In last Friday’s Fairfax papers, Catherine Walsh called on Australians to “stop volunteering”.
Why? She believes volunteering is a faux help, not resolving societal issues but aggravating them. Walsh arrives at her conclusion by arguing that voluntarism is inefficient, is unvalued, and is exploited by organisations who are disinterested in solving problems.
Walsh’s solution seems to be, get rid of voluntarism and instead let’s create a bigger government and remunerate people for all their work. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Let’s handball even more communal opportunity and responsibility over to government, and let’s suck out the tiny bit of oxygen that keeps Australian philanthropy alive. Instead of donating time and money to causes that we think highly of, let’s give government permission to charge even higher taxes to pay for the programs that it subscribes as morally relevant.
Apart from her less than satisfactory alternative to voluntarism, there are several important flaws in Walsh’s presentation.
Firstly, Walsh largely equates volunteering with virtual signalling. She says:
Being a volunteer, or fundraising, or working for a charity, signals that you are a good person.
If volunteering was valued we would have a separate resume for it, at parties people would ask each other about their volunteering, and hours worked would contribute to superannuation.
I have no doubt that there are persons involved in voluntary work because it gives them a drug-free high. They feel good about themselves, and they enjoy the praise received from people around them. That is certainly not the Christian motivation for doing good. We give because we know the joy of what it is to receive. Those who have been loved, want to love others.
According to Walsh, if Australians truly value volunteering, we would be congratulating one another. But why should people boast about their volunteering and donating? Doing so undercuts the very nature of the work, that is, it is being done for the good of others, not for oneself. Is it not possible that Australians happily give time and effort to serve others without demanding compensation, let alone, superannuation? Where is the ideal of sacrificial giving? Indeed, as soon as we strip these Christian foundations for society, we fast become bereft of moral structures that we need for building a healthy society.
Not only does Catherine Walsh paint volunteerism as egotism, she secondly alleges that voluntary work is inefficient:
A lot of the volunteering we do is inefficient. Schools ask that parents bake cakes to be sold to the children of other parents who have baked cakes. Most school events involve sausages on white bread and fizzy drinks, which is not recommended as a healthy diet. Chocolates are sold in staffrooms to raise money for the children’s hospital…
This is inefficient. Any effort to help one system should not be feeding into the brokenness of another. In order to be helpful we need to factor in all systems at once.
I agree with one small point here – her examples about cake stalls and chocolate drives; these are often self-defeating exercises given that the very people designed help are the ones buying the sugary treats. We shouldn’t need incentive in order to give generously to a cause that we value.
Is voluntary work always efficient? No. But then, is paid work always more efficient? Is government the very epitome of efficiency? And why is efficiency the only measure worthwhile considering?
Much of life is not efficient. Relationships are often complex and messy, and they require time and patience and perseverance. The reality is, not all of life’s brokenness can be fixed with a signed policy statement and a grant dispersed by government bureaucrats.
Matt Perman explores this myth about work in the book, What’s Best Next? He writes:
While efficiency is important, it is secondary. More important than efficiency is effectiveness — getting the right things done. Efficiency doesn’t matter if you are doing the wrong things in the first place.
Dorothy L. Sayers asks the poignant question, “We should ask of an enterprise, not “will it pay?” but “is it good?” She argues:
The habit of thinking about work as something one does to make money is so ingrained in us that we can scarcely imagine what a revolution change it would be to think about it instead in terms of the work done. To do so would mean taking the attitudes of mind we reserve for our unpaid work – our hobbies, our leisure interests, the things we make and do for pleasure – and making that the standard of all our judgements about things and people.
In other words, while we shouldn’t ignore inefficiency, there are bigger and more important questions that need asking about our work, and indeed why we should value unpaid work. At its root, Walsh advocates a consumerist and individualist paradigm which inevitably squashes the greater love, which requires selfless giving for another’s good.
Thirdly, Walsh presents a narrow understanding of voluntarism. While she targets organisational volunteerism, however much voluntary work and giving in our local communities is informal.
I think of my local cricket club which depends upon the generosity of volunteers who love the game and who want to encourage children in the game. I think of the local athletics club where my daughter runs, and how they depend on the voluntary time giving by families.
Thinking of my own local church, where people lovingly pour thousands of hours into giving, serving, caring, and organising. What they achieve is more than running a few programs, they are building and belonging to community, and including others in this endeavour. Societal cohesion and growth cannot be left to government but requires spontaneous and informal contributions from the grassroots up. It’s about loving our neighbour as ourself.
Walsh soon enlightens us as to where her real criticism lays – it is with religious organisations and churches. She says:
Many government services are now outsourced to church-run charities, which win contracts due to their tax concessions and tax donation status – and rely on the work of volunteers. They are exempt from anti-discrimination laws. It is not in their interest to solve problems.
One can only assume Walsh has never visited a church, nor observed religious charities at work, nor considered the data which elucidates the extraordinary work being achieved by religious groups in this country. Of course, there are always going to be a few bad eggs in any system, but is she serious? I know of countless people who have found financial restitution through the generosity of others, of mums who can go back to work because friends are helping to babysit, of marriages healed because of counselling provided, of people offering beds for those without, of people finding hope and forgiveness where society offered none.
A healthy society can only exist where the people contribute to the well-being of others without seeking personal benefit. Do we want to be taking away further personal responsibility and opportunity, and therefore assume that big government will take care of it? If anything, this will produce more cracks and more people going without.
Imagine Australian society with Surf Life Savers, the CFA and SES, without locally run sporting clubs and playgroups. Consider the billions of dollars that we would be required to pay to government, should churches and religious organisations (yes, primarily Christian) were abandoned of free serving and giving volunteers. Yes, let’s denigrate voluntarism.
Don’t miss Part II of Stop this volunteering nonsense now here.
Murray Campbell is Lead Pastor at Mentone Baptist Church. He Tweets at @MurrayJCampbell.
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