≡ Menu

Fanning The Inner Spark Of Volunteerism

My university held a community service day during Spring break. Students volunteered to spend 8 hours working on a project that would benefit the community : in this case, constructing a new public garden. Several dozen students volunteered and we were supervised by two staff members, Ms. L and Professor S.

The digging, wheelbarrow-hauling, building, planting and other tasks were physically intensive but everyone was in good spirits. The good feelings lasted until the end of the day when Ms. L announced: “Now, we’ll all talk about what we learned today.” Instead of going home, the exhausted, sweaty and dirt-covered students were herded into a hot, stuffy room where each person was expected to comment on their day. This exercise lasted from 4 until 5 pm. Most people were either bored to tears or struggling to stay awake.

But it was Professor S.’s speech that really soured the day for me: “Some of you are only volunteering so you can get into med school. I think volunteers should be selfless.”

I predict that very few “selfish” people will offend Professor S. with their presence next year. 0310-12


My question is whether the volunteering was mandated as part of their educational requirements.   Were the volunteers doing so as part of a school project?  I’m hesitant to condemn the professor without knowing whether this was a school sponsored volunteer project and the after project reflection was part of the educational process.   Nonetheless, I don’t think it is prudent to question the motivation of why people volunteer because if one understands human nature, you realize that what drives volunteerism is the intrinsic “reward” a person gets by stepping outside of themselves to help others.    A smart professor, sensing that maybe some did approach the project as a requirement, should have nurtured the tiny spark of intrinsic good feelings with encouragement so that it grew into a lifelong desire to serve others.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • aerrigad March 13, 2012, 5:55 am

    I don’t know about that particular school, but I do know that having volunteer activities on your application does help when you’re trying to get into medical school.

    That being said… really what the professors should have done is thanked everyone profusely and sincerely for their good works and sent them off for a nice hot shower. Or, if they simply HAD to reflect on the true meaning of the work the students put in, they could have sprung for pizza.

  • QueenofAllThings March 13, 2012, 5:58 am

    To add to the Dame’s comments, a ‘smart’ professor would have a) thanked them profusely for their effort and b) provided snacks/water/etc. during the discussion time. It may have been mandated, but it needn’t be unpleasant.

  • Margo March 13, 2012, 6:01 am

    This does seem bady organised.

    If Ms L and Professor S felt that a feedback/reflection session was appropritate, it would have been more sensible to:
    (a) Let people know in advance that this would be happening
    (b) Bear in mind that the volunteers would have out in a day of fairly femanding physical work, and ensure that the room was lage enough and that there were drinks and snacks available
    (c) Provide feedback in a constructive rather destrutive and critical way.

    To me, a comment / speech which references the fact that some volunteers may have had ulterior motives isn’t automatically bad – it can be used as a start point (e.g. “I know some of you may have come along because you felt you had to, or thought it would look good on your CV, but I hope that you also enjoyed the experience and would consider volunteering again in future [and here are details of projects needing volunteers], meanwhile, thank you all for your sterling efforts today” is OK “Your efforts don’t really count becasue you had an ulterior motive” is just plain rude.

    I also think that someone should point out that volunteering is very rarely truely selfless. Even if the ‘selfish’ part is simply that it makes you feel good about yourself.

  • Angela March 13, 2012, 7:28 am

    As a professor myself, I can almost guarantee you that Professor S was volunteering to have some community service to put on his annual report.
    There is often an emphasis on “processing” this kind of activity, so I’m not surprised that Ms. L felt that the activity had to be capped off with a discussion period. In fact, the grant or whatever that supported the activity probably identified the processing as one of the goals. Under the circumstances, though, it would seem best to buy everyone some ice cream and ask for some sound bites for next year’s grant.

  • MyFamily March 13, 2012, 7:38 am

    When I was a kid, my parents made me ‘volunteer’ for organizations that I liked; at the time I did resent it and didn’t feel like I was volunteering since my parents made me, but over time I learned by doing how important volunteering is and how much it can be enjoyed (and I’m not talking about just doing things you like/want to do, but knowing you are supporting a cause that means something to you). Today I do a lot of volunteer work for some organizations that are important to me, and while it isn’t always fun, it is always rewarding in the end; and I thank my parents for giving me this gift. Even if this was a school requirement, this is how some volunteers are born.

    I will also say that even if the discussion after was part of a class requirement, doing it immediately after was just cruel, and shortsighted. Many times you don’t realize the benefit you’ve gained and the whole picture of what you’ve given right away; time away from the project gives you that insight, plus all the volunteers aren’t tired, hot and hungry, so they’ll be more receptive to the conversation.

  • Gena March 13, 2012, 8:44 am

    What difference does it make what the volunteer’s motives are? My daughter has “volunteered” for many activities that were required by her school or sports team. The fact that she was required to be there didn’t make her contribution any less valuable. She now does volunteer work that is not required, but she knows that this will look good on her college applications.

  • Wink-n-Smile March 13, 2012, 8:53 am

    Even selfless volunteers enjoy the warm fuzzy feeling they get. Nobody does it for absolutely no reward. It’s just that the “selfless” people feel the reward of warm fuzzy is sufficient, while others don’t feel the warm fuzzy, so much, and need some recognition, and others need the “credit” to get into some program or other.

    What he meant was that volunteers should do it simply for the warm fuzzies, and not expect any recognition, or any credit towards getting into any programs.

    There are better ways to say that, particularly because those who go through med school sacrifice A LOT, and then spend their life helping people. Sure they get paid, but they do a lot of pro-bono work, too, and a lot of warm fuzzies.

    For all he knows, the people who volunteered just to get into med school are going to be the ones running Doctors Without Borders in a decade or two.

  • The Elf March 13, 2012, 9:04 am

    I shudder to think of what they would have said about students who didn’t volunteer! Nevermind that said student might have pressing concerns on that particular day (work, family committment, upcoming exam) or might be heavily involved in other volunteerism or might not be physically capable of such labor; only that one act on that one day matters.

  • sv March 13, 2012, 9:12 am

    To me, it doesn’t really matter why everyone volunteered. They volunteered; that’s the point. We all do things for personal reasons and most of those reasons are somewhat selfish, whether that is the good feeling we get for helping someone else or the good mark on a required project. Why does it have to be one or the other? And who is to say that the students, after spending a sweaty day toiling for the good of the community, might not decide to do it again at some point in time just because of the value of what they did? What a terrible way to reinforce the perceived negative aspects of volunteerism.

  • elizabeth March 13, 2012, 9:26 am

    I went to an undergrad where we did have a yearly volunteer requirement we had to meet in order to graduate. I ended up going on numerous school sponsored volunteer projects. I dont remember ever being subjected to a long recap at the end of the day like that. I do remember doing some recaps at the end of the day-being asked questions of what was it like, how was your experience, what did you learn, etc. They never lasted more than 20 min. I could understand it being longer if it was needed for time. Say, it was supposed to be an 8 hr project, but only took 7, I could see the staff “prolonging” it by asking questions and talking about the day so that everyone could count a full 8 hrs.
    As for questioning motives, that prof would have hated to be at my school! Everyone’s motives were at least partially to just get the hours done!

  • LonelyHound March 13, 2012, 9:30 am

    I have had and participated in plenty of these types of days, Admin, and I have to disagree with you. I am going to make a big assumption and say the school put on the Volunteer Day as a way for students to get involved with the community and volunteer their time all on their own. Schools in the university I went to did this and so did all the ROTC detachments. Yes, some classes offered extra credit or required students to volunteer. That being said not all who participated were coerced with extra credit or class requirements. I think the professer’s comment marginalize the work put in by those who truly volunteered. Were his comments off? Not as they relate to some student, but there is no way he could know what percentage that was. I think he should have kept his thought to himself. After all the old addage goes, “If you cannot say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

  • David March 13, 2012, 9:46 am

    Neither Ms. L or Professor S handled this particularly well.

    While I am sure Ms. L’s heart was in the right place, treating adults like preschoolers is never a good idea. After a full day of physical labor, I am going to need a shower and a change of clothes before I would subject other people to being stuck in a small, hot room with me. If the talk was a requirement of the volunteering, I would just have avoided the volunteering.

    Professor P was out of line. The reasons people volunteer are as numerous as the people that volunteer. Yes, some people may have only been filling a requirement of their scholastic record, others might have been there for the good feeling of volunteering, and others might have volunteered because that interesting person from chemistry class was volunteering. But, they were all their volunteering. Denigrating one group of people just makes it less likely that anyone will volunteer next time.

    After all, what if you need the volunteering to get into med school, but had volunteered because you get a good feeling when you volunteer? Professor P is going to think you volunteered because you needed it for med school.

  • Phoebe161 March 13, 2012, 9:53 am

    Not a smart professor. I hope that this professor is not teaching about human behavior (eg psychology, management), because Prof S would flunk his own class. Every person has different reasons for motivation. At a stop sign, some people will stop because they don’t want a ticket, some will because it’s the law, some will because they don’t want to get in a wreck & hurt them or their vehicle, & some will because they don’t want to endanger other people. Each person receives some type of “reward” for stopping at the stop sign–no ticket, no wreck, a feeling of being a law-abiding citizen, a feeling of having the other people’s safety as a priority. No different with volunteerism.

  • Library Diva March 13, 2012, 10:02 am

    I really hate hearing people take out their random frustrations on those who don’t deserve it, and I hate seeing adults hold students (who in this case are ALSO ADULTS) to a higher standard than everyone else is. You guys were there, and now the community has a nice new garden. Does it really matter what was in your hearts, whether it was “Wow! A chance to help the community? I am SO THERE” or “This will look good on my med school application” or “I miss gardening at home. I’m going to do this” or even “Hey, that hot guy from my math class signed up for that gardening thing, if I do it too, maybe I’ll get to talk to him.”

    I recently attended a meeting for work of a group of high school students that works with the district superintendents. The kids have to apply to be part of the group, and are generally the district’s best, brightest and most motivated. While I was there, they discussed an event that flopped, and one of the adults present kind of laid into the students, saying that they need to be talking up what the committee does among their friends and getting people to attend. It made me really angry. They only said that because they were the authority figure. I can’t imagine any other situation where someone would say to a volunteer, “You do a lot for the school, but it’s not enough.” Students deserve the same respect another volunteer would get, whether they’re mandated to be there by a course or not.

  • Anonymous March 13, 2012, 10:22 am

    It would have been just as easy to do the same “reflection” exercise more efficiently, and probably more effectively. If I’d been the professor, I would have just gathered everyone in a circle, still outside, and quickly gone around the circle and had each person say one thing they learned/enjoyed/whatever–serious or silly. Also, I think outside would have been better, so the volunteers could have looked around at their handiwork while talking about their experiences. But, what really gets me is the way the professor accused people of being “selfish” after they’d spent an entire day doing hard physical labour. That’s just beyond the pale.

  • --Lia March 13, 2012, 11:11 am

    I see two separate etiquette faux pas and would treat them separately.

    The first is the idea of wanting to talk about anything to a bunch of people who had put in hard physical labor and were dirty, sweaty, and tired. Anything much more than a thanks and a tall glass of water is inappropriate at that point. If I could rewrite that script, I’d have one of the volunteers give Ms. L a hearty clap on the back and a cheerful “Not now! We all need showers and a chance to collapse on our beds” followed by a unanimous exit to the door.

    The second is the sermon on the meaning of volunteerism and community service. There’s bound to be disagreement as to whether Professor S was correct or not. I happen not to agree with him, but I can see that others might. But regardless of your views on the matter, it’s always a out of line to impose your personal religious views (and I do think they’re religious) on others in a school, social, or work setting. (If you’re their Sunday school teacher, it’s different, and you can lead the discussion.) Here again, if I could rewrite it, someone would say in the friendliest manner “Prof S, we could debate that all night, but we’re all too pooped to give a coherent argument.” And then everyone would thank the coordinators and head out.

  • essie March 13, 2012, 11:17 am

    Yikes! I’m surprised “for the Fatherland” didn’t appear in the speeches anywhere.

    “Now, we’ll all talk about what we learned today.” Sounds like Mao’s “up to the mountains and down to the villages” rhetoric to me.

  • German Shepherd March 13, 2012, 11:32 am

    Professor S should’ve kept her remarks to his/herself. Inappropriate and uncalled for.

    If Ms. L really wanted to know what the volunteers learned, she should’ve provided refreshments or have the volunteers to turn in a follow up report.

  • Saucygirl March 13, 2012, 11:36 am

    I have done a lot of volunteering, and it never ceases to amaze me how badly some organizations treat their volunteers. There used to be a huge event here that benefited the local food bank, that was 100% run by volunteers. But the food bank staff were so unappreciative and rude to the volunteers that after five years they could no longer find volunteers and they lost the event and over $75,000 of income.

    No matter why someone volunteers – to feel good, to meet a requirement, to socialize – all you need to say to them is thank you, it’s appreciated.

  • Goldie March 13, 2012, 11:41 am

    Based on Angela’s comment, I wonder if Professor S had to produce some kind of report based on the students’ feedback comments, and was upset because the comments weren’t verbose enough. If that’s the case, Prof S would’ve received better, more usable feedback by being upfront with the volunteers, and by warning them in advance that feedback would be expected, rather than surprising a group of tired, hungry people with a feedback session right at the moment when they thought they’d get to go home (I also like the ice cream suggestion!)

  • Stacey Frith-Smith March 13, 2012, 12:40 pm

    The volunteers who did the work might have come upon the scene for a variety of reasons, but no one in the group deserved the condescension the supervisors displayed here. Isn’t it sad that one sour lemon of a human being can poison the experience for a whole group? As for the breakdown after the exercise, that is a question of organization, expectations and communication. If some in the group were required to participate in order to validate the fact that they met their “volunteer” requirement, well and good. But it could have been done in brief, and perhaps in a more comfortable setting. Certainly it could have been a more convivial one.

  • Cat Whisperer March 13, 2012, 1:43 pm

    My husband is a volunteer on the board of a small local museum/park. He has been on the board for more than 20 years, so he knows what it’s like to be a volunteer.

    As a part of what he does, he works with other volunteers, and he has the job of working with municipal employees and volunteers who coordinate and supervise activities much like the one the OP described, where large groups of volunteers engage in things like clean-up tasks, working to build or maintain city facilities, help out at city-sponsored activities like hazardous waste round-ups and so forth. So he knows what it’s like to supervise volunteers and to work with other people who supervise volunteers.

    And let me tell you, it is a real minefield of people problems.

    Some of the people who want to work as coordinators of volunteers basically want to boss people around. I’m very sorry to say that there are certain personality types that are drawn to volunteer service because it gives them a chance to assert themselves by being pushy and rude. And they regard the volunteers they supervise as expendable resources, use once and throw away. The thought of cultivating a positive relationship with volunteers so they’ll come back never occurs to them.

    Some of the people who end up working as coordinators of volunteers got the job because it’s so thankless a task that nobody else wanted to do it, and these people don’t have a clue how to go about managing volunteers. Some of them try hard to do right, some of them get frustrated and take it out on the volunteers they’re supposed to supervise, and some of them are just square pegs that have been slammed into a round hole with predictable results all around.

    Working with volunteers, and especially cultivating an organizations staffed by volunteers, is something that takes time, effort and training to do right. And unfortunately most volunteer-type efforts are entirely amateur in nature, from the top to the bottom. There may be boundless enthusiasm, but there is also a learning curve so steep that most people just give up and the effort falls apart.

    The best-run volunteer efforts don’t happen by accident. They involve training of staff to manage volunteers, careful screening of people who volunteer to make sure that the people are actually a good match to the jobs they will be doing, careful supervision of both the volunteers and the people who coordinate the volunteer efforts, and a program of rewards and recognition for volunteers to assure that people who volunteer feel valued for their contribution.

    I’m not surprised by OP’s story, as it’s fairly typical of a situation where a volunteer effort is not well-thought-out, where the people supervising and coordinating the volunteers are not properly or adequately trained, and possibly have an authoritarian attitude.

    When you want to do volunteer work, your best bet is to actively seek out an organization that invests time and money in training the people who supervise the volunteers, and which actively and positively cultivates long-term relationships with the volunteers. If you do choose to volunteer for an effort that’s short-term and has been thrown together quickly, the best advice I can give is this: buckle up, buttercup, because chances are you’re in for a rough ride with a crash landing at the end. Most people have no clue how to effectively work with volunteers and everyone is on a steep learning curve.

  • ArtK March 13, 2012, 2:27 pm

    Whether it was a school requirement or not, I think the professor blew the opportunity to encourage people to volunteer. Questioning motives is rarely a good idea. I do some volunteer work because I happen to enjoy doing it, but I’d be very, very unhappy with the professor even then.

    Motivations are complex. I volunteer both because I like helping others and because I like the activity. Should I feel 50% guilty because I’m not completely selfless about it? I’ve actually run into people who felt that if an activity was something you enjoy, then you really weren’t being selfless and somehow your volunteering wasn’t as “noble” or “worthwhile.” This is especially annoying when the “volunteering” is required by school.

    The professor was also wrong to keep people after to discuss their motivations. To me, that is just “dousing the flames of volunteerism.” To me, it would feel like I was being punished for helping out.

  • Rug Pilot March 13, 2012, 3:26 pm

    I do volunteer work because I want to see the work get done. The best way for that to happen is to do it myself. Then I can look back on it and think: “This is good.”

  • LS March 13, 2012, 4:55 pm

    Mandatory volunteer work is an oxymoron.

  • Enna March 13, 2012, 5:03 pm

    I can’t believe the professer – he is very short sighted. Even if it is for medicail school the fact they are prepreaed to do it shows commitment. And it isn’t just medical school – lots of universities and more importantly employers look for things like experince. When I was on jobseeker’s I volunteererd 1) to give back to community and 2) to help my CV 3) I found a vocation.

  • lkb March 14, 2012, 5:29 am

    Meh! Knowing how I can be when I am hot, tired and sweaty from a day of physical labor, I would have been sorely tempted to use my time for talking about what I learned today to say something on the order of, “I’m hot, I’m tired, I’m sweaty and I stink. I learned while I’m happy to have done the work, I’ve learned that I don’t want other people to have to put up with my appearance at this time. ‘bye!” (Not Ehell approved, of course, but….)

    As to the Professor’s comment, “Some of you are only volunteering so you can get into med school. I think volunteers should be selfless” — Well, that’s fine in a perfect world. But if we waited for all the selfless people to show up, nothing would get done.

    As others have said, both people missed out on perfect opportunities to encourage novice volunteers to keep at it. Sigh.

  • twik March 14, 2012, 4:26 pm

    I would certainly hate to be Professor S’s graduate student. “Some of you want to go home after spending a mere 10-12 hours in the lab. *I* think that true scientists should joyfully put in any effort required.”

  • Missy March 14, 2012, 5:33 pm

    I think administering “purity tests” to volunteers is beyond tacky.

    I couple of years ago I had a friend talk me into assisting with a denomination-supported soup kitchen. I was not thrilled (about having one more thing to do) but it was a GREAT experience. I raved about it afterwards to someone who replied, “Well it’s silly when churchy people do stuff like that because they only do it to get into heaven and not out of the complete goodness of their hearts.” I did not share the faith of the people who I worked with. But sheesh, it’s not like the people getting a square meal gave two hoots about what the volunteers believed or why they were there. If you have a problem with faith-based charities, go start your own!

  • Anony March 14, 2012, 8:27 pm

    If you are asked for feedback later on the volunteer event, give it. That way others in the future will benefit.

    And suggest that they budget for cool refreshments for volunteers as well. Tell them you will consider volunteering again IF suggested changes are considered.

  • Cat March 14, 2012, 10:00 pm

    This is not restricted to high school/college students. I voluntered last weekend for a religious organization that cares for children in Third World countries by having individuals in the industrialized countries send a set amount of money every month.
    I was to report to a local church to run a table for this organization.
    I was told to arrive twenty minutes early for orientation. I arrived at the specified time, found the table, but no other volunteers were there. In fact, no one was there. I waited for twenty-five minutes and then called a contact number to ask my trainer where she was. She told me I was at the wrong church, and I told her I was at the correct church. She told me I was at the wrong building and I pointed out that I was at the correct building, and was seated at the designated table. She said she’d be right there to give me the orientation.
    Thirty minutes later, still sitting there all by myself, I decided this was a wasted and unappreciated effort on my part, and I left. I did get a phone call some time later from the trainer that she was now ready to orient me to my volunteer function.
    I told her that, since I was obviously not needed, I was on my way to purchase hay for my horses. I did send a complaint to the head office. I never received a reply.

    Thirty minutes later, when I heard nothing from her, I left.

  • Fiona March 15, 2012, 1:11 pm

    Hi, OP here! To answer Admin’s question: No, this was not a school project or mandatory in any way. Students received a letter of participation but there were no academic rewards.

    The end-of-day discussion WAS mandated by the university. I didn’t mention in the original post, but the school did supply pop and snacks. I suspect they insisted on an immediate debriefing because it would have been difficult to track down all the participants later. Once we were dismissed, everyone scattered leaving clouds of dust. I can’t imagine anyone would have returned after they’d had a chance to go home and change. So Ms. L’s intentions were good but their execution was painful. (She asked the first student an icebreaker-type question like “Give me one word that describes what you’re feeling right now” The student replied “Shower!”)

    My feeling is that volunteers often benefit somehow from their work, but that doesn’t mean that good things aren’t being accomplished. 100% altruistic people are very rare indeed. If the volunteers and the recipients both benefit, then everybody wins.