The Penguin family (99% Mr Penguin) does a fair bit of volunteering around the place. But we also live in a quite affluent area, where there is a strong sense of entitlement, and willingess to pay for things. It’s interesting to watch the intersection of those two things.

Freakonomics has an interesting chapter about what happens when childcare centres start charging for every minute parents are late for pick up. What happens is unexpected – late pick ups go up. Levitt’s theory is that when you have to pay for something, it has become a marketable good, which there is less moral problem purchasing than previously, when you were relying on the volunteered goodwill of the childcare staff.

These dynamics are very much in evidence in our local area.

My son’s soccer team, last year, cost $200 for the season.  That didn’t include the uniform (another $40 or so). That was a match a week for about five months, plus training every week. But each team (of 10) also needed to provide five volunteers a week – a manager and coach, plus referee, and a couple of ground staff. The trouble was that a bad combination of unwillingnesss to volunteer (given how much everyone had already paid) plus a high sense of entitlement from the parents (which meant that anyone who did volunteer got seriously taken for granted) made volunteering unpleasant, and a vicious cycle of unwilling volunteers ensued.

In a separate example from my professional life, we have found it harder and harder to find volunteers for committees for my professional association. As the kind of work the volunteers do is also sometimes done by consultants for money (sometimes the same people),  the supply of willing volunteers gets smaller.

The cynics would say that my bits of the community have become more mean spirited than our predecessors. I think it is more complicated than that. People do think that they have less time available (and that is true in my professional life, on average, as employers are more interested in a return on volunteer time), although its generally more complicated (ABS stats would suggest that over the last 15 years voluntary work and care from men and women has been pretty stable at 20 minutes per day, average over the adult population).

My experiences in the volunteering game (both directly and by watching Mr Penguin) have suggested that you’ve got to be very careful to let the money, and the market generally, into a situation that has been mostly volunteer. As soon as something that has only been volunteered becomes a mixture of volunteer provided and professional provided, the dynamic changes dramatically, both for the volunteer, and the “customer” (who is suddenly more deserving of that title). And those changes in dynamic can happen pretty suddenly, if you’re not paying attention.

  3 comments for “Volunteering

  1. February 26, 2008 at 1:43 pm

    Since I work for an organization that is highly reliant on volunteers, it’s interesting to read this post. There is a lot of concern in the US non-profit community about how our country’s lack of leisure time has reduced the amount of people volunteering over the past 30 years (and not just volunteering–doing any kind of collective social activity, like adult sports leagues). There was a decent book on the subject a few years ago–Bowling Alone.

    But I haven’t read about it happening in other countries (in fact, we tend to look at other Western nations that have more leisure time than us as positive examples).

  2. February 27, 2008 at 8:10 am

    We had an interesting case in Oregon, here’s a bit from the article:

    ‘The Oregon Court of Appeals ruled in November that volunteers for the Mount Bachelor Sports Education Foundation were actually employees — because they had received free season ski passes as compensation for all the hours they spent helping kids learn to ski and putting on ski races and other events.

    ‘The court’s decision came in the case of a former volunteer who filed a claim for unemployment benefits, based upon the $910 value of the season pass he received.

    ‘…The Oregon court ruling clearly creates a sticky problem for any nonprofit organizations that do promise rewards in exchange for volunteers’ labors.’

    The Oregon legislature is actually trying to get a law passed which will allow ski resorts to give volunteers free passes.


    I’m surprised to hear that people volunteer 20 minutes a day. I volunteer 45 minutes a week (at my son’s school), my MIL volunteers 1 hr every 2 weeks (feeding the homeless) — no one else in my extended family volunteers. That I know of.

Comments are closed.