We Need Workers, Not Volunteers

20 Dollar Bill - Source: Darren Hester (http://flickr.com/photos/ppdigital/2054207669/)

I’m just as excited as the next activist to see so many people engaging in the electoral process this year. People are phone-banking, canvasing, knocking on doors, calling their congress members, etc. All of this volunteerism is beautiful, an expression what passionate political participation by an informed and interested citizenry should look like in a democracy.

What’s not to like?

Well, there is actually one big thing not to like: Very, very little of this is sustainable. That’s right. 95% of this enthusiasm and participation will likely die the day after election day, with the other 5% dying the day after inauguration day.

Why is this not sustainable?

One word: money. A 100% volunteer-based model is risky business proposition. The problem is that while volunteers do the work that they do off the strength of will and passion and ideals, many of them have to compromise the triad of will, passion, and ideals, in order to pay their bills. This puts a practical limit onto what can be accomplished by a single volunteer and, by extension, a legion of volunteers.

Changing the model will remove the limitation

So the question is, why can’t we change the model?

Instead of recruiting an army of volunteers, why not recruit an army of workers?

If we want to get real about letting “regular” people work on behalf of their best interests politically, why not financially incentivize them to do so? By shifting the framing of this type of engagement from volunteering to working, we properly compensate the good people that participate in these processes, paying them in not only political results, great community atmosphere, and spiritual upliftment, but also in dollars and cents.

I’m not saying that everyone needs to make 6 figures here, but I am saying that people should be able to do this work that we all deem so important without having to think so hard about whether they can sneak out of the office early to go phone bank for a cause or candidate that they believe in.

Since participation is what we want, we need to really, really make full provision for people to do so.

Only Young People Without “Real” Responsibilities or Ambition Can Volunteer

I don’t think that this is totally true, but lots of people feel this way, even if they don’t say so out loud. In talking with Brandon about this subject, he made the comment that he often hears people saying things like:

I love my volunteer work, but at some point I want to have a family.


I like doing this service work, but I want to go to grad school.

The folks who said this definitely value their work as servants and volunteers. However, they see that work as not only temporary, but non-sustainable because the futures that they want for themselves [and their families] require significant financial investments. This sentiment/reality is yet another limiting factor in the potential impact that can be had by a single volunteer and, by extension, a group of volunteers.

We Must Eliminate the “Volunteer Class”

What this does is create a “Volunteer Class” of folks who because their economic muscles never get strengthened, their will to work will ultimately always get sacrificed at the alter of their other ambitions.

In order to break this cycle, the cycle of high turnover in volunteer work, the cycle of people feeling like their life as a volunteer has a time horizon, the cycle of people having to sacrifice their ideals for a paycheck, we have to rethink how we recruit, retain, and utilize people that do this type of work.

Let’s start by paying these people for their talents and time. With so much money in politics, don’t you think some change could be spared for that?

One Love. One II.


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About Garlin Gilchrist II

I am the City of Detroit's first ever Deputy Technology Director for Civic Community Engagement. My job is to open up the city's public data and information for the consumption and benefit of all Detroiters. I currently live in Detroit, my hometown, with my beautiful wife Ellen and our twins Garlin III and Emily Grace. I'm from Detroit. I created Detroit Diaspora, and was formerly the National Campaign Director at MoveOn.org. I also co-hosted The #WinReport on "The Good Fight," a an award winning, nationally syndicated radio show that was one of Apple's Best of 2013. After graduating with degrees in Computer Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Michigan, I became a Software Engineer at Microsoft. By day, I helped build SharePoint into the fastest growth product in the company's history. On my personal time, I sought out opportunities to connect my technical skills with community building efforts across the country. This led to my co-founding The SuperSpade: Black Thought at the Highest Level, a leading Black political blog. I served as Social Media Manager for the 2008 Obama campaign in Washington, and then became Director of New Media at the Center for Community Change. I spent two years creating and implementing a strategy for the Center to take it's 40 years of community organizing experience into the digital age. I speak before diverse audiences on effective & responsive government, empowerment in revolutionary new organizing spaces, increasing civic engagement & participation through emerging technologies and protecting civil rights in the age of the Internet. Full bio here.

One response to “We Need Workers, Not Volunteers”

  1. steven m devougas says :

    This is so key. No movement or revolution was able to be brought to successful fruition without a bank roll or financing. Volunteering is a luxury and that is something you do not learn until you get older. I think if we are serious about sustaining change and consolidating the gains made in this electoral season, then we, in conjunction with the powers that be need to think seriously about a model that will allow for autonomous funding. This is a textbook case of putting your money where your mouth is.

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