While there are many things that I like about Senator Barack Obama, his plan for universal voluntary service which aims to â€œset a goal for all American middle- and high-school students to perform 50 hours of service a year and for all college students to perform 100 hours of service a yearâ€ if he’s elected president misses the mark like many other programs mandating service hours.
The nonprofit sector lacks the infrastructure/staffing to screen, train, supervise, and physically host many of the volunteers it currently engages (hence the abysmal 1 out of 3 who volunteered in 2006 but didn’t return in 2007, as reported yesterday), let alone all high school and college students.
And rather than compensating college students $4,000 (or $40/hr), most of the nonprofit organizations who host them require at least $30/hr if not alll of it to develop adequate work space, trainers, and supervisors for all of these mandated volunteers.
While Obama’s plan does indicate interest in investing in the nonprofit sector, it assumes that the resources are available to carry out what has already been identified by the Urban Institute and many others as best practices, when this simply is not the case. Two-thirds of the charities PMD volunteers serve lack the staff and other needed resources to develop and to maintain their own, ongoing volunteer programs.
In the end, whether a volunteer has a positive experience, not how much s/he is compensated, will determine retention.
When I reflect on the common barriers to why I don’t volunteer more, I think that deficiencies in the recruitment and the management process contribute most. Long gaps without any communication about the application process while seeing/hearing advertisements that a charity needs volunteers which leads to my feeling personally unneeded, having my time wasted/disrespected, and not having adequate resources to serve as an effective volunteer are the most common reasons why I bail out. (On a more petty level, horrendous traffic has also taken a personal toll on my participation.)
Some things, like traffic, cannot really be addressed for one volunteer*, but adequate staffing of the recruitment and screening process certainly can, as can good supervision and resources.
*MIT senior Kevin Vogelsang thinks that transportation is a significant, limiting factor to college students volunteering, and I observed this with fellow WriteBoston writing tutors at the West Roxbury Education Complex this past school year, so organizing transportation may address barriers for small groups of college students so they don’t face spending 1.5 hours or more each way to volunteer.
Despite PMD’s requirement that people participate for the entire, PMD project time span, which addresses our ability to complete all tasks as well as each volunteer’s level of satisfaction, I think that if the government is going to mandate something, it should be the quality of the volunteer experience, not the quantity of hours, as the real determinant. If a volunteer experience of 7-100 hours is required in order to be able to understand different perspectives beyond one’s own, then so be it. This can be conveyed (and measured) through a portfolio of work reflecting one’s experiences.