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The Need for Volunteerism

This is an excerpt from Human Resource Management in Sport and Recreation 3rd Edition eBook by Packianathan Chelladurai & Shannon Kerwin.

North American societies are distinguished in part by the enormous contributions that volunteer workers make to national economies and social welfare (Moyer 1985). Historically, the tradition of volunteerism and community service in the United States began with the early settlers from Europe (Ellis and Noyes 1990). They found that their survival depended on their banding together and helping each other in various affairs, such as settlement defense, resource procurement, and construction of individual houses and common facilities. As Mason (1984) stated,

It was a new kind of society: a culture of cooperation. It was a culture comprised of people who believed in self-help, in hard work, and in voluntarily going out of their way to reach out and help those whose need required their strength. In bustling coastal cities and on the isolated frontier, they had to cooperate voluntarily in order to survive. As they moved beyond survival and into prosperity, they held on to their ethic of cooperative voluntary action. (p. 1)


The significance of joining associations for the common good began to diminish as governments took overseveral functions of these voluntary associations through various social programs. Since this government intervention, however, voluntary action has surged upward because of several sets of factors. First, since the 1970s, many citizens have believed that neither big governments nor big businesses act in the best interests of the common person and therefore that concerted pressure must be brought to bear on them. Such pressure can be generated only if people band together in action groups (Carter 1983). These views resulted in the birth of associations, such as the consumer groups that are sometimes referred to as "third-sector" organizations (Etzioni 1973; Levitt 1973).


The second factor stems from government budgetary actions that funnel fewer and fewer dollars to the social programs that governments usurped from the associations in the first place. In the United States, beginning with the presidency of Ronald Reagan, a constant push to trim "big" government has led to reductions in the support provided to social programs. Recognizing the need for these programs, leaders in both Canada and the United States have begun to emphasize the role of voluntary action. For instance, Pierre Elliott Trudeau (cited in Morrison 1986), while prime minister of Canada, made this suggestion:

The not-for-profit and voluntary sectors of our societies could be made to flourish. . . . Their decline has been inevitably reflected in the growth of government and commercial services. It has resulted in a loss of a sense of community. Surely we need this sector. We need to develop alternate styles of work and leisure and we need to demonstrate that there are other ways of doing the community's work. On a broad second front we must give encouragement and sustenance to these efforts. (p. 17)


In the United States, leaders have expressed similar, often more emphatic, views. For instance, President George H.W. Bush's theme of "a thousand points of light" advocated self-help and volunteerism. This theme was reiterated by President Bill Clinton in April 1997 when he organized the Presidents' Summit for America's Future, where he joined former presidents Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Gerald Ford - as well as former First Lady Nancy Reagan and former Secretary of State Colin Powell - in calling people to service and citizenship. Clinton stated, "The era of big government may be over, but the era of big challenges in our country is not. And so we need an era of big citizenship. That is why we are here" ("Clinton Urges Service" 1997).


In the same tradition, President George W. Bush created the USA Freedom Corps to, in his words, "continue the momentum generated by the countless acts of kindness we saw after the attacks of September the 11th, 2001. I asked every person in America to commit 4,000 hours over a lifetime - or about 100 hours a year - to serving neighbors in need. The response was immediate and enthusiastic, and has remained strong. Over 75,000 service organizations now work with USA Freedom Corps, and a growing percentage of Americans have answered the call to service" (Bush 2003).


Efforts in support of volunteer services may be found at the state and local government levels. As noted earlier, departments of recreation or sport in many cities rely heavily on volunteers to run their programs (e.g., youth soccer leagues, men's and women's softball leagues).


Volunteerism is also invested with importance on a global scale. For example, in his 2015 election platform, UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced that he was committed to providing workers with three days of paid volunteering leave each year (Gosden 2015). The move was intended to provide a foundation for economic security in the future. Furthermore, under the umbrella of UK government leadership, the Volunteering England organization provides resources to community volunteers. As stated on its website, the organization merged with the National Council for Voluntary Organizations in 2013 and strives to support, enable, and celebrate volunteerism in all its forms. In discussing his role as chief executive for Volunteering England, Justin Davis Smith noted, "It takes time and money to effectively manage and support volunteers, and they themselves require training and development. . . . If volunteering is going to be an even more prominent feature of our society, attracting and retaining those volunteers is of paramount importance" (Volunteering England 2015).


The significance of volunteering also derives from past and ongoing changes in the workplace. In the past, technological innovation was expected to influence the volunteer sector in developed countries in two ways (S. Smith 1986). First, it was expected to give a large segment of society more spare time thanks to shorter working days, weeks, and years. That time would need to be spent effectively in the pursuit of health and happiness, and volunteering would be one avenue through which individuals could seek personal growth and comfort through enhanced personal connections. Therefore, more human resources would be available for the voluntary sector. Unfortunately, this promise of more free time as a function of technological innovation has not been fulfilled. To the contrary, the combination of technological innovation and fierce international competition has caused many business and industrial organizations to downsize their workforce and pay the remaining workers less money.


This practice, in turn, has led many employees to work longer hours and at more than one job. Therefore, we are relying on young people to fill the gap in volunteerism that has been left by an older population that has less time and energy to volunteer. To this point, the National Council of Nonprofits (Chandler 2015) reported that in 2014, more than 62 million Americans volunteered. However, in one troubling trend, the Council reported that young people were very focused on career development and did not view nonprofit work as a viable career option; therefore, they devoted less time to volunteering. In addition, much of the volunteering they did perform took the form of mandatory high school service learning and therefore was not freely chosen. These trends imply that sport and recreation organizations that depend on volunteers must work harder at recruiting and retaining volunteers - especially young adults, who of course constitute the future of the volunteer workforce.


According to S. Smith (1986), the second expectation regarding technological innovation was that the demand for human services would grow and that neither the private sector nor the public sector could meet all of the increased demand. Therefore, greater pressure would be placed on the voluntary sector to provide these services. This point was also stressed by Clinton (1997) in the 1997 Presidents' Summit for America's Future as part of its call for citizens to help youth at risk.

The foregoing review indicates that the need for voluntary action will continue to grow. Indeed, volunteering will act as a strong determinant of how well a society can handle itself and ensure the welfare of its members. Thus, management of volunteers needs as much emphasis as management of paid workers.

Learn more about Human Resource Management in Sport and Recreation, Third Edition.