“Working for the Cause”: The Problem with Volunteering

Volunteering is wrong.

Okay, well, as someone who spends probably a good 10-20 hours a week to do volunteer work, I’m certainly not arguing that it’s wrong to do volunteer work. I’m saying that it’s wrong that all the great stuff we do that changes life should be for free. That changing the world be at our expense, not at that of the world we’re making better. That recognition our good day’s work should include a good day’s pay.

I want to make this very clear at the outset: volunteer work is work. Just like being a convenience store clerk, an administrative assistant, a senior exective at a bank, a teacher, a doctor, a stay-at-home parent. But unlike all of these, except the last one, you don’t get to live from it. I mean, money isn’t everything, but the rent needs paying. You need to get a living from somewhere.

Sure, free work “for the cause” has its compensation. It’s really great fun and everything, personnally, I love doing all these amazing things — but shouldn’t all work be rewarding in itself, or at least not totally alienating? And you’re contributing to making the world better, which is great, but you can eat a “world made better” when your fridge is empty. You can put a “Volunteering” section on your resume, but what a line on a CV is worth varies greatly, and it’s sort of abstract. Obviously, there are semi-concrete rewards like involvement scholarship and special prizes, but really, these are worth more in prestige in paying the bills. (Just for the fun of it, compare excellence scholarships with involvement ones. A friend of mine won a departmental prize for her grades, worth $4500. I won a fairly significant one for my LGBTQ involvement in a Canada-wide contest, and it got me about half that amount.)

What’s problematic is not the fact that people agree to work for free, it’s that the world-changing business revolves around masses of unpaid workers, whose work is justified through various discourses that deny that we actually do work.

We are the stereotypical ’50s housewives of the world, working for no reward but occasionnal pats in the back and the optimistic knowledge that our family — sorry, our community is better because of the stuff we do. That’s reward enough for the things we do. I mean, it’s not real work, right? And just like these stereotypical housewives, we depend on someone else’s money, or work part- or full-time on top of everything.

These two paragraph from The Switch‘s Kickstarter were inspiring for me to read:

Why so much? The first reason is that we’re paying everybody involved with the show a fair wage. Artists deserve to be paid. Actors deserve to be paid. Trans people deserve access to meaningful employment. Too often people are asked to work for exposure, or for the good of the community. That’s not fair and it’s not sustainable. We’re paying everyone what they deserve.

That’s right. Why should housewives work for free?

Demanding to be able to live in dignity from what we do isn’t asking to be a mercenary of the Cause. It’s just a request for recognizing work as work.

The logic behind volunteering is that “the cause” is worth more than us, than our ability to have lives that don’t depend on our being overworked all the time to the breaking point. We, volunteer activists, are the cannon fodder of The Cause. Yes, I think it’s worth it, but that’s besides the point.

The fact that most “good works” involve doing work for free also means that almost all our world-changing business is done by relatively privileged people, by people who can afford to do this. People from the upper-middle class. People with a supportive partner, or with supportive parents. People like me, who can afford to surf some time on their research scholarships (while slowing down their actual research). People won’t don’t live through several (or at least not too many) compounded oppression, who are not too heavily marginalized. As a consequence, the people who fight and the people they fight for are not the same people, or not exactly. And as a result, the most “difficult” cases are often mostly forgotten, while relatively privileged people and their issues are at the forefront.

Even amongst the privileged few, the fact that activists must lead double or triple lives (one for the Cause, one for the bills, and possibly one for themselves) directly affects the quality of the work we do. When Joan had to cancel her coming to the meeting because of a last minute emergency at work, Roy forgot to buy the material we need for tomorrow’s event and Jenny is so tired from working 12 hours straight she’s only half present, how can we change the world?

There are few easy, immediate solutions. The organisms that would like to pay people for their work generally don’t have the money, and the people and corporations that do have the money don’t make it a high priority, either because they don’t care about our better world, or because they don’t know that it is achieved through unpaid work. And by the very nature of what we do, the people we help normally can’t afford to pay us anyway. The government could do more by giving more budget to community organisms or by giving out more bursaries and money prizes for community work, but under the new religion of Austerity, that’s not gonna happen.

As an activist and organizer of stuff, the only measure I know is to make sure everyone gets something official-sounding to put on their CV, a title, a symbolic money prize, anything — but as we know, this doesn’t pay the bills. And of course, I also make sure that any significant work I do shows on mine.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have three different organizations to coordinate for free, a full-time semester to manage, and my flat is a complete mess. See ya when my summer debts are paid.


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One thought on ““Working for the Cause”: The Problem with Volunteering

  1. […] a small paid staff for coordination. The government is doing the opposite of its responsability. World-changing people deserve to be well-paid. Obviously, this proposal was not made with the approval of actual community groups, which quickly […]

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