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How Volunteerism Became Un-American

It used to be that many Americans felt a need to "give back." Today, volunteer organizations face a worrisome manpower shortage.

by
Pam Meister

Bio

June 3, 2008 - 1:30 am

I read with interest the PJ Media article by David J. Rusin entitled “Most Likely to Succeed — And Serve, and Sacrifice” over Memorial Day weekend, debunking the myth that only ignorant, downtrodden types join the military today because they have no other options.

When I got to the comments section, one by a reader named Don jumped out at me. He said, in part:

The trouble with 21st century America is one of obligation and good faith. The drive seems to be to (with this cult of self “uber alles”) fragment us. With no “greater good” for us to feel an obligation we have generation(s) whose sole motivation seems self and self stimulation. The few who do feel that obligation the majority owe much to (and don’t seem to realize it).

Don was referring specifically to military service, but I believe that his observation is relevant to American society in more ways than one. It used to be that many Americans felt a need to “give back” by way of volunteering within the community, but volunteer organizations of all stripes and colors are feeling the pinch of what Don aptly describes as “generation(s) whose sole motivation seems self and self stimulation.”

The impression I get of late (and this is just an impression, mind you, not hard scientific fact) is that people today tend to ask, “What’s in it for me? What will I get out of it?” before committing themselves and their time to something. John F. Kennedy said in his 1961 inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Or town, or community, or otherwise fill-in-the-blank. Have we really forgotten those words of wisdom in just one generation?

Obviously not all of it can be attributed to personal selfishness. Part of it has to do with busy work schedules and the fact that within the last 30 or 40 years, more women — who used to do more volunteering than men — are working full time, leaving them less time to be class moms, Girl Scout leaders, Cub Scout den mothers, and what-have-you. A 2001 study also attributes the decline to increased television viewing, an aging population, and income disparity.

But these days, even when people aren’t working, many prefer to be lounging at home or out pursuing personal hobbies and interests rather than toiling for no pay and sometimes unappreciative beneficiaries (more about that shortly). Many would prefer to write a check rather than donate time and effort to a cause.

Organizations such as the Scouts (Girl and Boy), religious organizations, and all-volunteer fire and EMT departments are among those feeling the pinch. I found a number of online articles about there being fewer volunteers for small-town fire departments, like this one regarding the problem in Kansas, where volunteer firefighters are a “dying breed” in part because of the volunteers’ work schedules. And in Greenwich, Connecticut, one man attributes the phenomenon in part to “the loss of interest in volunteerism.”

I’ve been a Girl Scout leader for the past ten years and can attest to the difficulty that this organization has in finding people to fill leadership roles. The waiting list in my town is quite large due to the lack of available adult volunteers, meaning that many girls who would benefit from the programs that Girl Scouts has to offer will ultimately miss out on the opportunity.

The volunteer crunch is also being felt in groups like community theaters, where people are presumably getting together to do something they enjoy, and therefore it seems strange that fewer people are getting involved. Again, I’ve been involved in such a group for ten years and have seen the board of directors of my theater dwindle by nearly half — from 14 to just eight active members. Additionally, while there are plenty of people who want to act onstage, when it comes to finding “behind the scenes” people like lighting board operators, stage managers, and backstage assistants, there is always a mad dash to find enough warm bodies. And while it’s somewhat comforting to know that it’s not just my group that is lacking for personnel (it’s a common problem for many other community theaters in my general area), it’s also distressing to know that the problem seems to be spreading.

Part of the problem may be that volunteers just don’t feel appreciated. Many of us have been to kiddie sports games (soccer, baseball, hockey, etc.) where parents complain to the coach if little Timmy doesn’t get enough time at bat or young Betsy’s ball passing skills aren’t being honed properly. Who wants to spend a lot of time and effort with someone else’s child, only to be criticized for your pains? A friend of mine recently told me how she and another mom who volunteered for a Park and Rec girl’s basketball team this past year were cornered by one girl’s father after they lost a particular game. He had plenty of advice for them on how they should have coached the team, blah blah blah, but was he the one volunteering his time and effort to make sure the girls had fun while learning about team spirit and sportsmanship? The kicker is that this man had played pro basketball in his younger days. Sadly, this encounter soured both women, and neither is planning on volunteering again next year.

Not all parents are this obnoxious, of course. Most are grateful to those who take the time to share expertise and enthusiasm with their children. Unfortunately, it only takes a few bad apples to spoil the proverbial barrel.

It would be interesting to know how much this lack of enthusiasm for volunteerism can be attributed to the increasing insularity of individuals from society. Most of us no longer spend our leisure time on our front porches chatting with neighbors or at community functions, but indoors in front of the television, video game console, or the Internet. In addition, as our society becomes increasingly transient, it’s probably hard for individuals to get excited about putting time and effort into an organization that they may end up leaving in just a few years’ time.

I’m not pretending to have all of the answers. Volunteerism is a very personal thing, and not everyone fits neatly into the categories I’ve enumerated above. Still, volunteer work is an important part of society. It helps bond community members together, and the results can be very rewarding. While donating money to causes is all well and good, time spent volunteering in any capacity ultimately benefits the person who gives of their time most of all.

Pam Meister is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in a number of online publications including Big Hollywood, American Thinker, and Family Security Matters.
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