To Volunteer or Not to Volunteer, That is the Question

Ashley James

For any paper, essay, project or report, the very first words that I scrawl down all pertain to a definition. Whether it’s about environmental justice or Jungian archetypes, I can never truly begin to write unless I know exactly what the assigned topic should mean to me. However, in this particular case, the more I tried to define the term volunteer, the less capable I felt in accurately describing it. Apparently, I was experiencing some form of writer’s block with an idea that is far from foreign or obscure to many students, especially at Colgate. It eventually dawned on me, perhaps much later than it should have, that volunteerism is not nearly as simple or as straightforward as it seems. Yes, for the sake of everyone’s sanity, anyone could say that it is “the offering of one’s services without compensation,” and we could all move on with our lives, but I think credit should be given where credit is due. Every single moment you spend “working without pay” is also spent with initiative, no matter if this drive is forced in order to achieve long-term goals, or it comes naturally because, you know, you are actually interested in helping people. Regardless of what your inner drive is, volunteering always requires just that: a drive.

Consequently, this is probably what makes it so difficult to explain. I mean, if you really think about it or have time to think about these things, trying to justify the purpose of volunteerism to a culture where, say, everyone is always compensated for every act that they have ever done is a pretty difficult, if not impossible, task. Why would anyone want to do something for free when there is probably someone who would actually pay you for helping them out? Sure, we could say because free act carries more inherent value, but good luck explaining what inherent value means, especially to a person who’s still awestruck by the existence of free labor.

When it comes down to it, what you’re really struggling with is explaining a notion that can only be actualized. If we’re going to be technical, this mainly implies it should only be a verb and not a noun. There shouldn’t be “a volunteer” or “volunteers,” only the act of volunteering; it’s just something you do and to define it any other way just wouldn’t do it justice. Any explanation would lack the subtle insight that only actively volunteering can provide, mostly the realization that if you enjoy the experience enough to do it without pay then it’s probably something that should be a part of your life and, more importantly, that if you have to get paid for it to even consider it, then you probably shouldn’t do it (unless, perhaps, it’s a ridiculous amount of money). Naturally, this is probably the part where the evils of capitalism should come in, but I guess you could argue that volunteering brings to fruition such desirable aspects as character development or broadened perspectives as its own, less monetary based, remuneration. However, I’d much rather KISS (‘Keep It Simple, Stupid’) and say that sometimes a simple “please” and “thank you” would suffice.

Contact Ashley James at [email protected].