No Paint Brushes, No Paint: The Realities of Volunteer Work

Last January, when the presidential summit on community service was still on the drawing board, there was a renewed attempt to turn the national holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr., into a real day of service. A day on, not a day off, its supporters said.

I took it seriously—not only as a journalist, but as a mother of three school-age girls. Which is why, early on the morning of January 20, I filled up the van with my kids and their friends and drove to a dilapidated church in North Philadelphia to…serve.

We arrived at the appointed hour and were told to sit in the cavernous, second-floor space that needed a good scrub—and more.

Finally, an hour and a half later, we were given a rousing sermon and put to work. Only there weren’t enough paintbrushes, or ladders, or rollers to paint the alcove. There weren’t enough new squares of carpet to replace the old ones. Nor enough frames for the posters. The older kids managed to keep occupied; my seven-year-old felt useless. We left mid-day, half satisfied that we made, perhaps, a small contribution.

That evening, I asked my youngest daughter as I put her to bed: “Wouldn’t it be great if next year all the kids in your grade volunteered on King Day?”

“But, Mom,” she replied, “will there be something to do?” Her question has haunted me ever since, as I have seen the nation fall in love with the promise and potential of addressing the needs of its young through community service. I, too, am enchanted by the goodness it evokes, the opportunity to help the less fortunate, to overcome the isolation that grips too many of us, comfortable in our neighborhoods, ready to hide behind busy lives. I’ve done enough volunteer work to know that it doesn’t always produce tangible results; sometimes, it’s the doing that makes a difference.

But now that the hype and hoopla of the Presidents’ Summit has come and gone, I am still worried that good intentions and unrealistic expectations are going to beat out common sense. And common sense dictates that unless community service is employed wisely, it won’t make any more of a difference than we did at the North Philadelphia church. Sometimes, it can even do more harm than good.

Volunteer work, if done right, is work, with complexity and consequence. If not done right, it can accomplish nothing or, worse, it can leave the lonely and suffering even more bereft, and blunt the passion in those wishing to serve.

Good Intentions Are Not Enough

More than good intentions are necessary if community service is going to help feed, heal, teach, and mentor those in need. There must be an infrastructure. Now, the eloquent preacher who runs the drug rehab center should not be blamed for the paucity of paintbrushes or carpet squares. It’s his job to turn around lives, not organize cleanups. But somebody—from a local business, perhaps?—should have scoured the scene a week earlier, sized up the need, purchased all the necessary supplies, and prepared for the influx of volunteers.

Thomas McKenna, national executive director of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America, has faced this issue: his widely recognized mentoring program was sometimes chided for being carefully slow and small. “There’s a mystical notion people have that if you throw volunteers at kids, something’s going to happen,” he said earlier this year in Philadelphia, where the national headquarters is based. “Not true. You need the infrastructure. People don’t understand or value what it takes to orient and train volunteers and to support the mentoring relationship after the match. It’s not glitzy, but you need it.”

It’s not just kids who need it. The elderly do as well. Judith Rodin, president of the University of Pennsylvania, has written about research done by a colleague in a Pittsburgh nursing home in the 1970s. Some of the elderly residents were visited occasionally by local undergraduates, according to no schedule. Other residents were allowed to set the time and duration of the visits.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the elderly who had been put in control were more alert and in better health. When the study was over, students went home for spring break and the visits ended. A year and a half later, the researchers returned to the nursing home and made a startling finding: more of the residents with control had died than had the others.

When the contact and attention that the elderly themselves had controlled abruptly stopped—even though they were warned that it would—the effects were profound. They were left with less than nothing.

Does this mean that students should immediately stop visiting elderly residents of nursing homes? Of course not. But the visits must be shaped into the context of the lives of the elderly. Don’t give without preparing for what happens when you take away—especially from a vulnerable, needy population.

The main goal of volunteer work isn’t to make the volunteer feel better, although that is a hoped-for consequence. It’s to accomplish something that other private or public sources cannot and to enhance the volunteer s sense of responsibility to the greater community. Benjamin Barber, director of the Walt Whitman Center for the Culture and Politics of Democracy at Rutgers University, says the approach a volunteer brings to the work is most important.

Is she there out of a sense of noblesse oblige, to do something charitable without addressing the underlying problem? Barber tells of a student who, after a year volunteering in a homeless shelter, said, “This was the most extraordinary experience I’ve ever had. I just hope my children will have a chance to do it.” (And I guess we all should hope the homeless will still be around to give our kids the same warm glow.)

Or is she there in a spirit of partnership, to serve an immediate need and to work toward a time when her children won t have to help out at a shelter because most homelessness will have been prevented? The volunteer’s long-term goal should not be to perpetuate her role, but to make it superfluous.

Barber tells another story that drives home the need to place community service in context. His Rutgers students were divided into groups to work on specific service projects. Some were sent to work at a homeless shelter, others to paint the plugs of fire hydrants in a nearby community. After a couple of weeks, the painting crew complained. This is community service? We should be helping the needy, not painting hydrants! Barber then had the students meet with an official from the community, and his explanation made all the difference.

It turns out that the community’s firefighters had wanted the plugs painted because it would help them locate the plugs more quickly when the hydrants were knee-high in snow and ice. It was a particularly urgent job because the previous year, a year of heavy winter weather, two residents may have died in fires because the hydrant plugs were so difficult to find. And the community itself didn’t have the money to pay municipal workers do the job.

Once given the context, the students returned to the work with zeal, convinced that they were contributing to a healthier community.

So volunteer work must be placed in its proper context. It must be well coordinated and targeted to help a specific need. And, finally, it must be recognized for what it is: often an enormous help, but not often a replacement for the public or private sector responsibility. It certainly has its limitations.

The Germantown Avenue Cleanup

Consider the situation on Philadelphia’s Germantown Avenue as an illustration of that last point. The long, important thoroughfare that winds through some of Philadelphia’s seediest neighborhoods was the scene of a massive volunteer cleanup on the day before the Presidents’ Summit. The Inquirer’s Marc Kaufman returned to the street a week later, and here’s what he found. Although more than 6,000 people registered to work that day, and hundreds were turned away because there were no more work slots left, neon-colored tags—”work orders” instructing volunteers to clean or paint over graffiti—still covered blocks of storefronts and restaurants and scores of rowhouse walls. City officials acknowledged that 20-25 percent of the work orders were not finished. And a fair number of the walls that were cleaned had to be revisited by paid city crews, because of the poor work quality. One storefront, for instance, was a motley patchwork of light blue, dark blue, gray, and yellow.

There were several reasons for the spotty performance. Trucks couldn’t always get through Secret Service barricades to distribute paint and rollers. Relatively few local residents joined outside volunteers in the southern, hardest-hit stretch of Germantown Avenue. And hard-to-reach graffiti were deliberately left for city crews to deal with.

But the underlying reason, Kaufman reported, is that much volunteer work is inherently inefficient. Most volunteers aren’t as skilled, as focused, or as productive as paid professionals—especially at a massive effort like this, one that attracted the president and so many other distracting celebrities. Donna Cooper, who organized the Germantown Avenue cleanup and is now a deputy mayor, said, “I think the conclusion is unavoidable—volunteer work is great, but it is very inefficient and can seldom do the job as well as a paid staff. That’s no rap on volunteers, who did a terrific job. That’s just reality.”

And remember: as volunteer efforts go, cleaning up Germantown Avenue or the church in North Philadelphia is relatively easy and requires far less commitment than mentoring or tutoring a child. Painting a building doesn’t demand the same dedication and skill as the delicate, difficult job of helping to turn around a young life. That’s not an activity for a Sunday morning in the sun.

If the growing gap between government action and public need is going to be filled through community service, then the limitations and realities of volunteer work must be recognized. This is not said to dull any of the spirit of the summit or diminish the extraordinary work done by volunteers nationwide, whose sense of citizenship compelled them to help the needy long before the bunting went up on Independence Hall. My hope is that serving others should become a natural part of life for every American, as long as it does more good than harm.