Wednesday, August 16, 2006 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

Volunteerism and the Commons

The Utopian world painted by commons advocates -- one of open-source production driven not by commercial ambition but rather by desire for peer acclaim and satisfaction from making a contribution -- is infectious, in part because one can find slivers of evidence of it in society. Volunteerism, after all, is fairly common in the modern world, and we are all better off as a result. But is it reasonable to expect that volunteerism can supplant professional work? Should it?

I ask because a volunteer group I participate in is facing this conundrum.

I belong to a professional organization that has a bare-bones paid staff, but is managed mostly by dues-paying members volunteering. No member is obligated to volunteer, and many don't, but many of us do. Nearly all volunteers work separately in full-time jobs; this is a professional organization, remember. I serve on a committee that recruits authors to give public readings. A local bookstore donates books to be sold at the event, and the proceeds of those books go to our nonprofit library.

We have many authors, publicists and publishers who approach us wishing to have an event, for it obviously is good publicity for them. But would anyone advise a single person in today's society to only date individuals who ask him or her out? I think not; that limits the pool of potential partners, and it's far better if that individual can take the initiative and ask someone else out (I'm glad my wife took that initiative with me when we first met).

It's logistically simple to deal with authors that approach us; they have an incentive to make it easy. It's far more difficult to identify an author we'd like to speak, determine who we should reach out to, actually establish that contact, persuade all interested parties associated with that author to agree to an event, and then settle on a date.

Until this week, we've been able to tap into one of the organization's few full-time employees to chase down these reluctant authors and their representatives. She was a central point of contact, and she put in all the time and effort required to make these events happen. Most of our biggest fund-raising events were with authors she had solicited at our request, not ones who approached us.

This young, talented woman has decided to move on. The leadership of our organization has decided not to replace her with someone of similar responsibilities. In other words, if we volunteers on the Book and Author Committee want to recruit authors, instead of just accepting authors that approach us, we'll have to do it ourselves. We'll have to add those responsibilities on top of our existing volunteer time and effort, and figure out a way to handle such an outreach program that is disaggregated among several committee members instead of centralized in one paid staffer.

I see a certain arrogance at work here. "Look," I can imagine the management conversation going. "We've already got these suckers who pay to belong to this club giving up their own time to volunteer on this committee. They hold monthly luncheon meetings, they work on projects outside those meetings, they volunteer after hours at book events. Why are we paying somebody to help them? Why not just ask them to take on a little bit more?"

Why not indeed? Maybe because at some point, you turn a volunteer into a serf. Has that happened here? It's too early to tell. We have a very smart and clever chairwoman. She's brainstorming a way we can continue to proactively recruit authors without turning us into unpaid organization labor. There's probably a solution here.

But there are other scenarios. One is that most of us find the aggravation of serving on this committee exceeds the personal satisfaction and we walk away; there's no requirement we serve. Other committees at this organization have faded away in this manner. Then we won't have any more author events, our membership and the community at large will suffer, and we won't be raising funds for the library anymore.

Another scenario is that the committee lingers on with a slightly reduced membership and we only deal with authors that approach us. For now, that is what we are doing going forward, until we can figure out a better approach -- we're only going to go out with folks who ask us out. Some of these authors will be great, but overall I would suspect the quality of speakers to diminish over time, and that too will erode fund-raising.

I keep coming back to the fund-raising. I volunteer because I think it's a great thing to have author events, which are free to the general public and allow anyone interested in literature to come, learn and enjoy, with no obligation to buy a book. But I have to assume the leadership of this organization cares about the fund-raising. Have they considered how the step they've taken will potentially erode that? Perhaps they feel the erosion is less than the percentage of salary we tapped by borrowing one of the full-time staff to chase down authors for us.

At our Monday meeting, I looked around the table at a group of bright, dedicated volunteers who care about the organization and who take pride in producing quality author events. I also saw a group of people who apply that same level of dedication to their professional lives. I saw a group of people slowly comprehending that they, perhaps, were finding themselves being taken advantage of because of their dedication.

Whatever Lessig or Benkler might say, there remains a limit to how much people are willing to do for others when they are serving as volunteers, and there remains a level of respect one should expect from the ones for whom you are doing the volunteering.

posted by Patrick Ross @ 11:34 AM | Commons