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May 29, 2001

Volunteering more effectively

Nir Eyal winner of the 2001 MacMullan Award, received his bachelor’s 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 nation’s 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 nurtured—as 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 painters—which is exactly the point of the anecdote.

The team’s 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 a game).

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 volunteer’s 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 service’s 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 of volunteerism.

My hope is that while today’s volunteer sporadically tackles an eclectic array of causes, tomorrow’s 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.


Back to Emory Report May 29, 2001