Power, Privilege, and Volunteerism

Woman peering into a labyrinth
Photo by Arek Socha from Pixabay

In his recent blog, nonprofit leader Vu Le wondered if nonprofits and philanthropy have become the “white moderates” that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned about in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Le called out fundraising practices “centered entirely on making donors who are mostly white feel good about themselves” as one example of white-moderate behavior. His line of questioning also is meaningful for fundraising’s cousin: volunteerism.

Time is a precious commodity. Its perceived scarcity has led many of us in the volunteer field to highlight feel-good stories to promote volunteerism. Volunteering is good for your health! It promotes loyalty from employee volunteers! It gives nonprofits much-needed labor!

Yet volunteerism can reinforce patterns of power and privilege (whites and people of means as volunteers, and communities of color or those without means as recipients) if we are not thoughtful about its design.

When Service Misses the Mark
  • A service group visits a program for teens who are experiencing homelessness. They serve dinner and sing carols on Christmas Eve. Decked out in their holiday finery and outnumbering the kids, the group sings “at” the teens rather than with them before congratulating each other on the way out the door.
  • A celebrity leader insists on using her corporate friends’ post-disaster donations for a volunteer-built play space. It does not meet significant community needs but does further her “brand”. Meanwhile, essential projects that are a fraction of the cost do not get the money to move forward.
  • The members of a corporate group wanting to serve balk at signing a liability waiver required of every volunteer. They are offended at even being asked because they are not just “any” volunteers.
  • A community group wants to serve the “less fortunate”. They want the family recipients to be present when they unveil the small project even though it interferes with school schedules and requires spending money on transportation that is not in the budget (and that they don’t offer to cover).

The common denominator of these real-life examples: they center the volunteer over the participants, community, or organization that are supposed to be the reason for serving. Volunteer comfort, convenience, and priorities supersede mission.

As nonprofit leaders, many times we do not speak up because we feel like we lack power in these situations. We avoid hard conversations and the discomfort they bring. We then go to great, uncomfortable lengths to center volunteers at the expense of our participants or staff.

I have worked in and with nonprofits as an executive, line staff member, and consultant. I appreciate the challenges involved. Yes, it is hard to redirect those who have power because they have money. To educate those with great intentions but little understanding of how those intentions sometimes cause hurt. It is difficult to tell potential funders that their offer of “free” help results in expenses for the host organization.

Indeed, I’m not suggesting that we dismiss volunteer needs and interests. Rather, we need to do the challenging work of finding where volunteer interests intersect with the needs of our participants. We need to be transparent that participant or organizational needs are a required element of service. We need to shift the way we talk about and craft service to achieve more meaningful change.

Moving Forward

The following recommendations offer insight for how to translate these goals into actions.

First, stop promising volunteer prospects that they can “save the world” in a two-hour shift. They might plant a tree, pack 100 food boxes, or read to second graders in that time span. But meaningful change takes commitment and community, not a white-savior complex or outsized expectations. It’s a fine line: we want to tap into the aspirational parts of serving along with the need to start somewhere and help volunteers appreciate that change takes consistent effort. Talk with your volunteers about the short-term and long-term work that your organization does. Introduce them to ways they can participate in both.

Next, embrace the complexity that meaningful change entails. If not done well, service offers seemingly easy answers to hard problems. It absolves volunteers of an ongoing role in community. I did my volunteer duty, and now I can feel good about going back to my own life. Thoughtful service meets volunteers where they are and challenges them with real-world complexity—even when that complexity is uncomfortable to hear and inconvenient to act on. Intentional service includes reflection on how our actions outside of volunteering may exacerbate the problems we aim to address while serving. We can move toward more thoughtful and intentional service by developing messages for volunteers of different ages and stages to educate them in ways they can hear.

Meaningful change also requires honesty about how volunteers are really needed in our organizations. It is valuable to get creative about how volunteers can engage with us. Yet, creating what amounts to busy work or a vanity project so that volunteers can feel good (or so they might give us money!) is a poor use of volunteer and staff time. (These projects can damage staff and client morale, too.) Let prospects know that it is important to you to craft a good match and use everyone’s time well. So important that you will tell them “no” or “not yet” when there is not a project that is a good fit. 

Likewise, meaningful change insists on honesty about our profession and who is crafting the volunteer experience. So many of the rooms where I teach and facilitate about volunteer engagement are filled mostly with people who look like me: white women of a certain age. The volunteer demographics in many organizations suggest that we are curating volunteer opportunities for people who look like us. We have an opportunity to learn from our peers who mobilize community in ways that are not labeled as volunteerism nor based on bureaucratic or human resources models. Community organizers, activists, and grassroots groups are bringing far more diverse people together to make change than many nonprofits with formal volunteer strategies. What can we learn?

More personally, meaningful change demands a critical assessment of the training and research I conduct. As I deepen my own work, I am uncovering ways that I prioritize my comfort and nonprofit norms over community and change. This blog is one small action in owning my role as a white moderate. It is a commitment to interrogate and adapt my work and to challenge and equip others to do the same.

With thanks to Vu Le for his blog and modeling of speaking truth about our sector.


  1. Tracy said:

    Well said! I am the director of volunteer services at a hospital.
    We have been the recipient of CSR groups who have no sense of what it takes for them to share a little bit of time. Finding a space to accommodate a group, providing parking, providing a snack or even a meal, and providing them with a activity or task that is truly meaningful for both us and them. That’s a tall order. It feels great when it works out, but it’s a huge time suck to get there.
    Also a very important consideration for our regular and long term volunteers. Times have changed, processes have changed. We no longer need a fleet of people to transport paperwork or support clerical needs. Leaders need to recognize that our job is to enhance the service our organizations provide to the community by engaging community members. It’s not a contribution to your organization to foster anachronistic activities to keep volunteers satisfied no matter their tenure or their wealth.

    June 9, 2020
  2. Jeannine Deem Purdy said:

    Thank you for a thoughtful article.

    September 22, 2020
  3. Thank you for writing this article. Many times community organizations or projects are described as providing service to service recipients. Another perspective is a reciprocal involvement of giving and receiving and building healthy interdependence within an ecological model of co-production. For more information see https://Timebanks.org or the national timebanking sites for the UK, NZ, and other countries.

    May 16, 2021
    • Thanks for commenting, Jerome. I find time banks fascinating and appreciate how they cultivate a form of the commons.

      May 28, 2021

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *