Mandatory Volunteerism? Realistic Option or Just an Oxymoron?

February 16, 2012

Last week, Senator Richard Burr (R-N.C.) introduced a bill that proposes to reform the unemployment system. The key points in the bill are as follows:

  • Require long-term unemployed to volunteer for 20 hours a week in order to continue receiving unemployment benefits,
  • Those drawing six months or longer must search for work at least 20 hours a week,
  • Allowing states to conduct their own drug testing of applicants.

The last point is an explosive political issue with intense arguments on both sides so let’s steer clear of that one entirely and just deal with the first point. The concept behind the first point, according to the senator, is that being involved in volunteer service helps workers maintain job skills, marketability, and a sense of self-worth.

Similar proposals have been shuffling around for a few years now about the possibilities of different types of mandatory volunteerism: college students receiving federal education tax credits, or having a high-school volunteer requirement (also here). The arguments for such requirements tend to cite the personal growth of the volunteer and the benefit to the community. Both are true. Arguments against tend to point to that if people are forced, they will resent it, that is time that could be spent looking for work, and that “mandatory volunteer” is an oxymoron.  Also true.

Only a few have mentioned what the impact on the nonprofit community could be. Yes, volunteers are needed but a sudden influx of volunteers that don’t want to be there? Hmmm… There are certainly organizations that need help but many might prefer to cultivate and train their volunteers. Many organizations are concerned with and work hard to increase volunteer longevity, which is at odds with the idea of short-term placement in order to push back into the work force. Ultimately, organizations may not be cut out to care-take a mob of volunteers as well as their clientele. Having peace officers supervise clean-up efforts and similar low-training tasks might be a better fit, and then you have arrived at what this actually is, which is community service. Community service is a great thing and many organizations have structures in place for that, but whether they could manage a sudden influx is still a possible issue. There’s also the possible issue of it feeling punitive. But sticking to the nonprofit’s point of view, organizations have to be able to conduct their mission without getting overwhelmed with supervising. Supervision takes resources and funding that many organizations don’t have room for in the budget right now. There’s such a thing as a kind of help that hurts more than it helps.

Read more about the proposed bill here and here.