A response to “An Unpopular Opinion on Volunteerism”

My friend Luis wrote an interesting post on the merits on volunteerism on his blog today, in which he expresses that volunteering your time may not be in the best interests of the people you’re trying to help.  It’ll certainly be an unpopular view, especially amongst the more touchy-feely amongst us, but I find that there is some merit behind his thought experiment, even though I believe that ultimately it’s quite flawed.

His first argument is that as a web developer earning white collar wages, he and his associates are better serving people in need by simply earning more money to donate to the cause.  According to him,

a given developer cannot sort relief goods any faster than your average minimum-wage employee. (In some cases, the developer, with his soft, developer hands, might even perform worse than the minimum-wage guy, who likely has more experience with manual labor.)

The thought here is that since this is manual labor we’re talking about, it’s a misallocation of resources for the developer to devote his time to packing goods instead of earning $25 an hour to doanate.

It’s a valid point, but I think he misunderstands the scale of the crisis.  It’s huge.  Really fucking huge, and you only begin to realize how huge once you’re there packing goods and you realize that even with all these people volunteering you’ll never be able to pack enough goods in time to help everyone.  But if there were less volunteers, especially at the most critical stages of the crisis, how many less relief packages would have been sent out?  I don’t know, but I’d personally assume much less.  His concern about the misallocation resources is valid however, in a different manner.  There are enough volunteers to go around, especially since shool’s been suspended, but they aren’t allocated properly.  For example, on Sunday there were maybe a hundred people packing or sorting goods at the Balay expo in cubao, myself among them.  By Monday, that number had more than doubled, and by Tuesday there were maybe 500 people in a relatively small space, leading to a gross inefficiency in the use of manpower (except in the bed-making room, where there were just enough volunteers so that it was an efficient process).

And so yesterday I stepped back to both take a rest and see what else I could do to help, and I hit upon the idea of asking all my regular podcasts to broadcast a cry for help (no responses so far) and personally emailing my current and past clients for a small donation, which I would use to purchase relief goods (made about 8 grand, 5 grand of which was donated directly to me to purchase goods, and the rest donated to their charity of choice).

So really I feel that it’s not about whether volunteering or donating is more efficient, it’s when is the right time to volunteer, and when is the right time to donate?  My answer would be volunteer first, then donate later, then volunteer again when you have spare time, till things start to normalize.

His second point, and the one which I found most intriguing, was that if you didn’t have time and didn’t want to simply donate, you could theoretically hire people to do the manual labor for you , with that added bonus that for what you earn in an hour, you could hire a bunch of people and pay them minimum wage to sort and pack goods.  You would be accomplishing more and generating employment at the same time.  It’s quite a brilliant idea, but in real world terms I think it would be much more difficult to pull off.  First, where would you find reliable manual laborers to agree to work for minimum wage to sort and pack goods?  You could either troll the streets of manila looking for able bodied laborers (ie wasting time you could have spent either volunteering or working) or perhaps you could go to a manpower company and ask them for laborers, in which case they’d charge you more than minimum wage, weakening the original premise that you could simply hire people to do the work for you.  Then there’d be signing contracts and whatnot and sorting out the legalities of your hiring day laborers for a few weeks.

The second real life issue that arises is motivation.  Luis assumes that their output will be 10x that of your own.  Will your hired laborers pack and sort as much goods as you would if you were volunteering?  Volunteers are powered by adrenalin and the endorphin rush of altruism.  His theoretical manual laborers would be powered by the minimum wage.  Who would keep an eye on them to make sure they’re doing their job as efficiently as possible?  Even with officers manning the volunteer stations the folks you paid could simply wander off, then come back to you and insist that they did a hard day’s work.  So now we’re presented with another unanswerable problem: What is more efficient, the time a volunteer spends that can be verified (ie since you’re the one doing the work) or the time a “squad” of laborers spend that cannot be fully accounted for?  If you’re paranoid like me I’d just rather do the work myself, but let’s give the benefit of the doubt to the laborers and assume they’ll at least match one altruistic volunteer’s energy for the entire day.  Like Luis says at the very least you’ll be creating jobs.  If any of you actually pull this off, please let me know.

His final argument is actually an extension of his second, which is that basically, if everyone just had the capacity to donate money they should, since then the relief organizations would be flush with cash to spend on goods, laborers, and equipment to help our countrymen.

let’s assume that we lived in a country where everyone was earning above minimum-wage. (Again, a logical impossibility, but thought experiments are strange that way.) What would happen is that the relief operations would be flush with cash because everyone would be donating in an effort to maximize the aid they were extending. The operation heads could then simply hire people to do the work of volunteers. Or, God forbid, fly low-wage workers in from other countries to do the job for us.

That would be great, except the infrastructure that should have existed to allow the relief operations to maximize the use of this money isn’t present.  In fact, relief operations should always play a secondary role to rescue and relief, and the NDCC should have been far better coordinated at dealing with this issue.  They weren’t, hence the relief centers, hence the need for people to immediately volunteer man them, in order to stave off a further crisis.

The bottom line for me is that both donations and volunteers are needed, and the important thing is to distinguish when and where to do it.  As in most things in life, timing is everything.  To be fair to luis, he says

I’m not saying that people should stop volunteering, all I’m saying is that they need to think long and hard about whether they are helping more that way or not.

Which is a good point, and thanks to him I’ve decided to hold off on relief operations tomorrow while the college kids are still getting their altruistic high (funniest line of the week, a conotic Atenean yelling “Pare, it feels so good to sve the world!”) and start volunteering once the relief operations are low on manpower.

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4 Comments to “A response to “An Unpopular Opinion on Volunteerism””

  1. hello friend! i’ve read that there are places where there are more volunteers than the donations that need to be packed. but there are some that are lacking in manpower as well. maybe it’s also a matter of WHERE to volunteer. just a thought. 🙂

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with your point on the need for Balance. At a time that a country has experienced such a calamitous jolt of Reality, especially to be witnessed by 2-3 generations that haven’t gone through a nation-wide Trauma as Ondoy (Martial Law in the 70s, People Power in the 80s), it is now the time for the 20-somethings and Young Adults/ Teens to have the opportunity to help their country at a time of need.

    I have gone through my share of disaster recovery (9/11 in New York, Hurricane Evacuation, etc.) working for the government and private sector and have learned that at a time of Recovery, Reentry, and Healing – the volunteers provide an intangible benefit as important as the food they give. They are providing Hope.

    And by the business sector struggling – yet with determination to get out of the usual coma after such a calamity (remember, business people are People first) – to normalize the flow of commerce, they provide activity in the market needed for the Path to Normalcy as well when they start doing their jobs as well.

  3. That thing you did- getting 8000 by calling your present and past clients… that’s YOU helping in the way that you know best. What worked? What didn’t? How did you ask them? Which types of clients responded better?

    If you documented what you did, is this something you can teach others to do? What other professions have similar opportunities as you? Where do they gather? How would you spread the word out to them?

    If everyone who was like you… did what you did… how much money can you raise? Possibilities.

    And it all started because you didn’t limit “HELP” to the confined ways we’re used to helping. You were creative. You used what you had (contacts, skills, etc).

    Can you do this long term?

  4. Stefan, it was a simple matter really. I just emailed them asking for help. Showed them ways to do it, either through a donation to an organization or directly to my paypal account so i could purchase the goods for them (I felt it was important they knew where their money was going.

    I’ve spread the word to other freelancers I know. No idea if they managed to get donations, but at least I’ve spread the idea out somewhat.

    As for long term, I really can’t imagine it would work out. This was a “strike while the iron is hot” kind of thing.

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