May 29, 2001
Volunteering more effectively
Nir Eyal winner of the 2001 MacMullan Award, received his bachelors degree in political science and journalism at Commencement, May 14.
Community service has been a highlight of my Emory experience. But after
four years of literacy tutoring with the Emory READ program, three years
mentoring with Emory BIGS (a chapter of Big Brothers/Big Sisters) and
10 months of full-time service as an AmeriCorps volunteer prior to college,
I have changed my mind about community service. If I knew then what I
know now about volunteering, I would have done things differently.
My nonprofit experience has led me to conclude that community volunteerism,
especially service for the sake of service, can do severe harm as well
as magnificent good. Volunteers and philanthropists must change their
minds about their fundamental roles if they are to serve ethically and
effectively. We should no longer fool ourselves into believing that, as
volunteers, we give our time selflessly. Instead, we should embrace the
many benefits of service, which create an incentive to give.
With more Americans volunteering than at any time in our nations
history, community service takes on a new importance. As a nation, our
collective efforts building homes, stocking food banks and tutoring schoolchildren
amount to the equivalent of hundreds of billions of dollars in free services.
And while more of us than ever before act on our need to give back,
most, like myself, do not evaluate the end product of our exuberant altruism.
Unfortunately, my experience has led me to conclude that not all community
service is good service. In fact, recent studies indicate that, in some
cases, even volunteers with the best of intentions can do more harm than
good. Jean Rhodes, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts,
studied mentoring and concluded that in circumstances where the relationships
lasted three months or less, adolescents were actually worse off
than those who never had mentors.
This is troubling news for a nation adamant about philanthropy. According
to the Independent Sector, a coalition of leading nonprofits, some 109
million Americans participate in some form of direct volunteer service
each year, and millions more are affiliated with community service in
some way. Seventy percent of American households donate to charity, and
many send their children to schools requiring volunteerism.
Clearly doing harm, as Rhodes describes, should be avoided
at all costs; however, we seem unable or unwilling to identify the harmful
service that happens all too often. Today, unfortunately, our record enthusiasm
for community service yields many individuals who volunteer for the sake
of volunteerism, producing little social value. Service for the sake of
service can be defined as an imbalance between what the volunteer is giving
and what he is receiving in return, in pecuniary as well as more intangible
costs and benefits.
Whether a volunteer serves to procure a positive image, develop marketable
skills or cultivate ethical self-satisfaction, the fact that a care-provider
benefits from service should be highlighted and nurturedas long
as she gives as much as she gains.
This equilibrium also can be explained in monetary terms. For example,
volunteers who serve sporadically can cost agencies more in recruitment
and training expenditures than they give back in social benefit. Volunteer
attrition is indeed an expensive burden for nonprofit agencies to endure,
and they simply cannot afford to recruit and train volunteers who serve
once and never return. Many agencies, like Habitat for Humanity, give
in to the one-shot mentality and provide little or no training
to the average volunteer, bypassing an opportunity to expound on the causes
of poverty and the barriers to ending homelessness.
The difficulty with the equilibrium analysis is determining just how
to evaluate what the volunteer gives and receives. However, evaluating
the balance in giving and receiving is essential to effective service
and is more useful as a framework rather than quantification. If a volunteer
gives more than he or she gains, the volunteer is more likely to quit
as the incentives continue to diminish relative to the benefits. On the
other hand, if the volunteer gains disproportionately to what she or he
gives, then the volunteer is exploiting the opportunity and perpetuating
service for the sake of service.
During my year of service with Hands On Atlanta/Ameri-Corps, I worked
at a middle school in the Summerhill community with a team of 10 full-time
volunteers. Part of my job included supporting volunteers who wanted to
assist the school; local companies often would call to request that we
facilitate service projects for their employees. While initially overjoyed
with the potential impact of the new volunteers, my co-workers and I learned
to dread organizing what inevitably became corporate narcissism.
On one particular occasion, an Atlanta sports team requested to volunteer
at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. Not wanting to turn anyone away,
my teammates and I constructed a service project for them. This sports
team dictated what they were prepared to do based on the video they wanted
to shoot, and we scrambled to organize the event.
The 10-person AmeriCorps team spent days planning and coordinating the
project, which consisted of painting the handrails leading to the school
entrance. When the athletes finally arrived, there were more photographers
than players. After painting the railing in spotless uniforms for less
than 20 minutes, the players boarded their buses and left us to finish
the project and clean up. We quickly learned that (some) professional
athletes make bad painterswhich is exactly the point of the anecdote.
The teams management sought to benefit from great PR by creating
the illusion of giving, while the event actually cost the community more
than it gained when the amount of resources expended was taken into account.
Considering where the resources might have gone instead, the lost potential
benefit is even more significant. If the team had pondered where they
could do the most good instead of receiving the highest benefit, they
could have found better ways of giving and receiving.
In short, while the team does donate significantly through its foundation,
this particular middle school project proved an inefficient use of time
(especially considering how much the players time is worth during
Think of volunteer service as an exchange encourages volunteers, philanthropists
and nonprofit agencies to maximize the utility they can produce, given
the amount of resources a party is willing to donate, and provides an
incentive for using a volunteers time efficiently and at its highest
valued use. When volunteers view their time as a commodity and search
for the most valuable use of that resource, they better assess where and
how to give.
Instead of more one-shots, photo ops or service for services sake,
volunteers must constantly seek to solve social dilemmas with the full
intention of working themselves out of a job. The goal of service, save
crisis intervention, should be to provide a short-term fix while we work
toward a long-term solution. When we evaluate the results of community
service in terms of real benefits versus costs and work toward self-sufficiency
where possible and systemic change where not, we complete the promise
My hope is that while todays volunteer sporadically tackles an eclectic array of causes, tomorrows community activist will seek to specialize in solving a specific social dilemma over the course of a lifetime. I hope that we will learn to serve smarter and more ethically instead of merely to appease ourselves. Through the continued study of the efficiency and effectiveness of service and the collaboration of direct action and political action, entrepreneurial volunteerism will produce significant and lasting solutions to age-old problems.