Leaving noblesse oblige behind
19 July 2006, 11:48
by Nan Hawthorne
I would like to initiate a discussion here – and feel free to share with others - a discussion of a concept that I am enamoured of and I also think is part of the brightest possible future for our work and the world for that matter, at least as long as the world we know continues to evolve.
I would value hearing from anyone on the topic as I state it below… agree, disagree, and also to hear from you what sorts of elements are implicit that might lend themselves to research and writing for Volunteer Management Review.
Here is my thesis:
Our current view of volunteerism is by and large based on a belief that people who can should help the more unfortunate. The economically settled should help the poor, the non-disabled should help the disabled, the well should help the sick, adults should help children, younger people should help the elderly, the free should help the oppressed, the educated should help the ignorant and uneducated, and so forth. (Clearly there are other types of volunteering, environmental etc. but let me get to that later.)
This version of noblesse oblige is old and at least becoming pretty universal. It definitely reflects the 19th century philosophy that led to formal volunteering, as we know it today. Now remember, this is my thesis. Or half of it.
Let me tell you two quick stories, then give you the other half of my thesis.
I once gave a talk to a group of people from NGOs from outside my own country of the US. I talked about people of all classes working together for the commonweal. I don't think I have ever gotten so many odd looks in one training... and I realized that I was "preaching" to the wrong audience. Many of the people in this group were the middle and upper middle class in their cultures and the last thing they saw volunteering as was something the lower and middle did in tandem.
The other story is about a post on one of the (discussion) lists from a man in South Africa. He was asking for ideas on recruiting people to help the mentally ill gain job skills. In thinking about his question the first thing that came to me is that RSA is an emerging nation, relatively new in its present form, and how volunteering could function as a way for the citizens to help craft that new nation... what I am starting to call "volunteering as active democracy".
So here is the second half of my thesis... that volunteering needs to and should evolve from the haves helping the have-nots to everyone volunteering in various ways as a way of actively participating in "ownership" of their nations, their societies. The democratic process should be more than electoral... it should be a matter of building and shaping even the smallest aspect of our communities and daily life.
As you see, some kinds of volunteering already fit this… like people who volunteer for environmental causes. There is no have not in that area.
So my suggestion is that we discuss any aspect of this... the thesis that volunteering is largely top-down have-have not currently and must, will evolve into something more egalitarian, universal, and how that might happen, how we might help it as professionals in our fields.
I invite your responses here on the World Volunteer Web, or directly at
I am retiring from volunteer resources management related involvement as of January 1 to pursue my career as a historical novelist full time. In the meantime I am excited to put these ideas out there for discussion and consideration.