Power and Status in Volunteer Work

Last week I discussed volunteer work for the purposes of CV building, and concluded that to build a “good” CV, you are compelled to think strategically. I used the criteria for the Government of Canada’s Policy Leaders Recruitment program to show how “low profile” volunteering — your soup kitchens and teaching people to read sort of thing — is best traded in for activities more likely to build recognition and accolades that you can then document on your CV.

I’m not suggesting that helping people and career building are necessarily incompatible goals.What I do see at work, though, are forces that create a status hierarchy within the volunteer sector. Today I want to think a bit about the consequences of that status hierarchy. We often pay less attention to volunteer work than paid labour and elected/appointed public service positions, but it can be a significant source of political power. Let’s, for example, take a look at the qualification criteria for a position as a “public” member of the University of Alberta Board of Governors:

“…a demonstrated interest in the University of Alberta or other post-secondary institutions in Alberta; an awareness of issues affecting research and scholarship, adult education and life long learning; an understanding of financial matters; interpersonal abilities to deal effectively with other board members and a variety of interest groups; good communication skills; and demonstrated community service.”

So far, so good. But then…

  • Preference will be given to candidates who have one or more of the following qualifications:
  • Demonstrated senior board experience
  • Demonstrated experience at the Senior Executive or Chief Financial Officer level of a large corporation
  • Demonstrated financial literacy
  • Demonstrated experience in the management of Senior Executive recruitment, retention, and compensation, as well as strategic planning
  • A wide network of national and international contacts, knowledge of Alberta’s energy sector, and significant IT management experience would also be considered assets.

Given these preferences, only a very particular kind of “public member” is likely to gain a seat, hence a vote, within this powerful organization. Votes here ultimately determine the financial affairs of the university, and it’s relationship with the province. Now it does make perfect sense that you’d want someone in this role who knows his or her numbers and has a degree of experience and sophistication with respect to board functions and board politics. Governing the financial affairs of one of Canada’s largest research universities is no small responsibility. But the criteria above also makes it unlikely that “public members” will bring diverse perspectives to the table. Successful candidates will be drawn from upper echelons of business, and will likely, given their backgrounds, share similar political and social perspectives.

So here’s my thinking: In an ideal world (the one that sometimes appears in my brain and teases me), volunteer work is, in every sense of the word, about service. And my idea of service is charity, in ways that uphold the dignity and personal power of people in society who are marginalized. I like this work because it forces me to confront my own biases, assumptions, and privileges. By way of contrast, the sorts of volunteer work that are “high status” and may lead eventually to positions of power like a University of Alberta Board of Governors seat tend, I think, to come out of a trajectory of disengagement from those least like ourselves. Does this lead to a degree of “group think” where diversity might bring about needed change?

I hope it is clear that I am being pretty general here. I’m basically dividing volunteer work into two types: “lower status” work of direct engagement with people in need, and “higher status” work where fiscal and policy decisions are made. And I’m suggesting that strategic volunteerism may gradually push talented people with social and political power away from settings where they directly engage with the people whose interests they are supposed to represent. This can amount to a detached “advocacy for” instead of an engaged and democratic “advocacy with.”

I recognize that this model, if we could call it that, is too simplistic; in practice there are many variations and combinations of these two extreme “types” of volunteer work. But breaking it down a bit does provide a way of thinking about how power and status in the volunteer, non-profit, and public service sectors can be important factors in determining who does, and does not have a seat at the table when important decisions are made.

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1 Comment

  1. Pingback: My Free Time is More Awesome Than Your Free Time | My So-Called Career

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