Is Volunteering Really Worth Our Time?

By Ben Mason
Elm Alumni Writer

Volunteering doesn’t pay, and it’s not that beneficial for society as whole, either. So why do so many people volunteer? Why do so many people place so much importance on volunteering? Because it makes them feel good. Why else? People respond to incentives, and volunteering provides what some economists call a “fuzzy glow” feeling. Thus the term “fuzzy glow altruism” was coined.

Now I’m not against people volunteering their time to wash dogs at the pound or feed the homeless; who could be? I just wish people could own up to the fact that they volunteer to benefit themselves, not others. Sure, it can be said that regardless of the reason people donate money to charities or donate their time for, the job gets done. Well, I’m sure something gets done, but it’s debatable as to whether or not volunteerism and so called civic engagement is really the best way to go about fixing societies problems.

For example, hunger, homelessness and packs of wild mutts roaming the land are serious issues in America today. However, I believe that they are systemic failures that cannot simply be volunteered away. No matter how many hours a church group pours into feeding hungry citizens, they can’t stop people from being born into homelessness, or becoming homeless for other reasons. What could give a mass amount of people what they need to sustain themselves and live in homes? Jobs, available housing, and stable food prices, of course, are the answer. Short of building the homes, growing the food, and hiring the workers all on their own, how are volunteers supposed to make any impact on the macro level?

Volunteers would do more good if they stopped wasting their time at local “fuzzy glow” depots and started talking to the people who run this country. As we all (should) know, lobbyists control our nation. Idealists and altruists alike, then, have two options to choose from. If they really want to see a change made to the way our country functions, they must either become politicians or lobbyists for their causes. The only reason farming is profitable in our country, even in the face of our obvious comparative disadvantage (relative to countries like Brazil), is due to the lobbyists who influence Washington for King Corn. Why does a passenger vehicle exist that only gets 12 mpg? Because lobbyists for Big Auto companies like GM, Dodge, and Ford fought to keep the gasoline tax in this country low. Cheap gas makes it possible to afford a gas guzzler, keeping demand for such aberrations high enough that the claim can be made that Americans still want to buy American cars.

If you want more safety nets for the homeless, or health care and education for those still living in the Appalachian Mountains, you’re going to have to make an influential person care about your cause as well. Until then, give up all the spring break days you want; you’re just covering holes in a dike with sponges. Sure, volunteering your time to clean a beach or highway will keep a few ducks and turtles from getting strangled by the plastic from a six-pack, but while you’re sweating in the heat or freezing in the cold, people all over America are drinking from cans and throwing their waste in to feeder streams and back alleys. If you’re not concerned with the overall picture, and find my rant a little too cynical for your taste, at least admit that making other people happy makes you happy, and like a rat on crack cocaine you keep coming back for the high.

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