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Charity Begins At Home: It’s Better To Give Than Receive

By Horace Blake

volunteerWhen citizens conjure up thoughts of volunteering, they frequently think about working at a food bank, delivering meals on wheels or volunteering at a shelter. Not to say this act is without merit. However, in our current society volunteering has taken on new meaning in both the public and private sector.

In their working paper titled “Exploring the Limits of Volunteerism in Public Service: Substituting Volunteer for Paid Labor,” Nesbit, Brudney and Christensen wrote there is a political, legal and human resource environment that pushes the boundaries of volunteer work in many communities. For this reason, the Supreme Court has made it clear that the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was not intended “to stamp all persons as employees who without any express or implied compensation agreement might work for their own advantage on the premises of another.” In administering the FSLA, the Department of Labor follows this judicial guidance in the case of individuals serving as unpaid volunteers in a variety of community services. Individuals, who donate their time on a part-time basis for public service and not as an employee and without contemplation of pay, are not considered employees of that organization that receives their service.

Public service volunteering can be local or at far away locations. With the multitude of volunteer opportunities in the public sector, those who manage human resources must be vigilant in adhering to the rule of law that governs unpaid volunteers. This is compulsory not only for the organization but the person who volunteers their time. Keeping in mind that the political environment of volunteerism is influenced by pressures that arise during financial difficult times where greater public support is needed to accomplish political goals.

Laws Governing Volunteering in the Public Sector

In the public sector there are many opportunities for internship or volunteers that may not come with any compensation or any special rewards. In a legal environment there may be limitations on how many new employees could be replaced during lay-offs as the restrictions would look towards volunteers to occupy areas where extra help is necessary and the budget does not allow for any new paid employee.  According to the Department of Labor (DOL), employees may not volunteer services to for-profit private sector employers. However, in the vast majority of circumstances, individuals can volunteer services to public sector employers. When Congress amended the FLSA in 1985, it made it clear that anyone is allowed to volunteer their services to public agencies and their community with but one exception. Public sector employers may not allow their employees to volunteer without compensation, additional time to do the same work for which they are employed. Public sector employees may volunteer to do different kinds of work in the jurisdiction in which they are employed, or to volunteer to do similar work in different jurisdictions. This could be a police officer volunteering to work in a local city park that is (non–law enforcement related). However, this officer could volunteer to perform law enforcement for a different jurisdiction other than where he or she is employed.

The human resources manager has to be aware of the laws that govern such issues to avoid any legal challenges. For this reason, the Department of Labor Regulations 29 C.F.R. 553.103 defines “same type of services” to mean similar or identical services. In general, Department of Labor Regulations would consider the duties and other factors contained in the definitions of occupations in the dictionary of occupational titles in determining whether the volunteer activities constitute the “same type of services” as the employment activities. Equally important is whether the volunteer service is closely related to the actual duties performed by or responsibilities assigned to the employee who “volunteers.” This is of importance as municipalities operate under a state charter and all volunteers selected must be sworn in by an assigned employee with clear knowledge of the expectations of the new volunteer.

Public Service Opportunities

The human resources environment in volunteering suggests staff receptivity, ability to deliver service and management capacity to recruit, train and develop these volunteers to serve in a very effective capacity especially during times of leaner government activities. Another plus is staff that values volunteer’s capacity along with the organization’s buy in towards the successful management of a volunteer program.  According to Horace Blake’s article titled “ Constructing a Resume Through Volunteerism, serving on a variety of commissions and boards offers first hand professional experience in working with a diverse team, knowledgeable volunteer counterparts along with agency management staff members as liaisons. Examples of the commissions and boards that a large municipality, such as Carrollton, Texas, have in their slate of offerings are:

  • Capital Improvement Plan Advisory Committee (CIPAC).
  • Firefighter’s and Police Officers’ Advisory Commission (FPOAC).
  • Property Standards Board (PSB).
  • Historic Preservation Advisory Committee (HPAC).
  • Museum Board (MB).
  • Library Board (LB).
  • Neighborhood Advisory Commission (NAC).
  • Parks and Recreation Board (PRB).
  • Planning & Zoning Commission (P&Z).
  • Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ).
  • Traffic Advisory Board (TAB).
  • Charter Review Committee (CRC). 

These opportunities require going through the application process and a thorough review by the municipality or county government leaders. During the selection process prospective volunteers are usually matched with the opportunities that closely match their education and past experiences. In the case of a municipality, the job duties to be performed are then clearly outlined with the assistance of the human resources manager and the city secretary.

There are several myths in volunteering. One myth is that people in affluent cities are keener to volunteer than those living in underserved communities. Another myth is that there is no cost associated with employing volunteers in a public organization.  In his article titled “The Effective Use of Volunteers: Best Practices for the Public Sector,”  Jeffrey L. Brudney noted that agencies with a well-designed and managed volunteer program can and will certainly be able to avoid any myths or pitfalls associated with using volunteers.

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