Being a “good” volunteer: For whom? Why?

By Consuelo Vásquez

I enter the ballroom wondering if I’m dressed appropriately for this event. The vast room of the montrealer hotel, decorated with suspended chandeliers, is crowded with middle-aged people, mostly white women. I try to make my way through this happy and noisy mass of people, hoping to recognize a familiar face. Among the hundred round tables dressed in white, I finally find the one where are sitted the employees of  Ensemble (pseudonym), a non-profit organization (NPO) in the field of health, who invited me to participate to the event. After greeting them and shaking their hands with my best smile, I sit down, place my conference badge around my neck and consult the schedule of the day. The conference on volunteering is about to start.

On stage, I recognize the Human Resources manageer (HR) that I interviewed a few weeks ago. How does she manage to always be so clean, fresh and radiant? I wonder. A well-dressed man (just as fresh and radiant) is standing next to her – probably one of them, I think. Indeed, I will learn later that this man was a consultant hired by Ensemble to develop a new volunteer program to increase recruitment and retention (that was what I thought: one of ” them “). At nine o’clock sharp, the two speakers on stage open the ball by presenting the vision of volunteering for years to come. The argument is quite simple: volunteering is at the heart of Ensemble; to increase volunteer involvement, “we” need to know who the volunteers are; and, therefore, “we” must offer different volunteer opportunities. In addition, Ensemble supports an image of a fairly common volunteer: a “good” person who gives her time for a “good” cause.

I look around me and wonder if this definition corresponds to those who are listenning to this presentation: are we “good” volunteers? I cannot tell. Anyway, according to the comments of the two speakers, the people present here represent Ensemble‘s volunteers: white, middle-aged, French-speaking women, most of whom are involved in fundraising activities. They are what the consultant calls “the army of volunteers”. What a strange expression to talk about these kind and good volunteers who are willing to give their time for the cause. I have some difficulty imagining them armed to fight against a common enemy. Besides, who is this enemy? The answer will come from the HR manager: the enemies are the 200 other NPOs in the country in competition with Ensemble. For Ensemble to be “THE reference in the field of health”, it needs its own “army of volunteers”!

“We will have to be very competitive,” says the consultant. Does he realize he’s talking about competition, recruiting volunteers and retention strategies to volunteers? Shouldn’t these topics be addressed to employees? I’m starting to feel very uncomfortable: I do not like being put in a category – I hate categories! – but even more, I strongly believe that I have nothing to do with the volunteer profiles proposed and the motivation strategies presented by the consultant. I did not come here for a 101 HR management course! Am I the only one to feel insulted? A quick look in the room confirms my suspicion: everyone agrees and does not seem to bother. They even laugh when the consultant characterizes the Y generation as being “glued” to an electronic device.

Fortunately (for me), the HR presentation ends with a few examples of volunteering strategies being promoted by Ensemble that respond to the volunteer challenges outlined by the speakers. These initiatives are presented on a slideshow: the constitution of “volunteer leaders”, volunteer-school coordinating committees, “supra-regional councilors” and the role of “volunteer ambassador”. After each presentation, the volunteers representing each initiative stand up and are applauded. I can not help but to think that all this is too beautiful, too good, too “fresh and radiant”, as if there was something or someone invisible that was orchestrating the whole thing. And at the same time, I realize that spontaneously, I smile while applauding this group of “good” competnet and talented volunteers who offer their skills and time to Ensemble, and to whom, it would seem, that I belong. I let myself be carried by this staging, even for a moment, to feel that I am also a “good” volunteer.

Some reference to go further:

Bernardeau, D. (2018). Professionnalisation des bénévoles : compétences et référentiels. SociologieS, 24
Kesteman, M., & Monnier, E. (2005). Bénévoles et rémunérés : tous professionnels ? Pensée plurielle, 9(1), 55.
Falcoz, M., & Walter, E. (2007). Travailler dans un monde de bénévoles: Contraintes et limites de la professionnalisation dans les clubs sportifs. Revue internationale de l’économie sociale: Recma, (306, 78).