July 23, 2008

On Citizening-ing and Volunteering

I took some time today to check in on some blogs that I follow and actually began this post as a comment to Robert Thalhimer's Philanthromedia post, "Inspiring Young People About Civic Engagement". I decided instead to come home to this blog when my comment became super-sized and I saw that I was writing about a personal quandary instead of commenting on Robert's interesting post.

When I read Robert's post, I realized that the word "volunteer" has become somewhat of a trigger for me. Here's why:
  1. I think of volunteering as optional - as something that extra-nice people do with time that other people use for work or amusement or just goofing off, or at a time in their life when their lifetime to-do list has a lot of checks.
  2. I think of volunteering as a "should" and associate it with some degree of guilt that I'm not volunteering enough or I'm not willing to volunteer whenever I'm asked or that I have not enjoyed some volunteering that I have done.
  3. I think of the hidden meaning behind the following phrases:
I'm only a volunteer.
She's only a volunteer.
He's only a volunteer.
We're only volunteers.
They're just volunteers.
I believe that "volunteer" and "volunteering" are words that have many meanings. The common denominator among all meanings is "work without pay". But to me, volunteering also suggests a selfless quality; when you are volunteering, you are working without pay AND without personal benefit or gain except the good feeling that comes with doing good. You are selflessly working for someone else - to advance some one's agenda or to help someone else in need.

For this reason, I flinch a bit when I hear people working in their own neighborhoods or playing active citizen roles in their own communities described as volunteers.

When I was most active in my neighborhood - working endless hours without pay - there was a lot of "self" there. It was my life, my children, my house, my street, my neighbors, and my neighborhood that was at stake. Whether or not I was actively involved, I went to sleep and woke up in the same place each day - a place that could get better, stay the same, or decline. There were direct consequences for me if I spent my day on the couch with the soaps rather than at a City Council meeting.

In the years that I've been associated with grassroots grantmaking, I've met hundreds of people just like me who were "volunteering" in their own neighborhoods.

And, I've seen others who could also be described as "volunteers" in these same neighborhoods - the group from the bank who came out to help with a Saturday clean-up, the people from the social service agency who tutored kids from the local school, the group from a church who volunteered to work on a Habitat for Humanity house. With no disrespect to anyone who volunteers, I want to suggest that the volunteering that is done by neighborhood residents is not the same thing as the volunteering that is done by others who go home to other neighborhoods or set of circumstances - people who have a real "opt-in/opt-out" choice when it comes to dealing with that specific set of challenges.

I remember a dinner conversation last summer about the word "citizen" - about how unfortunate it is that we are reluctant to use the word "citizen" now because of its association with legal status and the immigration debate. And, about how uniquely "citizen" describes what is required of us to make our communities work - our day to day unpaid jobs in our communities.

To me, "citizen" is the word that describes my role in my neighborhood. I was involved because it was my responsibility to be involved and because there were consequences if I didn't fulfill these responsibilities. I was not being selfless; I was working from self-interest. And I only described myself as "just a volunteer" when the "getting paid" people in the picture were trying to unfairly unload their work on me in the cloak of citizen participation.

My hunch is that others feel this difference too. And my wish is that we had a different set of words we could use when we're tempted to describe all work-without-pay as volunteering. An expanded vocabulary would help those of us involved in grassroots grantmaking immensely - enabling us to better communicate what we mean when we say we are supporting residents in their active citizenship roles. And, helping us value and validate this type of "work-without-pay".

An expanded vocabulary might also be useful to Robert Thalhimer and others who want to engage young people in civic engagement - making it easier for us to let young people know that it's okay for self-interest to enter the picture. That working from self-interest may be where they find the passion that propels them forward. That this type of "volunteering" may even be noble. That it's expected, not a choice.

What do you think? Is there indeed a difference between "citizen-ing" and "volunteering"?


  1. Interesting ideas Janis - and great fodder for thought.

    It's true that I think of myself as a volunteer when I'm working outside my neighborhood; though I think that all of my volunteering somehow ties to a self interest. It's something that I feel is important to do, a civic responsibility, but I realize this is a direct relationship to the kind of volunteering I do. If I were working concession for a local music show - that would be "work without pay" but when I'm tutoring, mentoring, or helping a local service organization set up their operations, it has more of a "citizen-ing" feel.

    We need a new word! Thanks for the inspiration. This one will have to percolate for a bit. :)

    Amy Murphy

  2. AnonymousJuly 26, 2008

    I didn't realize until I read your blog, that I agree with you about the different types of volunteering. My community has a lot of resources and people to help at nearby schools and other volunteer projects. I decided to help out in a nearby community that is less fortunate. I was a tutor at a school there for a couple hours per week. I was extremely satisfied that my contribution had a more significant impact where it was needed most, than if I helped out in my own community. However, I am optimistic that I was able to convince a few of the kids how important education is, and their contributions will help others some day.

  3. Thanks for your very thoughtful comments! I think what is challenging about talking about the volunteering is that there are wonderful people like you who have society at large as a strong self-interest who give so generously to communities and people who are less fortunate - and I certainly don't want to imply in any way that this type of volunteering isn't important. What prompted this post for me was wondering about all the different ways that people are engaged - and wishing that we had more language to talk about what we do day to day on our own block that add up to community viability and livability. Guess I've been thinking about this for a while as part of work to more fully support, connect and strengthen residents in distressed neighborhoods who are working as change-makers in their neighborhoods. Thanks for weighing in on this question!

  4. Hi Janis
    Your blog reminds me of my irritation with the term "giving back" in reference to contributions people make when in reality we should think about it as "paying our way". I believe civic participation in our community (however we want to define community) whether though our time or our money is the price we pay for being in the kind of community that we want.

    Thanks for your thoughtful essay!