The volunteer industry

Dear Pope Francis,

Ask and you shall receive. I got hired as a server with a local catering company yesterday and as long as I do well tonight and tomorrow they’ll keep scheduling me. I’m pretty sure it’s just part time, but it’s such a relief to have a job again and know I’ll have some income.

As an aspiring writer interested in ministry, looking for work sometimes feels like an exercise in futility. Most of the jobs I really want to be doing want more training or experience and the only way to get the experience without spending more money I don’t have on education is by volunteering. I like volunteering my time with the church and not-for-profits and I think the experience from volunteering is hugely valuable in terms of getting experience for a career and even more so in terms of personal growth.

What’s been a challenge for me is trying to figure out the balance between doing what I love and volunteering for these unpaid opportunities and finding work that meets the right-now needs of income to pay off a credit card full of moving expenses and money for transportation to those opportunities here.

The experience also has me thinking a lot about the mindset of the not for profit industry. I know a few people working in unpaid internships for charities which raise money for valuable causes such as AIDS research, education for women and girls around the world, disaster relief. Then there are the friends who work for minimum wage in jobs funded through government grants doing outreach, communications and fundraising for other charities. (Full disclosure, similar grants provided the funding for my summer jobs all the way through university.)

Global Volunteer Month @Morgan Stanley

What these friends all have in common is a genuine desire to make a difference in the world, a need for experience in their chosen field, and a tendency to work second and third minimum wage jobs so they can afford to work for these organizations. When we talk, they laugh about how it’s just how it is if you want to do good in the world. You have to be willing to work 70 hours a week and juggle back-to-back shifts between the cause you’re working for and the reality of needing food and shelter, not to mention money to pay back gargantuan student loans.

This really bothers me, because what I’m seeing is a lot of organizations taking advantage of the belief that volunteering for the experience a) means more money is available to go directly to the people the charity is helping and b) better equips you to get paid work in the field. Shouldn’t the not-for-profit industry also be interested in a sustainable workforce?

Working for free in unpaid internships or for minimum wage doesn’t give employees of the industry any concept of what their time might actually be worth in the private sector. When they eventually burn out from the strain of multiple jobs and volunteering they’re not equipped with the knowledge of what kind of salary they should be asking for when they do get offered a job elsewhere.

I’m still trying to sort out what I think a good solution would be. The current reality just doesn’t seem right.

Meredith

Thank you Volunteers cake.

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