September 22, 2013
The Politics of Volunteering: a Book Review
Here’s a title that just has to be grabbed off the shelf. And it turns into a read that clears out the attics of conventional thinking on volunteer programmes and the practice of managing volunteers. It’s talking big picture stuff, the whole sociology and philosophy of community association and relations with government and business interests. And you can’t do that without thinking and arguing politics.
For Eliasoph, a professor of Sociology at the University of Southern California, the starting point is the relationship between democracy and the business of ‘civic associations’ and ‘civic engagement’. Democracy, taking a simple definition, is a way to organise civic associations in which each member has a say (civic engagement). These terms embrace ‘volunteering’ and ‘activism’ which are placed on a continuum. We volunteer to fill a need in the community, and then get to asking why this need exists and what we can do to change the circumstances. Think Disability Rights, and the way we now take for granted accessible buildings and kneeling buses and inclusive education – these changes happened through ‘politicising’ the issues: the advocates became activists. I am reminded too of the feminist slogan: ‘the personal is the political’.
So I need no convincing of the connection between volunteering and activism that leads to social change, even though I recognise the distance between a once-a-month volunteer assignment to help at the local drop-in centre and the activist practice of civil disobedience.
Eliasoph offers plenty of examples to illustrate the harm organisations and volunteers can do, as well as the good. Bottom-of-the-cliff band aids on social blights and individual distress do not create social change. It takes time and energy and hard work to launch and run a campaign, and success might be years ahead. Trouble is, we know well how inequality of income and opportunity can shrivel that ability to have a say and to speak out, and to become an active volunteer.
Which lead us to connections and relations between Civic Association, the Market and Government. Here are a couple of choice quotes from the book:
The willingness of men and women to give service is one of freedom’s greatest safeguards. It ensures that caring remains free from political control. (Margaret Thatcher, 1981)
Government funding ‘contaminates’ volunteering. (US non-profit executive, 1970s)
It is assumed that enlisting voluntary associations to solve social problems is morally better, of better quality and better for the whole society. The argument for state de-regulation of the economy comes in here: less government will mean both more vibrant associations and a better economy. Neo-liberal ideas that deem the market and people’s rational choices will show us what organisations are worth supporting. Oh dear – tell that to organisations struggling to stay afloat, and show me the evidence that volunteers will take up the slack when the state shifts responsibilities and out-sources social services.
When the balance between civic, state and market forces gets out of whack activists will demonstrate their opposition, as the Occupy Movement and Arab Spring events have shown. At another level non-profit organisations can run lively campaigns for fundraising or to highlight a local issue – much as community organisers operated in the 1960s. Enter, warns Eliasoph, the impact of social inequality. Instead of ‘grass roots’ activism we get elite ‘Astroturfs’ in which wealthy corporations and individuals spend money to produce the appearance of grass roots movements. Examples include international environmental campaigns and big business PR under the guise of corporate social responsibility in their sponsorship of civic associations.
In an unequal playing field non-elites are less likely to participate in civic associations, voting and other public affairs. Inequality spawns powerlessness; it is difficult to dig oneself out of apathy, to find a place to give voice to complaints and ideas, and to be articulate in doing so. Ways to open up civic participation range from consensus-based groups to internet activism and ‘participatory democracy forums’. Hmmm – the latter, which I know as ‘consultation’, have been more like organisers paying lip-service to public interest rather than genuine public inclusion and influence on decision-making.
The book makes only one reference to ‘volunteer programmes’ and there is no mention of ‘volunteer management’. Yet it is not difficult to recognise the everyday politics in volunteering and the work of managers of volunteers. Nor can non-profit organisations stand outside politics when confronted by expectations and contract conditions set by philanthropists and governments. By aligning democracy with civic associations, with volunteering and activism, Eliasoph is reminding us how volunteering is part of a much wider endeavour.
Eliasoph, Nina. (2013) The Politics of Volunteering. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.