Volunteerism Worse Than Thankless: Alleging Criminality


I volunteered. As a thank-you, I was accused of a crime no one committed, accused in a book by a graduate of one of the most famous and professionally respected of the best law schools in the country (and who later became a law professor, teaching for many years). I don’t think the author even believed his own statement when he wrote it into his manuscript or submitted it to his editor. To him, it probably was just entertainment at the expense of someone paid nothing and presumably worth what he was paid, entertainment that would help persuade an editor that book sales would be good. The book was still on sale over twenty years later (and likely still is) and in hardcover and paperback, so I guess sales were good.

Libel laws have gone too far, when an industry member can sue a wealthy person for criticizing their product and go to trial. Libel law stifles the sort of robust debate that helps most of us learn from mistakes and grow. So I had no enthusiasm for going that route. And it was a book on politics, so the libel laws probably didn’t apply, or political candidates would be suing each other daily. But if I had sued and won, perhaps I would have gotten treble (triple) damages. But I was paid nothing and not fired. I lost nothing in a paycheck, and triple nothing is nothing. So a jury would have wondered why I was bothering, and why I was interrupting the jurors’ personal lives for this. And no half-way-busy lawyer would have taken the case, I couldn’t have paid a normal fee, and even a disbarred attorney would not have taken it on contingency.

In one more way, the giving of service is undermined, done in by someone paid in the same organization, who selected libel or virtual libel from their personal quiver. I don’t think he used any volunteers’ services; hardly anyone who was paid there did. We had a tableful of volunteers putting stickers on cards day after day. I offered to do that myself and was told, by one of the two volunteer coordinators, no, because then we’d “have nothing for the volunteers to do”, suggesting a lack of drive on the part of paid people to do more if it would mean using volunteers. According to his book, the organization paid to build a wall so one of the top managers there could get through days without seeing the office volunteers, who usually worked at one table. I heard that we paid $500 to build that wall; someone complained that it wasn’t built well. If the high manager had substantially used the volunteers, we’d have gotten more done. Example: We addressed our public concerns to speakers of foreign languages. Internally, we monitored press coverage and circulated summaries twice a day; except that we didn’t monitor most of the foreign-language press, of which there was plenty. Volunteers could have translated it and verified the translations. I doubt they were asked. We stayed in the dark, just so we didn’t have to use volunteers.

The crime alleged was essentially destruction of the landlord’s property or a tenant’s property, a misdemeanor that can get a year in prison. The destruction would have been uncontrollable from what I supposedly did, which was to run water out of a tub across a floor, where it likely would have leaked onto the tenant downstairs, maybe damaging papers or plaster. In fact, I entered that bathroom only once in the months I was there, because it was posted as broken, and never used or ran water in any tub or shower in that building. His own staff did use it, but I don’t think committed any offense. I never heard a complaint about my doing this until I read his book. I doubt anyone told anyone in charge. Most paid people don’t want volunteers doing much and I was, so, if anyone had wanted a ground for firing me, that would have qualified, easily. I knew it would have been awful judgment on my part, because I wanted the organization to succeed in its mission. I likely never thought about this law in years until I looked in State statutes for something else and discovered this provision. With that accusation, it’s hard to imagine any other nonprofit letting me into their offices to help them out.

Gee, thanks.

I wrote him before I recognized the law applied. He wrote a nice letter back. He said he was praising me (maybe about something else and he was funny). He later emailed that he considers me 100% honest. I tried staying in touch. But he’s never come clean about making it up. He said that for the paperback he made only one correction and claimed that I wouldn’t know about it, which was odd, since I already had told him that I had read the whole hardcover and I critiqued it in a lengthy letter to him that he answered without claiming that I didn’t read the book. (I skimmed the paperback.) And he cut off communication after I intervened when he did something else he’s not permitted to do. I guess that’s typical of accusers. I haven’t tried getting in touch with him since. I don’t think he’s willing to fess up.

If I propose volunteering in nonprofits, I may have to tell them about it, because if I’m volunteering somewhere it’s to be in their interest more than mine. I already told one, although I think that organization’s head assumed I meant to be self-promotional and therefore didn’t believe it. (When I gave her an article I’d written and for which I was bylined and told her so, she looked it over and then asked who wrote it.) I doubt anyone who knows the author would care to have me step through their door. So I largely limit myself to volunteering remotely, and doing less.

My being a cheapskate likely led one or two other people to think I had to be stealing to break even. Like when I didn’t have a phone and offered to get someone a phone book. Many people perhaps think that the minimum cost of living has to be at least half of what they spend for themselves, and I may spend a lot less than their particular half. But also one of them invited me to a fundraising party at a political candidate’s home, where I generally made a pest of myself trying to find a volunteer task until they gave me something out in the building hallway, probably to shut me up and not embarrass them by visibly working when they’re lounging in comfy furniture. The invitation was hardly consistent with really thinking I steal. If it was believed, someone would have reported me somewhere, but I doubt they bothered. So the thoughts of criminality simply came casually.

It comes in the context of volunteers usually being politely hated. We’re seen as a threat to jobs when we instead add organizational achievements. We’re more accepted in all-volunteer organizations (provided they’re all-volunteer even at the top and in the middle), child-centered organizations like some schools letting parents volunteer, and houses of worship (not religious service organizations). But none of that is because of the law.

Some nonprofits pay volunteers small tokens, like lunch money, which, if below the minimum wage, is unlawful even when paying nothing is lawful. But at least the nonprofits are trying to be considerate. Maybe. Maybe not, as when a couple considered acceptance mandatory, presumably because they were signifying that my many hours of volunteer work was worth in total only a dollar-and-a-half subway token in one place and twenty-five cents (from a spurned would-be date) in the other. But to most people it’s being considerate and better than giving absolutely nothing, even as I refuse it. One person said you can’t ask volunteers to work, which means she didn’t know the difference between volunteerism and slavery. But not asking volunteers to do tasks, while wasteful, is not against the law.

Years of experience as a volunteer is likely seen as proof of a defect; why wasn’t he hired? The haters just assume they know the answer. A paycheck becomes proof of qualification and of success in life, but maybe we volunteers are not against sacrificing for the organization’s mission and therefore glad to volunteer. I don’t want to shrink their budget by taking a paycheck; I’m responsible for meeting my own needs and, if I do that, they can spend for a lot more than just me. If I take the money for myself, I’d be implying the message that other volunteers are unqualified simply because they’re not paid, making a liar out of myself. Ethics matters, but no one asks and most don’t even tolerate an ethical system that’s not selfish enough.

One club wouldn’t call members to help if they had joined more than two years earlier. One place said that anyone checking off more than two tasks in a long list was not qualified to do anything (and shouldn’t be called). But believing someone unqualified, even if erroneous, even if of almost all volunteers against strong evidence, is not unlawful.

With defamation of a volunteer, the law offers no remedy for what is effectively a per se civil offense. Being accused of criminality is simply part of being a volunteer even in a solidly above-board nonprofit. The would-be volunteer just has to struggle to uncover ways of being useful anyway and still not drain the nonprofit’s money by being unnecessarily paid. In my experience, no CEO notices that the struggle is necessary, ongoing, and large when they think they’ve made sure of a polite welcome by their staff, but the bird’s-eye view and the worm’s-eye view don’t get reconciled. The accuser can repeat the accusation for decades in every copy of the book (and does) and it won’t matter to the accuser. For the sake of helping a movement or an organization succeed by complementing the people paid to work, we volunteers have to carry the burden alone.