Is volunteering the new exploitation?

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Another great conversation that emerged at the Shine 2010 unconference was about the nature of volunteering. I think we just assume that volunteering is a force for good and is about people being generous with their time and skills for the benefit of others. I mean what could possibly be wrong with that?

Doug Richards from the School for Start-ups suggested a very different way of looking at volunteering. He argued that asking people to provide labour for free is simply exploitation. That if a social business is genuinely trading then it should pay people for their labour and incorporate their costs in the price of the goods or service. His final parting shot on the subject is that "working for free is a hobby not a job".

I think there is something to this point of view. If the driver for a charity or particularly a social enterprise for using volunteers is that they can't afford to pay people then it means they are admitting that they cannot compete with other organisations. If a competitor's product or service is so much better than yours and the only way you can compete is by using free labour, then you do not have a sustainable position in the market. If we criticise firms that use sweat-shop labour as being unethical, shouldn't we apply the same standards of criticism to those who pay their workers nothing.

This isn't criticising the motivation or altruism of people who want to give their time for free but the lack of aspiration of the organisations that accept it. If you are a charity and using free labour is the only way of plugging a deficit in your funding, then I have some sympathies but I think this should be challenged in anyone who aspires to be a social enterprise.


Bruce Wayne 16 May 2010 at 22:05  

Facebook, Twitter, Google and others extract billions of dollars from value added to their services by citizen/members and return little of this monetary value back to the citizens/communities that have added the value.....It does not work this way in the offline world...We do not see people walking into office building sitting at desk working to add value to companies all of the fun of it.....If we add value than some of the value we added needs to be returned....and if the measurement of the value added is in "monetary" revenue generated than the value returned to contributors should be monetary....

Mike Chitty 16 May 2010 at 23:34  

One of the things that I have noticed in recent years is the very different motivations for volunteering. Increasingly it is not because of altruism or any specific interest in the host organisation but in order to 'maintain a good CV' or 'get work experience'.

I have always maintained that volunteers are not giving something for nothing. They do get rewards in return for their labour - but these rewards are not monetary.

Dave Dawes 17 May 2010 at 04:37  

Thanks for the comments guys :)
And will follow up those links ....

Anonymous 6 April 2011 at 11:37  

I have spent three years volunteering for various organisations and never again. They squander their money on over-expensive IT equipment and ineffective managers and expect disabled people to somehow be grateful for the opportunity to work for them long term for nought. If charities managed their finances better and didn't spend so much money on things that aren't needed and less on salaries for CEOs and meaningless PC roles, they would be able to pay their volunteer slaves. Not to mention all the resultless, failing projects many of them pour money into because they refuse to work with other organisations far more talented than themselves, preferring to do it badly themselves because they view everyone else as competition even if they have the same cause. Some of these charities don't even pay lunch. You get no contract, no support if the terrible working conditions you are expected to endure make you ill. I'm all for short-term volunteering that benefits both parties, but this long-term volunteering lark is just plain exploitation and benefits only one party. It's about time there was legislation to protect disabled people from being exploited by these charities, but alas it looks like the government is about to make the exploitation mandatory because they haven't yet realised that charities are not the havens of good practice that they would lead us to believe they are.

Brad Attitude 6 July 2012 at 07:37  

I think a lot of the official comment on volunteering misses the point- which is that volunteering is only enriching when you are in charge of it and get your due reward.

Being the boss is way less stressful than always taking orders and- let's face it- playing geisha in the presence of managers and paid staff. Having pay in your pocket is way less stressful than managing on the dole.

If vols seem obsessed about money and being exploited, perhaps that's because they have cause to feel that way. A thankyou won't get you any food, or electricity or gas. you need cash for those things.

It's naughty to *expect* people on benefits to be generous- like a wealthy man asking a beggar for a 'spare' coin.

Alan Spackman 23 September 2012 at 04:26  

A lot of volunteer work is becoming a column in the profit and loss books. If labour were free in the 60s unions would come crashing down on bosses to pay your staff or get out of business. I’m sick of the guise of volunteering being altruistic and somehow some moral imperative on feeling good or even getting skills on the job- what ever happened to traineeships and tiered duties to work your way through the organisation and getting salary advances as you learnt more. As long as volunteering is exploited as a way to a paid salary- it will never happen. Why would you suddenly pay a volunteer when there are more profits for whoever?

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