On Free Work


Something happened to volunteerism on the way to the Great Recession: it morphed into free work. I am not talking about working for that special non-profit trying to meet a social need. And I am not talking about “helping” an organization in need. What I see happening is a systematic institutionalization of free work with the possibility of a payoff. From the free intern providing work to help a profitable company fill gaps in workloads to veteran corporate employees long ago ejected because of their age, each are doing legitimate work for free in the hopes of landing a new job. The trend is so prevalent that the very nature of “volunteering” is hurting the business and social structure of the U.S.

Where service companies once existed, there are now groups of volunteers attached to some cause that offers up free what once was a legitimate business. The more free work done in the name of volunteerism the more harm to the economy for services. Organizations have latched onto this opportunity with gusto. They are constructing new “networks” of volunteers to help with one thing or another; in doing so, they get bolder with cutting their own costs.

A local university system provided a small daily stipend for individuals volunteering to officiate a sporting event. Disregarding the fact that the Division I school has massive football and basketball budgets, the funds were cut in the hope that the volunteers would continue helping out. The more free volunteers to help out the more comfortable the school will feel in cutting more. The issue is compounded by the increasing costs covered by the volunteer for travel, gas and supplies. The sporting event generates funds to cover the costs of holding the event. Rather than raise the costs of the event the schools seek “volunteers” to defray the rising costs. “Trickle down” economics no doubt.

The cycle can’t be good for the economy or to the individual volunteers desperate to believe any involvement will improve their chances of finding a job. In fact, it may do the exact opposite. If you have the time and energy to join volunteer groups, you do not have the skills to find a job. If you volunteer to help other businesses, then you don’t have the skills to start a business; and if you can’t or won’t start a business in this economy, you don’t understand what this economy really needs in skills. If you are willing to support an organization with providing free work, when all the organization’s workers receive paychecks on a consistent and predictable cycle, then you must understand the consequences that providing free work does to your own skill development and understand the impact to the service provider economy.

Maybe we need a new definition for volunteerism: providing work and energy to an organization where ALL the participants offer free work for the good of the target audience. Doing work for organizations that pay their workers is NOT volunteering; it is volunteer slavery.

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