Making Volunteers: Civic Life after Welfare's End

Making Volunteers: Civic Life after Welfare's End

Making Volunteers: Civic Life after Welfare's End

Making Volunteers: Civic Life after Welfare's End


Volunteering improves inner character, builds community, cures poverty, and prevents crime. We've all heard this kind of empowerment talk from nonprofit and government-sponsored civic programs. But what do these programs really accomplish? In Making Volunteers, Nina Eliasoph offers an in-depth, humorous, wrenching, and at times uplifting look inside youth and adult civic programs. She reveals an urgent need for policy reforms in order to improve these organizations and shows that while volunteers learn important lessons, they are not always the lessons that empowerment programs aim to teach.

With short-term funding and a dizzy mix of mandates from multiple sponsors, community programs develop a complex web of intimacy, governance, and civic life. Eliasoph describes the at-risk youth served by such programs, the college-bound volunteers who hope to feel selfless inspiration and plump up their resumés, and what happens when the two groups are expected to bond instantly through short-term projects. She looks at adult "plug-in" volunteers who, working in after-school programs and limited by time, hope to become like beloved aunties to youth. Eliasoph indicates that adult volunteers can provide grassroots support but they can also undermine the family-like warmth created by paid organizers. Exploring contradictions between the democratic rhetoric of empowerment programs and the bureaucratic hurdles that volunteers learn to navigate, the book demonstrates that empowerment projects work best with less precarious funding, more careful planning, and mandatory training, reflection, and long-term commitments from volunteers.

Based on participant research inside civic and community organizations, Making Volunteers illustrates what these programs can and cannot achieve, and how to make them more effective.


Clarion calls to “serve your community” come at us from every direction lately. From the heights of national government to the lowly offices of nonprofits, from universities to elementary schools, from breakfast cereal companies to toilet paper companies, we hear summons to volunteer, to participate, to build grassroots, multicultural community, and to become empowered. in everyday practice, these alluring ideas materialize in surprising ways, sometimes with consequences that are nearly the opposite of anyone’s intentions.

Youth programs are ideal places to witness those transformations. a program like Community House, for example, is a free after-school and summer program for low-income, mostly minority youth in Snowy Prairie, a mid-sized city in the American Midwest. One day, Community House won an award from the local Rotary Club—money to help buy a minivan. the group was told that it won the award for having done “service to the community,” and this made sense, since members had helped organize litter cleanups, food drives, and other events. Everyone was delighted with how well the award fit with the mission of empowering underprivileged youth. But when they got to the awards luncheon, the proud Community House youth volunteers read, on the list of award recipients: “Community House: Van to transport needy youth.” Emily, Community House’s adult organizer, told me, “If I’d have known [the list was gonna say that], I wouldn’t have brought my kids at all. I wish they had not seen that. I don’t pity them! If I did, I’d spit on them. You can’t pity people.” Organizers and youth would often grow furious when such messages about statistics and crime were said within earshot of youth volunteers. Nonetheless, this kind of mistake was frequent and predictable in these organizations.

It made sense that these mistakes were common. Calling the youth “volunteers” made sense because it was a way of highlighting their civic spirit and independence. Calling the youth “needy” made sense too, even though it seemed insulting to point out their dependence at the luncheon. It made sense because Community House’s funding came from government, nonprofits, and private donors, who needed evidence that the funds were being spent wisely. After all, Community House could not use charitable contributions, or taxpayers’ money, to buy “a van to transport really rich youth,” or “youth who are perfectly fine.” To deserve the van, these youth had to be needy. Crisscrossed moral inspirations—these and . . .

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