Conversations On Philanthropy
Emerging Questions on Liberality and Social Thought

Making Volunteers: Civic Life After Welfare's End

My most vivid lesson on volunteering came from an African–American woman who ran an after-school program for disadvantaged youth in Washington, DC, where I considered volunteering. Her program gave children a safe haven from homes and communities that were plagued by violence, drugs, and poverty.  Speaking to an audience of potential volunteers made up mostly of white, middle-class professionals, she warned: “Don’t volunteer to help me unless you can make a real commitment. These kids have had enough disappointment in their lives.” Her frank comments stunned many in the audience but were borne out by experience with well-intentioned volunteers who appeared once or twice to help, only never to return.

In Making Volunteers: Civic Life After Welfare’s End, Nina Eliasoph calls these transient volunteers “plug-in volunteers” or “beloved aunties.” They are people who devote only a few hours a month to nonprofits yet seek rewarding, intimate experiences in return. Their limited time commitment, coupled with an unrealistic expectation that they will transform lives quickly, makes volunteering “unequivocally harmful” from the author’s perspective.

Eliasoph has identified a critical operational challenge for many civic organizations, but  the title of her book is misleading because she explains neither how more committed volunteers are or could be made nor what she means by “welfare’s end” and its impact on civic life. In fact, the book’s index lists no references to welfare, government funding, or grants.

The book does, however, provide a sobering look at empowerment programs in America based on her experiences over five years volunteering at a nonprofit organization for disadvantaged youth. An empowerment program is a specific type of hybrid social-service organization with a broad and ambitious agenda. Through a mix of government, nonprofit, and private funds, it seeks to transform feelings of self and cure social ills by empowering participants in a variety of ways. Operating at the grassroots level in communities, these programs attempt to lessen inequality by blending heterogeneous groups, to foster good citizenship through civic engagement, and to celebrate diversity while honoring specific cultures.

On many levels, these programs do not live up to their lofty expectations. Eliasoph found that bringing together disadvantaged youth with their more privileged counterparts often exposed differences rather than forging bonds. At the same time, organizers had to contend with the challenge of motivation because the affluent students’ reasons for participation were not always altruistic; many sought merely to check off a high-school-volunteer requirement.  On the other hand, many of the disadvantaged youth attended the programs not because they desired personal transformation but because they had nowhere else to go after school.  The goals of teaching civic engagement skills to participants and celebrating diversity were similarly difficult to achieve. The empowerment programs sought concrete projects for the students to do while eschewing controversy. Thus, it was easier to collect food for the poor than to contemplate or address the larger political issue: the source of poverty. Another reason for an absence of civic engagement was the structure of the programs, which required staff to secure government funds before students arrived to participate and provide input. Further, the goal of promoting multicultural diversity for its own sake accomplished little in terms of organizational objectives, but it did raise doubts and uncertainty. The young adults were at once expected to overlook differences while finding ways to celebrate and preserve individual cultural distinctions.

Eliasoph saves her harshest criticism for the adult volunteers. Since volunteer engagement was necessary to show government funders that the empowerment groups were grassroots activities, volunteers received lavish praise regardless of whether or not they were helpful. These adults seemed to approach volunteering on a transactional basis, as if to say, “I will give my time, but I expect to receive a meaningful experience in return.” With no expectations placed on them, volunteers gravitated to the youth they found it most rewarding to help. This meant that the difficult and isolated students—those who were most in need of adult interaction and mentorship—were regularly ignored.

Eliasoph’s solutions to these various challenges are at once vague and disheartening. Her fundamental argument is that empowerment programs need regular, stable funding, which translates into increased government support. Indeed, the book leaves the reader with the impression that these programs are underserved because welfare has “ended.” However, she never provides any statistics on the level of government funding that empowerment programs received either before or after welfare reform. Since spending on welfare programs today is 13 times greater, adjusted for inflation, than it was in 1964 according to the Heritage Foundation, it is difficult to sustain the argument that government funding of social programs has ceased. More significantly, Eliasoph seems to ignore the evidence of her own field notes that reveal the detrimental effects of this source of revenue. Government funding created bureaucratic reporting requirements, an emphasis on empty diversity, and the engagement of “plug-in volunteers.”

Instead of proposing an authentic and valuable role for volunteers, Eliasoph recommends eliminating them altogether. This is a surprising conclusion. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, 62.8 million adults volunteered almost 8.1 billion hours to organizations in 2010. Twenty percent of those volunteers participated in tutoring or teaching projects that are found commonly in empowerment programs. This is an enormous human resource, which appears to be under-appreciated and ill-managed. The problem with Eliasoph’s volunteers was not that the bar was set too high, but that it was set too low. Volunteers were not trained or educated. They had no expectations placed on them and received no constructive criticism. Above all, they were allowed to persist in the false belief that their sporadic interaction was helping when it benefited neither them nor the disadvantaged youth who were the objects of their efforts.

A better approach to empowerment programs would be to do something Eliasoph’s book does not: educate organizations on how to make volunteers by connecting volunteerism to a true understanding of philanthropy. Money alone will not help disadvantaged youth build the trust, relationships, self-image, and potential they need to flourish in civic life; neither will sporadic and insincere attempts by volunteers to interact with them. Only when we move beyond a transactional approach to philanthropy and recognize volunteering as a way to appreciate our shared humanity will both giver and receiver be transformed.

To her credit, Eliasoph acknowledges that developing these intimate bonds is a time-consuming endeavor. This may be a reason for empowerment programs to obtain funds from private, non-governmental sources to gain flexibility in their programming. If they are beholden to arbitrary government requirements for volunteer involvement, they are likely to focus more on counting the quantity of volunteers without assessing the quality of volunteers. Counting the wrong thing in the wrong way is likely to have negative consequences, resulting in programs that never seek or cultivate volunteers willing and able to forge true relationships.

There are no simple solutions to fostering civic spirit in needy communities, but empowerment programs, as currently structured and funded, do not seem to be bringing about the desired results. By the author’s own admission, they “don’t kill civic spirit, but they don’t bring it to life either.” Removing volunteers from the equation—presumably in favor of hiring more “professional” staff—seems like the surest way to drive a stake into the heart of a community that is already struggling to thrive.  In such communities, people need to be more, rather than less, connected to the work of identifying and developing solutions to the problems around them.

We need to look deeper into such communities to find examples of what is working.  The directness of the woman with the after-school program in Washington, DC, may be part of the answer. She ran her nonprofit on a shoestring budget but refused to take any government funding because it added too many restrictions. And although volunteers were essential to her operation, she did not tolerate “beloved aunties” coming and going. She asked for a commitment from volunteers and participants. Those who accepted her challenge were enriched by new relationships and the discovery of what each had to offer as a fellow human being.  We would benefit if community leaders such as these would write more books from which we could learn.

Ann C. Fitzgerald holds a master’s degree in philanthropic studies from Indiana University. She is president of the consulting firm, A.C. Fitzgerald & Associates.

Read more reviews