April 17, 2012 by Steve Winkler
[This editorial first appeared in the September 2, 2010 edition of the Observer. We are recycling it in light of the Resolution to compensate council members presented at the April Council Meeting. We thought compensating council members was a good idea then and we still do.]
There are volunteers and then there are volunteers. Many people mistakenly understand the word as referring to someone who does something without being paid. But more accurately, a volunteer is someone who acts voluntarily, which means the action is done in accordance with one’s own free will. Soldiers in the volunteer army are paid. At your job, you may volunteer to work over the weekend to finish an important project. That doesn’t mean you’ve agreed to work for free. Volunteerism is more about free will than money.
True, some volunteer positions in an organization may offer minimal or no compensation. Others are paid positions. There are as many reasons to become a volunteer as there are volunteers. Most obvious is the genuine unselfish desire that flows from a religious, humanitarian or other obligation to “giveback;” to help others. You’re single and volunteer to work Christmas day so your married co-workers can be with their families. Or, you seek to help those that are simply less fortunate. Other reasons may appear be more self serving but are none-the less realistic and beneficial. There are social rewards such as kudos from peers and esteem to be derived from serving others, but the motive doesn’t negate the benefits of the service given. Networking and résumé building are often noted reasons for doing volunteer work. Community service, considered a benefit to all society, is promoted in the workplace and academia. Voluntary work is available in all types of organizations. The non-profits and faith based organizations are probably the most common beneficiaries of volunteer workers. Charitable organizations of all sorts rely on people who present themselves to be of service to others.
Both multi-national corporations and small businesses are learning how to profit from young workers’ desires to learn and gain needed experience in their chosen fields. Unpaid or minimally compensated “interns” are now a common fixture in the workforce. They hope for a future payoff. But just wanting to help may not be enough. Volunteer positions often have requirements – physical, educational and character. Folks volunteering to be teacher’s aid or church youth worker might be required to have a background check. Most volunteers get some sort of training. There are often serious expectations attached to voluntary work.
Another salient characteristic of volunteerism in nonprofit organizations is the absence of legal responsibility on the part of the volunteer. In fact, by definition, the general understanding is that volunteers have no legal concern or interest in their work. In a litigious society like ours, this aspect has taken on greater importance. Since1997, the Volunteer Protection Act has addressed volunteer’s defense against alleged negligence and wrongdoing. To say unpaid work is volunteer work is simplistic and misleading. Paid volunteers? Pay can be referred to as salary, wages, compensation stipend, allowance, or gratuity. It’s not uncommon for non-profits, business and government entities to compensate members of councils, boards, commissions, or committees.
Neighboring towns don’t seem to have a problem with this idea. Council members in Elkins receive a $100 allowance for 2 meetings a month. In Farmington the stipend is $100a meeting; $75 for a special meeting. Prairie Grove councilmembers receive about $35/month. Greenland allows $50 meeting, nothing for a special meeting (absent from meeting means no pay). Even little Winslow (pop. 399) manages a$40 a month compensation for council members. They’re all in the same recession as West Fork.
Like it or not, we live in a society where the exchange of money legitimates an agreement. Look at any contract; you’ll probably see a mention of money. Your real estate deed changes hands with “one dollar and other considerations.”Compensation in the form of money implies expectations on both sides. Taxpayers pay, public officials perform their duties. Regardless of the amount, money says, “this is serious, this is a real deal.”
So, are members of the West Fork city council volunteers? If they identify themselves as such, who’s to argue? The more appropriate question might be; do the citizens of West Fork want their council members to be people who refer to themselves as volunteers rather than as elected city officials, who take an oath of office?