Treating Volunteers Well

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April 1, 2004
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By Alana Suskin

WHAT ARE THE ETHICS to guide our treatment of Jewish communal volunteers?

Over the past 40 years, the pool of volunteers has dropped as the number of women working outside the home has increased. One might think that the shrinking pool would spur institutions to value their volunteers more and, therefore, treat them with greater respect. But it seems to be a regular pastime of communal volunteers to regale one another with horror stories of outrageous demands and disrespectful treatment.

The idea of volunteers for the Jewish community — that is, people who provide necessary services without pay — is complicated; it is also a relatively recent phenomenon. We can, however, try to derive a code of ethics for how to treat our volunteers.

First, our institutions need to face the contemporary realities of society: it is not possible to simply assume the continued availability of people with significant open blocks of time in the middle of the day to donate. If Jewish institutions want volunteers, they will have to make people want to volunteer for that specific organization; and the experience must be rewarding and meaningful.

Second, Jewish tradition is very explicit that we are under obligation to those we employ to tread carefully in our treatment of workers. This is, perhaps, even more essential in terms of volunteers. For example, the requirement concerning prompt and appropriate pay can be translated into the larger issue of kavod habriot, respect for one another. Following are some examples of how our Jewish institutions might more fully respect our volunteers:

  1. Respect volunteers’ time: Simply because they aren’t being paid for their efforts, doesn’t mean their time isn’t valuable. It is essential that employees understand and respect the contributions made by volunteers. Scheduling meetings should accommodate both the needs of professionals and volunteers. For example, when face-to-face meetings are necessary, they should also be scheduled acknowledging the volunteers’ paid work schedules, rather than expecting that volunteers will take additional time in the middle of the day to accommodate the schedules of paid workers.
  2. Respect volunteers’ ideas: It is critical to include volunteers in meaningful discussions and decision-making conversations.
  3. Respect volunteers’ privacy: The family life of volunteers is no less important than the family life of paid workers. Just as one wouldn’t consider demanding a paid worker to give up a day off, volunteers should be given opportunities to suggest appropriate times to meet or schedule programs.
  4. Respect paid professionals: While volunteers often provide human resources that would otherwise drain the organization, and expertise that they bring from outside of the organization, the presence of volunteers is not a reason to underpay other workers — especially people in clerical or service positions.

The Jewish community should be leading the way in modeling the best possible treatment of those from whom we get the gifts of time and expertise. It is our tradition to treat one another with respect.

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Rabbi Alana Suskin has worked extensively with social justice organizations both as a professional and volunteer. She lives in Los Angeles.

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