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When volunteering hinders

by George B. Cuff
in Community Development, Governance, Magazine
February, 2017

I am a great supporter of those who volunteer their time and talents in the service of others. These folks are the very backbone of any civilized society. They serve, for the most part, anonymously and often without much applause. The ranks of minor ball, hockey, and ringette enthusiasts would be greatly diminished if we could not rely on the goodwill of selfless fathers and mothers, grandparents, and others stepping up to the proverbial plate. My mediocre career as an amateur boxer would not have occurred were it not for the very kind men who took in young ragamuffins off the rough and tumble streets of Edmonton’s west end (then the Town of Jasper Place). My parents could not afford the cost of a community league pass for skating, but boxing was free – as was the other great love of my young life: a cherished but now quickly fading picture of me as a middle distance track man. These two sporting pursuits kept me from a greater level of involvement in less desirable street activities. These activities (and, in this case, those who coached me) taught me about discipline, sacrifice, fitness, sportsmanship, and other noble qualities that, to all but the most astute observer, may not have looked as if they caught back then!

The generous example of others impacts all of us. I still volunteer in my community, largely through my local church, and in Romania where we are encouraging the development of a children’s camp. Most of the people with whom we associate also contribute their time and talents to causes of special meaning to them.

So, Why Stop?

Having prefaced what follows with those comments, I am almost reluctant to say to some perhaps well-meaning but misguided folks: quit volunteering! After being elected to their local council, some people cannot quite understand that their voice and their presence just took on new meaning. An issue arises at council and one of its members, whose work background may be somewhat relevant, quickly jumps in and volunteers to head up a one-person ad hoc inquiry or, the next day, calls the administration and presents the answer to their dilemma.

The cause for concern and the genesis of this article is that, in this instance, volunteering can be problematic.

Rationale

There are a number of reasons as to why this act of random kindness may cause more difficulties than one might have anticipated. In the first instance, a council member volunteering to do the work effectively neuters any suggestion that someone else (paid or otherwise) might be more effective. It will be difficult for staff to say, “Well, we really appreciate your volunteering, but we think XYZ is far more suited to this task.” Doing so will either be viewed as insulting or will be filed as the first black mark against that staff member’s career for future reference.

Secondly, placing a councillor in a volunteer service role does not negate their primary role as an elected official. While it may seem innocent, the elected official completely takes away any impartial assessment of their own service. The quality of work provided may simply not be acceptable; however, most would be loath to do otherwise but praise. Critiquing the efforts of an elected official could only be accomplished by another political leader or a member of the public. If one of the latter really wanted to get the contract that has now been volunteered out of existence, acrimony would likely be the result.

Thirdly, the municipality would never be able to sue for non-performance. How would you sue a member of council who “volunteered” to build that sign or plant those trees or design the new website, when their work turns out to be far less than imagined or desired?

Fourthly, and from my non-legal perspective, any council member who is on a board or committee and plans to “volunteer” to that same agency would need to check with the municipality’s legal counsel as to whether or not either real conflict of interest or perceived conflict exists (regardless of whether any bill was being submitted).

Finally, and simply from a moral, ethical, consulting consideration, the answer would be “no” to any council member who volunteers to do work for the municipality or one of its agencies, boards, or committees. Let another professional design the bridge or the website or the new brochure. A council member is quite simply in a dominant position as a member of the board/committee/council and, as such, is not viewed as an independent source of information, expertise, or authority.

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It’s the Voice

I generally try to find a way to insert this commentary into my seminars: once you are elected, your voice adds decibels. The day before the election, you were simply a well-meaning person in the community; but, the moment the votes are tallied and you are declared to be a person of considerable local influence, even your opportunities for showing your volunteer spirit decrease. The focus of an elected official, for those few moments when your time is not already consumed by being on council, should be devoted to stocking the shelves at the local food bank; visiting the seniors in their homes and lodges; driving the incapacitated to appointments; or anything else that bears no burden of presumed ownership and requires no delicate stick-handling.

We need your gifts of time and talent – but not where they cause distress and discomfort.  MW

GEORGE B. CUFF, FCMC, our governance zone expert, has been involved in local government in one way or another since 1970. He has been a recreation and youth specialist, a department head, a mayor for 12 years, and a consultant/advisor to municipalities since 1976. He is the author of Off the Cuff: A Collection of Writings by George B. Cuff – Volumes 1, 2, and 3 and Making a Difference: Cuff’s Guide for Municipal Leaders, Volumes 1 and 2, published by Municipal World, as well as dozens of magazine articles and columns in Municipal World since 1984.

as published in Municipal World, April 2014

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