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The economic and volitional definitions

Let us start with the general idea of work, which Herbert Applebaum (1992:x) says has no satisfactory definition, since the idea relates to all human activities. That caveat aside, he sees work, among other ways, as performance of useful activity (making things, performing services) done as all or part of sustaining life, as a livelihood. Some people are remunerated for their work, whereas others get paid in kind or they directly maintain body and soul with the fruits of their labor (e.g., subsistence farming, hunting, fishing). Volunteering as unpaid (productive) work, sometimes known as the economic conception of such activity, is commonly defined as an absence of payment that would go toward making a livelihood, be that payment in money or in kind. But since it contributes little or nothing to the volunteer’s livelihood, it is not work as Applebaum defines it. Despite the illogical relationship of these two ideas, the economic conception dominates in nonprofit sector studies, where it is often used to describe volunteering in formal organizations. The origins of this concept seem to stretch far back into the history of economics as a discipline, and as Musick and Wilson (2008:12) observe, the concept has appeal as an easy measure carried out with empirical indicators.

Today, many definitions of volunteering include the element of unpaid work or unpaid productive work as one of several constituting a more complete definition. In other words the champions of these broader statements are arguing, a la Borsodi, that the economic definition is in itself incomplete and, some scholars would argue, also partial (i.e., biased). Musick and Wilson (2008) state in their assessment of this definition that it “tells nothing about the diverse meaning of volunteer work, nor does it explain why productive work is, in this case, unpaid. We need to remain open to the possibility that volunteerism is defined, in part, by its motivation” (p. 12).

When speaking of motivation, another problem emerges, one rooted in the use of “productive” in the economic definition. For volunteering is not always productive, in the sense that it inevitably adds value to the target of benefits, be it an individual, group, flora, or fauna. That is, volunteering does not always result in the effect intended by the volunteers or their managers and, indeed, may even have a negative impact (Grotz 2011). Moreover, volunteers themselves are sometimes disappointed with the results of their efforts, suggesting that those efforts may have been partially, even totally, ineffective. In short and in line with Borsodi’s principle of differentiation, productiveness fails as an element in the definition of volunteering that can be used to distinguish volunteering from the activities in work where productivity is also absent at times (e.g., where workers loaf, are poorly directed, lack necessary tools).

What is unique, however, is the attitude or motive that volunteers intend to be productive. For this reason I doctor the economic definition in the following way: volunteering is intentionally productive unpaid work. From the standpoint of this definition it matters little whether the volunteering is actually productive, only that volunteers engage in the activity with the intention or, at minimum, the hope - by the way, both are volitional - that it will turn out to be productive. Further, to escape the illogicality of volunteer “work,” I replace it with volunteer “activity.”

The motivational foundation and socio-cultural context of volunteering vary substantially according to the activity and form of leisure being pursued. Serious leisure volunteering is exemplified by serving on a board of directors, administering emergency medical services, and acting as a hospital volunteer. Other people volunteer routinely, as part of their casual leisure, by addressing and stuffing envelopes for a charity, distributing food at a food bank, picking up furniture and clothing for Goodwill Industries and the like. Leisure projects include one-off volunteering at an arts festival or sports tournament and running an electoral campaign.

Thus Stebbins (2013) argues that by observing that the first is, in part, descriptive; it portrays volunteering as, at bottom, intentionally productive unpaid work. But the problem with this blanket qualification is that by no means all such work is voluntary, as the domain of non-work obligation so clearly shows (activities in this domain are by definition disagreeable, the agreeable ones being essentially leisure - see the next two paragraphs). Moreover, some other kinds of unpaid work hardly resemble paid work, since they are essentially leisure. Is it not true, then, that a principal attraction of this economic conception is its capacity to steer attention to an important sphere of life situated beyond employment, beyond livelihood?

What is the domain of non-work obligation? On the activity level, the great proportion of everyday life can be conceptualized as being experienced in one of three domains: work, leisure, and non-work obligation (Stebbins 2009a:Chapter 1; 2012:Chapter 3). Obligation outside that experienced while pursuing a livelihood is terribly understudied (much of it falls under the heading of family and/or domestic life, while obligatory communal involvements are also possible) and sometimes seriously misunderstood (as in coerced “volunteering”). To speak of obligation, is to speak not about how people are prevented from entering certain leisure activities - the object of much of research on leisure constraints - but about how people fail to define a given activity as leisure or redefine it as other than leisure, as an unpleasant obligation. Obligation is both a state of mind, an attitude - a person feels obligated - and a form of behavior - he must carry out a particular course of action, engage in a particular activity. But even while obligation is substantially mental and behavioral, it roots, too, in the social and cultural world of the obligated actor.

Obligation fits with leisure in at least two ways: leisure may include certain agreeable obligations and the third domain of life - non-work obligation - consists of disagreeable requirements capable of shrinking the leisure space. Agreeable obligation is very much a part of some leisure, evident when such obligation accompanies positive commitment to an activity that evokes pleasant memories and expectations (these two are essential features of leisure, Kaplan 1960:22-25). On the other hand, disagreeable obligation has no place in leisure, because among other reasons, it fails to leave the participant with a pleasant memory or expectation of the activity. Rather it is the stuff of the third domain: nonwork obligation. This domain is the classificatory home of all we must do that we would rather avoid that is not related to work (including moonlighting). So far I have been able to identify three types: unpaid labor, unpleasant tasks, and odious self-care (e.g., see Stebbins 2012:53-54).

Another key quality of the economic definition is that the unpaid activity in question is sometimes described in the intellectual circles oriented by this definition as intentionally productive. In volunteering, volunteers intend to generate something of value for both self and other (nonfamily) individuals, including group or community, if not a combination of these three. The various examples offered two paragraphs ago attest to both this intention and, in these instances, its productive outcome.

Now, the concept of intentionally-productive unpaid work occupies some common ground with the serious leisure perspective. The latter, particularly in its serious leisure and project-based forms, includes following Stebbins (1996a; 2007/2015:13-17) a set of ten personal and social rewards that participants may realize through participation in the activities the forms subsume (the rewards are presented later). In other words, unpaid volunteer work, when productive, leads to these benefits for self (i.e., intrinsic “psychic benefits” and possibly extrinsic instrumental pay-offs) as well as for other individuals, groups, or the community as a whole.

It is this second quality of the idea of unpaid work as intended productivity that carries it beyond description into explanation. Such work is supposed to produce results, thereby showing the utility of volunteering. Furthermore, now on the explanatory level, the definitional ball gets passed to leisure studies.

Thus in Stebbins (2013) I proposed the following definition of the work-leisure axis of volunteering, on which we find the economic- volitional puzzle. Volunteering is un-coerced, intentionally-productive, altruistic, helping activity framed in a distinctive context and engaged in during free time. It is also altruistic-helping activity that people want to do and, using their abilities and resources, actually do in either a satisfying or a fulfilling way (or both).

If people are compensated then the payment in cash or in kind is significantly less-than-market-value. “Activity” (and core activity) is substituted for “work” in this definition, because the first is the more precise term for what people do in and get from their leisure and volunteering. The adjective “intentionally-productive” is added to distinguish the beneficial social consequences of volunteering, which are absent in some other kinds of leisure (e.g., walking in a park, reading for pleasure or self-improvement, watching people from a sidewalk cafe). And the adjective “altruistic” includes the generally accepted proposition that all such activity is also motivated by self-interested considerations (Stebbins 1996a). The locution “less-than-market-valued,” which now replaces “unpaid,” admits quasi-volunteering to the definition. When performing it, people help reach a public service goal, are recognized socially as a type of volunteer, and receive an in-cash or in-kind compensation significantly less than the market value of the labor provided (e.g., a stipend for Peace Corps volunteers, an honorarium for a president of a nonprofit board of directors) (Smith, 2000:25, 47).

In this regard, Rochester, Paine, and Howlett (2010:13-16) frame in a unique way serious leisure volunteering and its related perspectives. They integrate it with activism and unpaid work or service diagramed on page 15 as three overlapping sets, or circles. To understand volunteering fully one must consider this broader picture. That is, volunteering may be seen as a combination of unpaid work and activism, a combination of activism and serious leisure, a combination of serious leisure and unpaid work, and as a combination of all three perspectives. This conceptualization is consistent with the economic-volitional definition just presented.

How does the stipended volunteer fit this definition? This type raises a singular question: can people, at a level significantly less than market value, make money or be paid in kind and still be logically regarded as engaged in volunteering? Yes, they can, but only to the extent that they are not coerced, find the activity attractive, and experience it as either satisfying or fulfilling or both. In fact, if the volunteering becomes devotee work that is remunerated at a level where the worker is dependent on that money, the serious leisure character of that activity is preserved.

But, if the volunteering loses some of its appeal and to maintain its attractiveness the volunteers get a stipend, they become economically or psychologically dependent on it. Here they increasingly marginalize themselves in the world of volunteering, because they are ever more influenced by this dependency (Thompson 1997b; Stebbins 2001a; 2009b).

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