with my retirement, and volunteer my services. After three (3) volunteering roles for different local agencies, I have learned that when you do this, the person who is normally getting paid for doing this work is now taking advantage of the situation,and is now getting paid while some stupid volunteer is now doing the work that he (or she) should be doing. And believe me, they do think you are pretty dumbwitted to actually do it! It's a thankless position to put yourself in. I will never volunteer again!!
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