The power and politics of volunteering. Volunteering is a powerful activity that can influence people’s lives, change attitudes, and even achieve political reform. This power comes with many opportunities as well as immense responsibility. In this blog post, I share some ways we might think about the power of volunteering, its relationship with politics, and how we can ensure we are being ethical and effective volunteers.
Volunteering has a powerful role to play in filling service provision gaps that arise for a multitude of reasons:
Some things cannot wait for government policies or “official action”. It becomes up to each and every one of us to take up that challenge in the meantime. Therein lies the social power of volunteering – the ability to take action when no one is quite ready or able to. Many of us are volunteers because we are impatient – impatient to wait for others to act or for policies to change; instead, choosing to help now. In the United Kingdom, I am involved with a charity attempting to promote greater educational equity across Oxfordshire. In an ideal world, the government would invest far more resources into state schools, promote greater equality of opportunity across the population, and introduce a comprehensive strategy around achieving educational equity. In our non-ideal world, where our leaders are unable or unwilling to act, volunteers have a role to play in helping those who struggle. The act of volunteering in this context is powerful not only because we often have the privilege of making a significant impact on students who have been failed by the system, but because it sends a powerful message to others about the importance of educational equity.
Volunteering is a powerful language:
The social and political power of volunteering also comes from the fact that volunteering is a language that can send a powerful message to leaders, policy-makers, and others in the community. When we act through our own volition and without expecting payment, we send a vastly different message than when we do something because we are obligated and paid to.
New Zealand abounds with countless examples of the power of volunteering being harnessed to advance social justice: environmental action and protests against climate change, the campaign for marriage equality which saw thousands take to the streets in support, Te Puea marae hosting dozens of homeless families and helping them into housing, and numerous other examples. What is clear about each of these campaigns is that had the actions not been carried out voluntarily – by volunteers – the impact and the message would have been very different. The political change that arose as a result of those actions happened precisely because they were undertaken in a voluntary capacity; because people chose to freely contribute their time, energy, and skills (in vast displays of strength and number) to make a statement of justice rather than doing so because they had to; and because they drew on the language of volunteering.
The language of volunteering is an inevitable statement that when we do something for free, it is because we value and care deeply about that ‘something’. If those social campaigns were merely undertaken by people who were paid to march in the streets, it would not have had anywhere near the same magnitude of social impact. This is what makes activism different from lobbying. The activist is driven by passion and altruism, while the lobbyist is driven primarily by money or other pecuniary considerations.
Volunteering is never a politically or morally neutral act:
While the social and political power of volunteering means it can be harnessed for great things, we should also be attuned to the ways it can be used in ways contrary to our goal of improving welfare and achieving social justice.
Volunteering is often a complicated balance between filling an urgent service- provision gap now and ensuring that we do not dis-incentivise political institutions from dealing with more structural issues. A practical step I advocate is that
organisations doing ground-level volunteering (that is, volunteering based on grassroots service provision) should always be accompanied by strategic political activism that deals with wider socio-political factors.
The case of homelessness is an excellent example. While there are many organisations doing fantastic work helping the homeless on our streets, it is vital that they simultaneously advocate for more substantive, longer-term, upstream solutions.
The rights and welfare of the homeless should not depend on charitable contingencies or the coincidental goodwill of volunteers; it should be guaranteed by the state as a matter of justice. In this context, volunteering has a very important role to play, but it must be accompanied by strong political activism and structural reform in order to be ethical and effective.
We often join volunteering causes because we feel a strong emotional connection. While this may be understandable, we must always be cautious about the way these intuitions and emotive forces have been shaped. For example, many people feel a stronger connection to causes closer to home, involving their compatriots. While community ties are of course important, we must also not forget that these intuitions about helping our compatriots have been shaped in a particular socio-political context. This socio-political context may have unjustifiably influenced us to think about “our own” at the expense of those who are not seen as “us”.
When we volunteer, we must reflect not only on our actions but on our inactions. We must make sacrifices about what we devote our limited time and resources to, but we must always be critically reflective about our reasons for committing to a particular cause, and whether we ought to broaden our volunteering horizons beyond just helping those we see as being like “us”. Volunteering is not just about what we do, but also what we don’t do.
Because volunteering is inherently political, it may compel us to ask very difficult questions of ourselves. Is working with this particular charity the most effective and equitable way I can contribute my limited time and resources? Is my volunteer work dealing with upstream, structural factors or am I merely part of the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff? Why am I really volunteering for this charity, and am I doing it for the right reasons? Can I do more good elsewhere? Is my volunteering work helping to achieve social justice?
Volunteering is not just good or beneficial or fun or rewarding: it is also powerful. As volunteers, I have no doubt that you are committed, passionate, wonderful, and caring people; but do not forget: You are also powerful. With that power comes an immense ability and responsibility to care, reform, and critically reflect.
Volunteering is usually most ethical and effective when grassroots compassion is accompanied by vocal political activism and the pursuit of wider structural reform.
- Johann Go. Volunteering New Zealand’s Programme Advisor – Strategy.
Further reading and resources on volunteering: