Is Forcing People To Volunteer A Good Idea?

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Since 1999, mandatory volunteer service has been a requirement for Ontario high school students to graduate. The concept has received a lot of attention (and backlash) in the US, and while there has been some discussion and controversy in Canada, it hasn’t been felt at quite the same level.

Still, whether forced volunteering is a good idea or not is definitely worth further exploration. Luckily, there is a lot of information on the subject ranging from credible sources like StatsCan, to not quite as credible sources like (que the segue).

“Forced to volunteer. That is the Orwellian notion to which contemporary liberalism has sunk.” writes Thomas Howell for

Ok, so maybe that is a little (a lot) far-fetched and suspiciously argumentative, but it is one of the first Google search results if you search “Is forced volunteering good?.” But then again, if you Google “Mr. Howell” he appears alongside other similar shock-comment pundits such as Ann Coulter.

On some level he may be on to something, though. After all, there is intelligent debate surrounding the area of forced volunteering.

“To call mandatory community service ‘volunteering’ is a problem because then we begin to confuse the distinction between an activity that is freely chosen and something that is obligatory and perhaps not always rewarding. Volunteering should be something you choose to do because you want to do it, not because somebody made you do it.” says Linda Graff, President of Linda Graff & Associates Inc., an international consulting firm based in Dundas, Ontario.

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Another influencer in the volunteer sector shares similar thoughts, as Maclean’s writes:

‘“The mandated nature means this is not really volunteering,” says Ruth MacKenzie, former president and CEO of Volunteer Canada. She lumps high school hours in with community service orders and other court-mandated sentencing requirements. The fear among those in the charity business is that forcing kids to volunteer in high school might turn them off the concept for the rest of their lives.”

But what about the positives?

Research at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., reveals no negative impacts from forcing students to provide a week of free work for worthy causes. “Making it mandatory doesn’t undermine any of the positive aspects of the program,” says politics professor Steven Brown. “It doesn’t poison the well.”

There is also significant research that proves the younger an individual becomes involved in volunteering the more likely they are to become lifelong volunteers.

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After all, the idea of showing youth a part of society they may not discover on their own doesn’t seem like a bad idea. Do you remember what you were like as a teenager? I do.

I was self-absorbed more than I’d like to admit and it wasn’t until I had to fulfill my volunteer hours that I realized there was a whole world that existed outside the expanse of my own ego.

I started volunteering for Elmira’s Robin in the Hood festival by helping children with special needs experience the medieval festival in all its knightly glory. This experience directly led to my spending 8 years as a Developmental Service Worker and is the reason I still continue to volunteer with individuals with cognitive and developmental delays.

Isn’t this type of push-towards-action a good thing, then?

“Without community service, we would not have a strong quality of life. It’s important to the person who serves as well as the recipient. It’s the way in which we ourselves grow and develop,” , says Dr. Dorothy Height, president and CEO of the National Council of Negro Women.

Is forcing students to volunteer different than forcing them to learn proper language or science skills? These are skills which help define attitudes that they will carry with them through the rest of their lives.

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But high school doesn’t just prepare students for further education; it equips them for social interaction, problem solving in all aspects of life, and helps to direct students down a lifelong path – career or otherwise.

One theory suggests a correlation between service learning and higher academic gain. The idea here is that the transferable skills learned in a practical setting during a volunteer opportunity can be taken back to the classroom and applied in new, previously not thought of ways.

We’ve mentioned in other articles the documented health benefits associated with volunteerism. Isn’t there an expanding obesity epidemic amongst our youth? Wouldn’t we want to encourage different and varied ways for our youth to be active and healthy, then?

One area that many sources fail to recognize is the direct benefit to an individual’s employability if they list volunteer experience on their resume.

For example, volunteering gives students access to training and implementation of work-related skills as well as interaction with people from other walks of life. We all know that gaining employment in today’s Canadian job market is tough and often relies heavily on transferable skills that are not necessarily related to the position’s requirements.

You want to be a graphic designer? Good for you – that’s admirable – but guess what? Thousands of other people know the same software tools you do. What sets you apart? Is it your personality or experiences? The answer is likely yes; but how do you show an employer all your experience or the depth of your awesome personality on a resume they’ve barely read, or in a 30 minute interview? It’s certainly tough, if not completely impossible.

One sure-fire way is to share your volunteer experiences. Employers know that the more someone volunteers the less of a slug they will be. Volunteers are also typically associated with buzzwords like ‘self-starter’ or ‘motivated’ – you know, the things all employers want their employees to be.

Another highly unrecognized benefit of high school students volunteering is that many scholarships and bursaries have volunteer hour requirements, or, at the very least, seek students who are active participants in their own community. If you want access to certain scholarships, you need to meet these requirements.

Post-secondary isn’t cheap and many are going to attend without financial support from family, so why not seek ways to help yourself out?

There are 662,446 students set to graduate high schools in Ontario this year. If even one third of those students grasp the importance of giving back through volunteerism, then that means there will be 220,815 students going into the volunteer ‘workforce’ post-graduation. If each of those graduates goes on to give even a measly 10 hours per year, that’s over 2 million volunteer hours from one cohort year of graduating students.

Imagine how high they will lift their communities with that amount of effort?forced volunteer 3


First world problems  

As a social enterprise with a team who regularly volunteers, examining our impact on the communities we work and volunteer in is a common occurrence. Around the office we talk about the pros and cons of volunteerism both domestic and abroad, and how we can lead our lives in a way that has the highest positive impact on those around us.

Recently, one of our staff stumbled across a viral video, titled First World Problems Anthem. The video, which features individuals from Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, standing in front of worn down buildings and old streams while reading tweets from the popular #FirstWorldProblems hashtag, has racked up over 6.5 million views since its release.

Anyone who has ever used, or viewed and found humour in, the hashtag itself, is sure to have a moment of remorse or guilt for complaining about problems that ‘aren’t really problems,’ as the video points out during its conclusion.

It’s a lesson in perspective and relativism, and it’s certainly deserving of the amount of views it has. It does a fine job of making viewers stop and think, or, more importantly, stop and remember that things could be considerably worse.

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Like any good viral campaign, a conversation about the video, and its far-reaching implications, has sprung up across the internet. In true internet fashion, the debate has managed to turn what appears to be a black-and-white “don’t whine about meaningless issues” conversation into more of a grey area “but why don’t my problems matter?” dialogue.

For starters, using the ‘plight of poor 3rd world citizens’ stereotype to make a point doesn’t sit well with some critics of the video. The aforementioned article makes a compelling point that simply saying, “Your problems don’t count because there are those that have it worse,” is not always the most appropriate way of putting things into context.

Yes, maybe your toilet breaking isn’t a world-ending issue deserving of the inevitable post you shared on social media, but at the same time, just because there are people living in areas where plumbing is but a far-fetched fantasy, does not necessarily mean that your toilet problems are invalid.

The author from continues to drive home his point, arguing that sometimes attempting to render North American’s problems obsolete by things like comparing them to the latest tragedy of a far away land, is inappropriate:

“Take the bomb-throwing atheist Richard Dawkins, who rolled his eyes at allegations that female atheists are routinely forced to endure the awkward advances of male atheists. Dawkins commented acidly, ‘Yes, yes, … don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.’

The anti-Dawkins chorus responded—led not by theists, but by progressives who hate Islamophobia more than they hate religion—pointing out, quite rightly, that just because many women in the Muslim world are victims of sexism, institutional discrimination, and daily indignities doesn’t mean that inappropriate comments in the West are therefore rendered appropriate.”

A good point, but in the same moral grey area style this author writes in, let’s keep in mind that it doesn’t mean the video doesn’t have substantial validity.

For every detractor, it seems there are at least twice as many supporters of the video. The video, by the way, was created by WATERisLIFE, an organization that is doing incredible work worldwide. Their website is full of information that lends credibility to the importance of the video and the urgency of the cause, such as the fact that 1 in 5 children under the age of 5-years-old will die from waterborne disease every day this year.

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It seems fair then that using a guilt trip campaign will have the desired impact of making people think twice about what they share on social media and how they can help those less fortunate.

CNN’s coverage features some of the YouTube comments from the video, for reference:

“I used to think that first world problems were hilarious, but now I just feel bad.” 

Another person laments: “Okay (it’s) true I am a self centered stubborn brat. I have no idea how good I have it.”

The executive director of WATERisLIFE, Kristine Bender, weighed in at the end of the CNN article:

“People are becoming desensitized to suffering and we needed to enter the social space with a provocative approach to get those who are lucky enough to have simple things such as water, food, and shelter to reflect on their 140 characters and support causes like WATERisLIFE.”

Great point. How do you get people who are being bombarded by information 24/7/365 to not just pay attention to the information you’re sharing, but to actually care enough to absorb it and then take action?

Most organizations will never have an Ice Bucket Challenge level of success with their campaigns, and unfortunately, the reality is that even charities and non-profits are in a competitive market chasing support much the same way for-profit businesses are. So maybe the anti-FirstWorldProblems Anthem crowd could remember that WATERisLIFE deserves a little bit of leeway regarding their approach.

After all, they have created a conversation that was long overdue in Western culture.

We watched the video as a team and felt deeply moved to remember to check our privilege at the door before we indulge in sharing our own petty complaints.

It’s great that people are thinking more deeply about what they’re sharing on social media and how their words impact others. After all, whether you view this as an important moral issue or not, couldn’t we all spend a little more time reflecting on what we say online?