Chapman: On Volunteers In Today’s World

Bon Vivant Paleontologist

Our current system of integrating volunteer help with that from paid employees within businesses and/or organizations just sort of formed by spontaneous generation through the years. It seems that every organization/business handles volunteers differently and the experience for the volunteer varies widely from place to place.

If you think about it, however, there really should be a basic set of understandings that underlies the relationship with volunteers for the businesses and organizations that use them. These might be helpful given the current bumps in the road that seem to have come up locally, especially with the Animal Shelter.

I want to quickly state that what I will discuss here is my idea on how the relationship should work and not take it as any indication/criticism of what has been going on at the Shelter, as I know absolutely nothing about those circumstances. Really, absolutely nothing.  My wife and I got our wonderful dog at the Shelter a few years ago and that was the one time we ever went there.

So, take this document as a thought-piece on the rights and responsibilities of both the volunteers and organizations involved when they intersect.

Volunteers are near and dear to my heart because I am a museum person and it would very difficult for us to get along without them.

Further, as a paleontologist, especially when working in vertebrate paleontology, volunteers are equally as important. A smart paleontologist develops a solid group of volunteers, gets great work out of them, and treats them as the wonderful people they can be.

So, let’s get started.

I’ll start with what would seem to be a bit of a tangent that actually has a direct and significant relevance to what I will discuss about volunteers.

In 1983, my lovely bride, Linda, and I attended the World Science Fiction Convention. That year it was in Baltimore, Maryland under the convention name Constellation. We have attended a number of these and they are always a great opportunity to discuss many things with many very intelligent individuals.

At Constellation, Linda and I, along with 3 or 4 other attendees, had the great honor of having a long conversation with the great Isaac Asimov on the patio outside the convention center. Not unexpectedly, the topics ranged widely and included lots of intelligent discourse.

There, Dr. Asimov related a great story that had a tremendous effect on me, and how I came to understand the World a bit better. It might have a similar effect on you.

When the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” came out in 1968, Arthur C. Clark, the author of the story it was based on and long-time friend of Asimov’s, asked him to do some promotional bits to help build an audience for the movie, especially in the U.S.

Asimov was happy to oblige and, a while later, he went through a whole day’s filming of the promotional stuff. It was a bit of a pain and (my thought) probably also kept him from writing another book that day.

When the movie came out, the promotional bits were never seen. Asimov wondered why and asked Clark to look into it. The answer was the learning experience. The Hollywood people who did it figured that, since Asimov did it for free, that it was probably not worth much and they decided not to use it.

From that day forward, Asimov stopped doing things for free and pointed out to us at that discussion, that the real-world values something based on what it cost them to get it. If you then want to donate the money you earn, somewhere, fine, but if something is free, most of the current World, and especially the business community, figure it is not worth much. I have taken this to heart throughout my life since that discussion.

The corollary to this is that one should require a payment for services that represents what they are worth to those who are buying it. In many areas of commerce, you will be respected less for discounting yourself, although they will happily pay you less.

So how does this affect the volunteer dynamic?

You may be expecting me to tell potential volunteers not to work for no pay. But the real point is that part of the dynamic has to be that the volunteer gets something of value to them in payment for their time and effort. If not money, given that they are volunteers, then in the experience gained, quality work usable on a resume, or in a significant increase in their quality of life.

A person close to me points out that volunteer is not a job description, but a pay grade. It is the responsibility of the person/business/organization using the volunteer to provide a clear understanding of what the duties are, provide all the necessary training, and work with them in a way that generates the needed service, and provides the benefit the volunteer is looking for.

So, volunteers are not free to those that use them and, consequently, they should be used thoughtfully and considered a bit of an investment.

The volunteer also has responsibilities. In addition to valuing the work they are doing and treating it as a real position ― e.g., showing up when agreed upon and providing quality service/work, etc. ― they also must go in with the understanding that where they are working has specific services that it needs from them, and its own code of conduct. A volunteer position is not supposed to be simply a mechanism for the volunteer to spread his or her personal agenda.

A big danger in this dynamic within our current environment of hyper-capitalism is that the business or organization simply sees a volunteer as nothing more than free labor and treats the volunteers as peons. Another, is when volunteers see their time as simply a means to socialize and hang out.

Volunteering should be a huge plus for both parts of the dynamic, and very often is.

I’ll give an example from what I’ve seen:

As I said, in vertebrate paleontology volunteers are like gold and a smart paleontologist treats them as such by providing a great, learning experience for everyone and allowing everyone to experience the different parts of the job.

Anyone who has had to man-handle a 600-pound plaster jacket (containing bones and matrix stabilized to allow their undamaged transport to the lab for careful prep work) into a vehicle in the middle of the field, as I have, loves the pile of volunteers that are there to help do this. It is incredibly hard work.

In the field, this and the work to make and extract the jackets from the quarry are the hard parts and take a lot of time and effort and exertion. The more fun part is the prospecting in a new area to find the eroding-out bones that indicate where a quarry should be started. We all love that part as we feel like Indiana Jones or Roy Chapman Andrews (distant relative). A smart leader makes sure everyone gets to experience this, although typically with close supervision.

I have known paleontologists who leave the fun just to themselves and their pals while everyone else toils. This causes a large turnover in volunteers.

So, by the careful training and management of good volunteers ― selected because they understand the importance of the work and are willing to trade sweat equity to experience the whole of field (or museum) work ― magic can and often does happen and everyone has a life experience.

So, volunteering is a two-way street and if you don’t respect volunteers, don’t get any. If you don’t want to work, don’t volunteer.

I don’t know how this relates to the Shelter problems, if at all, but it is a good start for a new negotiation, if one were to happen.

I have considered volunteering for the Animal Shelter myself when my time frees up and just might. I do have concerns, however, mostly that I’ll end up with 12 dogs within a month or two, and any cat that seems to have some Maine Coon in it.

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