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Apr 00 Viewpoint

Volume Number: 16 (2000)
Issue Number: 4
Column Tag: Viewpoint


by Ilene Hoffman, Contributing Editor

Web-Based Volunteerism - Helping People or Lining Pockets?

"Naked a man comes into the world and naked he leaves it, after all is said and done he leaves nothing except the good deeds he leaves behind". -adapted from the great Jewish thinker RASHI (Source Unknown)

In 1997 President Clinton passed the Volunteer Protection Act. This act was designed to protect volunteers from being unfairly sued or otherwise held unfairly accountable for reasonable actions encountered while doing their "jobs" as volunteers. A random search on the web uncovers many voluntary agencies who believe that the act has a lot of holes in it, but that's not our specific beef here though. My beef is, where does it say who is responsible for the volunteers who are poorly trained, over committed by their "employers," and misused by profit making companies? What about the volunteers who don't get any recognition or rewards for their time and achievements? There's more to volunteer abuse, than being sued for a job well done.

When was the last time you knew someone who walked into an office and said: "Hey, this job looks like fun, can I volunteer at your company?"

It doesn't sound like a likely scenario, yet that is what's happening all over the Web on "community-based" sites. (Why do I put community in parentheses, well, because I'm starting to doubt the truth of whether these sites really constitute community building, but that's a whole 'nother rant for another day.)

As an advocate for volunteerism I've put my money where my mouth is for many years. I've worked with chronic psychiatric patients, drug involved teens, low-income women, single parents, and computer user groups. All of these groups had one thing in common: They were non-profit (501-C3) organizations helping some disenfranchised population reach needed services. The keyword here is non-profit. Groups that deliver needed services to some population which either has no access, no knowledge, or no funds to receive professional services readily available to monied populations.

Volunteers aid agencies by providing needed services that help reduce operational costs; there is no question of that. Volunteers aid people in many, many ways. So what do the thousands of volunteers across the web really contribute to society? Better yet, what company policies are in place to foster and reward these volunteers for their hard work and commitment?

Are web companies abusing the privileges of using volunteers? I think so. If you go to any community site, you will rarely find a non-profit organization. You will find profit making companies who "employ" volunteers to further the company's goals and enhance their ability to make money though. Not to belittle the volunteers themselves, they are making a difference in people's lives. They provide information, impart knowledge, help users navigate the web, aid in leading discussions (chats and message boards), help design sites, and create a friendly user experience on the company's web site.

The problem lies with the companies. One Volunteer Development Coordinator recently expressed this concern in a mailing list: "Are these "volunteers" help[ing] the company, which in turn will help the community? Or are they simply helping a company that is trying to save money for their shareholders."

I think far too many profit making web-based companies are sapping our valuable volunteer resources by enticing people into volunteering for their own gain. America Online, which at least provided free accounts to their volunteers, was the target of a suit, when their service costs were reduced and the volunteers felt their rewards no longer justified the means. The difference between AOL and many other companies is they still provided those free accounts, no matter the dollar value. Most web-based companies don't even pay volunteers' service provider costs. So, in effect, volunteers not only give time, but actually pay for the privilege.

The Independent Sector claims the "volunteer rate for 1998 [was] $14.30 [per hour]. We arrive at the new figure each year after calculating the average hourly wage for nonagricultural workers as published in the latest edition of the "Economic Report of the President" (released each year (for the previous year) at the end of February) and increasing it by 12 percent to estimate fringe benefits." This means that people are expending volunteer hours at a rate that is most probably higher than their own hourly wages at their jobs. Most companies are benefiting by the work done at that phantom $14.30 per hour rate, but not returning anything to society or to the IRS for that investment.

Some web-based companies even require volunteer work above and beyond their paid workers' hours, and give volunteers the exact same jobs as the paid workers, both of which I think may be illegal in some states. These companies are very good at building internal loyalty and espousing the extra work is for the "good of the community" to entice workers to give more and more of their time. Are these people rewarded in any way for their extra time? Not on some sites. I wonder when the volunteers will realize that they are being misused as a way to increase a company's profit and little else.

Got a comment? Know of a related law in your state? Know of a profit making website who does it the right way? I'd love to hear it, email me at:

Ilene Hoffman is a Contributing Editor for MacTech and TechRepublic magazines. She is also the Administrator at Forums and has worked with many community-based web sites. Comments on this article can be mailed to:


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