Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

Preventing Volunteer Classism

Over the past year, I've come to think a lot about skills-based volunteerism as the result of the pilot program we've started to scope and plan projects. For that reason, I've come to strongly value skills-based volunteering and the potential impact (it's really big) the movement can have on transforming communities. For skills-based volunteers, however, I think it's incomplete to simply volunteer skills - hands-on volunteering should not be forgotten.

Now, there are a lot of reasons to take this tack - hands-on volunteering's inherent value, the practicality of diversifying the types of volunteer experiences, the speed at which hands-on volunteering can be executed, etc. - but i'll pick one. Hands-on volunteering prevents skills-based volunteering from becoming uninformed of reality and helps skills-based volunteers stay grounded.

Simply put, understanding what really influences a social problem - at the ground level - is a really important perspective to have when addressing a social problem. Understanding the inner-mechanics of a community hones your instincts, if you will. Because hands-on volunteering can help volunteers understand community needs (when done right) in an authentic, and even visceral way, skills-based volunteers should do it - it helps you use your skills more effectively.

The more important reason, as I see it, for hands-on volunteering is humility...for skills-based volunteers I mean. I've seen (and felt personally) the creation of classes between types of volunteers as skills-based volunteering becomes more high-profile. Surely, skilled-based volunteering is super valuable and perhaps more valuable, in dollar terms, than hands-on volunteering. But that does not mean that skills-based volunteers are more valuable human beings. Unfortunately, I think skills-based volunteers are starting to think exactly that.  I worry that this sort of attitude is the undercurrent of a "volunteer classism".

In my time swimming around skills-based volunteering, I get the feeling that no small amount of folks (whether they be from not-for-profit organizations, companies, or among the citizenry) think that skills-based volunteers are better people, and that hands-on volunteers are lower sorts of people. I think that's false. I think there's a clear distinction between someone's inherent worth as a person and their value as economic and social actor.  Which is to say that the type of volunteer you are has no bearing on your worth as a person.

Hands-on volunteering, in it's propensity for doing simple and usually manual labor, puts every sort of person side-by-side with each other. It brings people of different social identities into a team working toward a common goal.  To me that's anti-thesis of volunteer classism, if you will, and it puts the issue in the right frame - volunteering is not about being a better human being than another, it's about achieving common community goals.

Putting moral reservations about classism aside, if doing volunteer work is intended to abate the distance and conflict between classes, we ought to do our volunteer work in a way that's not classist. For that reason I think hands-on volunteering is important (even, and almost especially) for skills-based volunteers. Hands-on volunteering can prevent classes from forming by helping skills-based volunteers that your value isn't tied to your vocation and that every type of volunteer is an equally valuable human being