Volunteering: Empowerment or Exploitation?

I came across this article on Best Practices to Strengthen Your Organization with Volunteers last weekend when it was retweeted by a UK-based heritage volunteering account I follow on Twitter. While I realise that a retweet does not necessarily indicate an endorsement, I find a number of the so-called ‘best practices’ troubling in a heritage context, with regard to questions of exploiting volunteers and devaluing professionals during austerity. For me, what makes this especially important, is the fact that volunteering is often linked to progressive ideals and commitments to human rights, such as that everyone should be given the opportunity to be involved in identifying and looking after their heritage. The question then becomes whether we, in the heritage sector, are promoting volunteering in an effort to save money and make heritage non-profits financially sustainable, or to encourage people to connect with their heritage and develop agency for its identification and care.

I hope it is perfectly clear which of these two directions a text that leads with this sentence is taking us:

‘It no longer makes sense for nonprofits to simply take whoever wants to volunteer. In order to actually grow your organization, you want to make sure you choose qualified volunteers with special skills that can be utilized. Don’t be afraid to say “no” when someone is not the right fit for your organization.’

So this article is concerned with saving money. Fair enough, but surely this should still be done without exploiting volunteers or devaluing professionals?

‘Set your expectations early on and write clear position descriptions the same way you would for any job, so they know what they are getting into from the beginning.’

This is where we get closer to the difficult issues of volunteering in the heritage sector. On Twitter, archaeologists use the hashtag #freearchaeology to highlight and shame organisations that advertise unpaid jobs. A volunteer position is not a job. Full-time jobs in the heritage sector being advertised as volunteer positions devalues professionals and exploits volunteers. The heritage sector is notorious for its lack of diversity, with professional archaeologists in the UK at 99% white and conservators 98% in 2013. If unpaid work is necessary to gain relevant experience and experience is required to get paid work, then entering the sector is only possible for those who can afford to risk having to work for free; heritage volunteering cannot wash its hands of its role in this.

What really gets me is when articles like this one begin talking about empowerment:

‘The importance of planning your volunteer program ahead of time, showing volunteer appreciation, and empowering your volunteers to share your message can’t be stressed enough.’

At least in this case it is clear that volunteers are being “empowered” to share your message – but this is an article of top tips for volunteer managers, not a call for volunteers, so the transparency is perhaps not that surprising.

I’ll just leave you with the end of the article – just to be clear what this volunteering is all about. Let’s not pretend this kind of thinking is not going on in the heritage sector; let’s spend our energy thinking about what we are going to do about it instead:

‘Too many nonprofits put volunteers and donors into two separate silos, when the reality is that there’s a huge potential for overlap. People who volunteer with an organization are far more likely to donate when asked than people who haven’t volunteered, meaning a positive volunteer experience is even more important to your organization as it has the added benefit of helping you grow your donor base. When someone supports your organization they support it because your mission resonates with them, meaning they are going to want to help in any way they can. The main motivator that makes a volunteer choose your organization over another is their passion about your cause. Keep this in mind as you are planning your volunteer outreach and experience, and be sure to let them know just how important they are!’



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