Does Volunteering Actually Make a Difference?


An honest look at volunteerism.

This past year, 62.6 million Americans did some form of volunteer work.

The 7.8 billion hours they spent helping those in need, translates into around 184 billion dollars worth of labor, or $23.59 an hour. These numbers are only in reference to charitable work done within the U.S. and doesn't include the work of organizations like the Peace Corps and Red Cross abroad. All things considered, the nonprofit sector makes up a two trillion dollar chunk of our economy, employing one in ten Americans. When looking at these figures, it may feel a bit strange to question whether or not volunteerism actually works. With that much money involved, how could it not? Still, despite the steady rise in our capacity to help, the world keeps churning out wars, genocides, and natural disasters at a seemingly unmatchable rate. In many of these regions, no matter how many volunteers go, the problems are never solved, just mitigated, a constant ebb and flow between destitute and a more manageable form of poverty.

Why does it feel as though we have more volunteers than ever, but the world isn't getting any better?

It's worth mentioning that our material comforts–the ones that make it possible for us to consider building schools in Uganda or digging irrigation ditches in India–were funded, and therefore made possible, by the same capitalistic policies that turned many parts of the world into the kinds of places that we send volunteers. Our contributions to global warming and our stubborn refusal to do anything about it, have already begun to have noticeable effects on the planet. Hurricanes, like the ones that struck Puerto Rico, are getting stronger. And while global warming isn't solely our responsibility, greed, both foreign and domestic, is the culprit behind our collective inaction. On top of this, the U.S. sells weapons to so many different countries, that if you were to point to a war-torn region on a map, it's almost a statistical certainty that American guns helped make it that way. In the same vein, nonprofit work is a livelihood for 10% of the country, and by virtue of existing in the same system as ExxonMobil and Lockheed Martin, runs into its own sort of capitalistic paradox.

Peace Corps in South Africa

It's an incorrect assumption to think that just because charities don't sell anything, the nonprofit industry isn't manufacturing a product. It is.

Charities sell problems, along with the promise of solving them, to their donors. In turn, they use their donations to fund missions and pay employees. Even if an organization is run largely by volunteers, there are still huge costs associated with lodging and feeding those people. Unfortunately, there's a fundamental flaw in this business model. As a charitable organization fixes an issue, demand for their product goes down. For example, if a company sprouted up and its mission was to eliminate poverty in Philadelphia, after a certain point, helping people would become detrimental to the company's financial wellbeing.

The American Red Cross

While microeconomics play a central role in charity's relative ineffectiveness, they're only part of the story.

A lot of this can be more accurately attributed to the way in which we treat volunteerism in our society. For many, volunteering has become more about the perceived psychological benefits of helping others than the actual work involved. It's easy to brush this sort of selfish altruism off by saying the "ends justify the means," but there's something deeply false about it. Many also see volunteerism as a means of padding their resume or college application, instead of something done out of basic human decency. Maybe this point of view is puerile. Maybe people need to see concrete payback for their hard work, but it feels icky, especially considering the ways in which other countries consider charitable giving a civic duty.

The many failings of the American Red Cross and the Peace Corps have been laid bare in recent years, but when considering the society that sustains them, these failures aren't particularly surprising. Still, our capacity to give without expecting anything back is part and parcel of what it means to be human. The purpose of this article isn't to indict the individual volunteer, but the system in which he volunteeers is corrupted. There is no shortage of plucky, wide-eyed folks who only want to help those who can't help themselves, and there's no doubt that volunteering is helpful. That said, in order to improve our efforts and create a more effective means of combating poverty, disease, and famine we need to take the time to examine our methods rather than blindly assuming that this is the best we can do. Sometimes critical self-analysis is the only way forward.

Matt Clibanoff is a writer and editor based in New York City who covers music, politics, sports and pop culture. His editorial work can be found on PopDust, The Liberty Project, and All Things Go. His fiction has been published in Forth Magazine. Website: @mattclibanoff

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