More “useless” volunteers

All these lawyers in Chicago are doing is providing legal services to people who can’t afford them; how useful is that?

One of the less-noticed consequences of reduced investment in news coverage (usually shorthanded as “the decline of newspapers,” but actually the decline of original reporting) is that it exacerbates the media’s preexisting tendency to copycat.  If the New York Times reports a story on Monday, you can be sure that by Friday a version of the story–with a dollop of local or original material–will have shown up in a dozen other outlets, and suddenly it’s conventional wisdom.

One of the stories du jour, unfortunately, is that nonprofits can’t use and don’t know what to do with the volunteers who are flocking to their doors.  The Nonprofiteer has already written about the Times piece on this subject, but it was followed in short order by a complementary story on Chicago Public Radio in which a labor economist bemoaned the high cost of using volunteers.  Between them, those two media outlets probably dominate mind-share among well-educated people with leisure in the Chicago area–as a result of which, those people are probably just getting around to deciding that they won’t bother with volunteering after all, because nobody wants them anyway.

While there’s no question that volunteer management is a challenge, and while the Nonprofiteer was always among the first to point out that volunteerism couldn’t replace adequate funding of social services provided by professionals, it’s simply false to keep repeating that nonprofits have no use for volunteers.  And repeating that falsehood gives prospective volunteers (that would be our fellow citizens) the equally false notion that they’re worthless and that the outcome of responding to the President’s call for service will only be disappointment and disillusionment.  The Nonprofiteer doesn’t know who profits from this version of the story–who, in other words, wants the President and the rest of us to fail–but she does know that it’s essentially dishonest.

But what to do?  Well, as our colleagues at the Community Media Workshop remind us all the time, it’s up to nonprofits to tell their/our own stories to members of the press.  It’s up to all of us, in other words, to change that story du jour from “Volunteers are useless” to “Look what volunteers can accomplish.”  Kudos to CARPLS, and to the ChiTown Daily News, for helping to do that.


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