Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Readers Respond: Why Are Volunteers Missing In Action?

May 5, 1997

  • A sociology professor correctly pointed out that Robert Putnam was a political scientist, not a sociologist. She included a copy of a rejoinder to Putnam's thesis written by Katha Pollitt in the April 15, 1996 issue of The Nation. The Nation subsequently published a follow up article that argued that "the problem is the example set our leaders - CEO's, politicians etc. It teaches us to look out for #1."
    • A 72-year-old farm woman described her experiences as a volunteer literacy teacher. She described her frustrations. "I don't think I'll do any tutoring this summer. Why? 1. Parents don't have the time to bring their children for a tutoring session. Sessions are missed. 2. Parents don't have or take the time to try to help the child I'm desperately trying to help."
    • A former health program coordinator at an international service club headquarters describes his frustration when he saw the goals of the organization change. "As with corporations, the human element came to mean less than the bottom line. Soon, service to members decreased markedly while marketing ploys to fill the coffers ballooned . . . While [the fund raising] was successful in raising an impressive sum, it created a palpable dissatisfaction among members and thousands left the organization.

    "In summary, a service organization could not be run like a corporation. Volunteers are not employees and should not feel undervalued and forced to follow inflexible rules. Like underappreciated employees, volunteers who are taken for granted become dissatisfied.

    "Unlike employees, volunteers can cut ties with no financial repercussions. Corporations can get away with brow beating employees and continue to make a profit. Volunteers are the assets of a service organization. Without the human element, there is no organization. To preserve membership, service organization must value members as individuals by providing appropriate services and planning programs with input from members."

    • A farmer wrote in a similar vein, "Whenever I hear a complaint that the rank and file are not performing up to their expectations, I look for poor management as the cause.

    "My generalization is that the quality of management has declined significantly over recent years. Many people will continue to do volunteer work in spite of inadequate management, but not everybody. I have dropped some of my own volunteer work because my services and abilities were being misused by those in charge of the particular activity.

    "The remedy to the decline in the number of people who do volunteer work would require the education of management. Management would have to be trained to do their job and to work with people. In many cases this would be a formidable task as it would include training individuals to suppress their egos for the betterment of their organizations."

    • A farm manager and legislator wrote, "As a 68-year-old member of our countries financial elite - our main problem of lack of volunteers is taxes. Working people of today pay more than 50 percent of their gross income in direct and indirect taxes.

    "In order to keep up with the Jones's, the wife works (for a new car, new refrigerator, Florida vacation, etc.) The husband and wife are physically tired and need what little time they have for their own family. The main volunteers in my community are retired."

    • A man from Michigan wrote about the uncritical application of technology. "Our culture generally thinks of technology in terms of 'progress,' making work easier, faster and more efficient. We never seem to stop and contemplate beforehand how technology will affect the things that really matter such as community expressed in volunteerism, family cohesiveness, a sense of the sacred and the value of our fellow man.

    ..."Last week I visited my 91-year-old grandmother. She talked about the enjoyment and community spirit that was naturally present during threshing season when farmers shared the labor and machinery as they moved from one farm to the next. Can an economist calculate the cost of the loss of community and the social isolation that resulted from the adoption of the combine? For that matter, can an economist calculate the cost of the loss of community and social isolation from the television, the computer and the automobile?

    "The point I am making is that technology creates a fantasy of independence that eats at the threads of community expressed in such things as volunteerism, civility, family and so on. I say a fantasy because although we are more individualistic, we are really more dependent on outside forces and are less self-sufficient than ever . . .

    "I do not think that technology is bad. But it does seem that we as a civilization are building a 'tower of Babel' that may be destined to fall. We need to control technology and not let it control us . . .

    "Technology with all its inventions has created the necessity of reinventing ourselves. The question is, how do we do it? The answer I think, can only come by individually and consciously making choices that help us maintain the social links that bind us together. I do not think there is only one way to do this but each of us needs to be consciously making choices that increase social interaction. We need to recognize our dependence on one another and on a power greater than the self.