In his brief spot on NPR recently, sports writer and commentator Frank Deford noted that 16,000 volunteers had been recruited to help at the 2014 Super Bowl in New Jersey slated for Feb. 2, 2014. Remarking on the millions of dollars involved in this commercial event, he asked: “Why would anybody volunteer to work for free for the Super Bowl? Would you volunteer to work free for Netflix or Disney World?”

He continued, “Apparently, though, there are more chumps in New Jersey than we see on television’s Jersey Shore or hear about in the Rutgers athletic department.”

He next moved on to questioning both the money and volunteered time devoted around the world to golf and tennis tournaments, the Olympics, and more.

He was not trying to call all volunteers “chumps.” In fact, he urged listeners to offer their services to a wide range of charities instead of sports. Deford’s mockery of Super Bowl supporters seems appropriate at first glance. But as always with volunteer-related media attention, it’s a superficial take on a much more complicated set of issues.

Several responders on the NPR website pointed out that volunteers at sporting events often receive substantial benefits in the form of admission to expensive competitions or festivities, various pieces of clothing, and more. This is all true and possibly motivation for some.

But perhaps the primary reason people volunteer for these sorts of larger-than-life events is to be there. Maybe it is to have a reason to take part officially as somewhat of an “insider,” enjoy the atmosphere and the fun, and maybe to meet — or at least see in person — a favorite sports star or other celebrity. Why are they chumps for accomplishing that?

Deford is not the only one stoking controversy at the moment. Consider the worldwide escalation of attacks against unpaid internships.

  • Unpaid internships are wrong;
  • Unpaid internships are illegal; and,
  • Unpaid interns should claim back their pay.

These are the sentiments headlining the Web site of the UK campaign group Intern Aware, which further warns: “The UK is at risk of creating a society that throws on the scrap heap those who are unable to intern for free for long periods of time. Intern Aware campaigns for interns to be paid at least the national minimum wage, so all are able to afford to get the work experience they deserve.”

The organization joined with the British trade union Unite this past May in publishing a report calling for “an end to unpaid internships and the reintroduction of paid entry level jobs in the [third] sector.” It might surprise some that these attacks are against nonprofits in which volunteering has long been a norm. The current debate surfaces the growing number of essentially full-time, unpaid positions while entry-level jobs disappear. This tends to work especially against the career advancement of any young person who cannot afford several months without an income.

Do an Internet search on “internships” plus “exploitation” and you’ll get swamped. Just a few examples of articles from a range of countries, whose titles tell the whole story:

  • “Intern exploitation is rife, says report,” Sydney Morning Herald, February 7, 2013;
  • “Do Unpaid Internships Exploit College Students?” on The New York Times “Room for Debate” pages, February 2012. One of the contributors, Ross Perlin, is the author of an entire book on this subject: Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy (Verso, 2011);
  • “Unpaid internships exploit ‘vulnerable generation:’ Estimates suggest 100,000 to 300,000 Canadians work unpaid internships at any given time,” Canadian Broadcasting Company News, July 2, 2013; and,
  • “Hollywood Intern Lawsuit Panic” on the media-watching site, The Wrap, July 11, 2013, on current, successful litigation of unpaid interns on projects such as the film, Black Swan.

Some opponents want to end any and all unpaid internships, whether in for-profit businesses or nonprofit organizations. Others want to stem the rising tide of full-time volunteer service becoming a prerequisite for eventual employment. There are some excellent arguments being made. Some internships do exploit young people. But we need to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater by universal restrictions.

No advocate of volunteering wants anyone to be financially exploited nor do they want to supplant paying jobs. Such situations should be strongly challenged. It’s just that inappropriate volunteering is not as immediately obvious as might be inferred from the protests above.

One key element in each situation is what the volunteers are being asked to do, compared to what employees are paid to do.

If the Super Bowl volunteers are given scut work, kept in the parking lot furthest away from the venue, and treated badly, exploitation might come to mind. But if volunteers are seen as ambassadors from the host city, greeting visitors with a personal touch, or are assigned to special-skill roles such as translating for foreign-language speakers or helping people with physical disabilities find their access points, does it really matter if the event is profit-making or not?

Recent graduates are largely inexperienced and would only qualify for entry-level jobs. Internships that simply keep the volunteer in low-level, go-fer work, might indeed lead nowhere while saving the employer money. But well-designed internships can provide the young person a genuine opportunity to participate in all sorts of work for which they could never be hired.

More than anything else, volunteering should be a matter of choice. Who has the right to tell anyone that they are foolish to want to help out and get the chance to do what they really want to do?

Businesses and, yes, nonprofits absolutely need to distinguish between what is a paid job and what is a volunteer role, and should pay employees and give benefits to those who wish to volunteer. Nobody is automatically wrong for either recruiting volunteers or accepting the invitation. It all depends on the cause, the event, the urgency, the interests of each potential volunteer, and how long the unpaid relationship lasts.

Another critical question: What would happen if no one volunteered to do these things? Would money suddenly be found and people hired (highly unlikely)? Would the need go unmet? And, what is the consequence of a need remaining unmet? For that matter, would the elimination of unpaid internships mean no viable way to break into a desired career field?

Do not be distracted by any implication that, by definition, volunteering in a for-profit environment is always wrong while volunteering in a nonprofit is always right. Board members at voluntary organizations that do not fundraise effectively to hire needed frontline employees while paying their top managers extremely high salaries might not deserve volunteers (or even donors).

There is also evidence that events such as the Super Bowl or the Olympics practice more welcoming volunteer management than nonprofits where management has grown complacent in communicating with their many thrift shop salespeople and marathon runners. Volunteers know when they are appreciated.  NPT

Susan J. Ellis is president of Energize, a Philadelphia-based training, publishing and consulting firm specializing in volunteerism and Everyone Ready® online volunteer management training program www.everyoneready.info. Her email is susan@energizeinc.com. Her Web site is www.energizeinc.com