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The new unaffiliated volunteers
22 March 2005
by Mary Merrill

Call them serendipitous, entrepreneurial, spontaneous, unofficial, out of the box, under the radar, independent or unaffiliated. These are the new volunteers that do what they want, when and how they want to do it.

They do not feel obligated to do their volunteer work through established channels. They see a need, or something that peaks their interest and they are off and running. I call them the vigilante volunteers. The term vigilante refers to a self-appointed doer of justice. The justice for them is doing “right actions.” These volunteers see themselves as self-appointed doers of good.

Several news articles in recent weeks have focused attention on a variety of people who responded to the Tsunami disaster in the countries bordering the Indian Ocean. The Wall Street Journal reported on the large numbers of people who responded to the crisis by offering to serve as volunteers at the disaster sites.

International aid agencies say they appreciate such dedication, but they worry that volunteers will create chaos and tax already strained infrastructures. The Red Cross has turned down many volunteers and says it isn’t recruiting outside help in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. International development agency Oxfam says it is still taking names, but it prefers volunteers to work through local offices back home rather than just showing up at the scene.

The result is that many frustrated visitors are taking matters into their own hands, creating ad-hoc organizations to fill in where other groups aren’t active, sometimes under the radar of government authorities. (Barta, 2005)

A local television station featured a small group of lay missionaries from a Columbus, Ohio church, as they boarded a plan to set off for relief work in Thailand. They proudly stated they saw a need and were on their way. They had no idea where they would be staying or what they would be doing, but they were certain they would connect with those most in need.

Newsweek Magazine carried an article about a pediatric nurse who was turned down by the Red Cross when she wanted to volunteer for the Asian tsunami disaster. She contacted the Sri Lankan Consulate directly and was soon the focus of local news stories, leading to American Airlines flying her and eight other doctors and nurses to Sri Lanka for a two week medical-relief trip. As a result of her experience she says:

I would like to start a grass-roots American medical-relief group to duplicate what we were able to do in Sri Lanka on a larger scale. It would include small teams of doctors and nurses from all over the United States that could respond quickly to international disasters. Teams members would rotate every two weeks to enable those with full time jobs to participate. (O’Connor, 2005)

Medical relief volunteer programs currently exist. Médecins Sans Frontières (also known as Doctors Without Borders or MSF) is perhaps the best-known international network with sections in 18 countries. Each year, more than 2,500 volunteer doctors, nurses, other medical professionals, logistics experts, water/sanitation engineers, and administrators provide medical aid in more than 80 countries.

The phenomena we are now seeing is that today’s volunteers are going to do what they want to do, regardless of official channels for doing it. They are taking matters into their own hands, creating ad-hoc organizations, or finding personal ways of doing what they want to do. Years ago volunteers would not so readily have worked outside of the system. That is no longer the case. The Tsunami relief efforts provided some interesting examples of this, but they are only the tip of the iceberg. This is happening every day in local communities, as volunteers look at local programs and say, “I’m going to try a new approach.” These are the vigilante volunteers. They have been growing slowly and steadily over the last 10-15 years.

Hands On Network affiliates guide the entire service experience, beginning with recruitment, moving through project management, and finally, addressing retention and recognition. This process for transforming an initial interest in helping into a meaningful service experience has proven effective for both adult and youth volunteers.

Hands On Network affiliates offer accommodating scheduling, commitment flexibility and team-based programs, allowing volunteers to serve with colleagues, friends and family, or to make new friends serving with like-minded volunteers.

Hands On Network affiliates also help civic-minded companies organize hands-on community service efforts, allowing many companies to fulfill their commitments to serve local communities, while building workplace morale and camaraderie.

We see volunteering as an entry point for greater civic engagement. By infusing volunteers with education on the issues they affect through service and opportunities to network with other concerned citizens, we build community in every sense, generating social capital crucial for healthy civic life. (Hands on Network, 2005)

Hands On Network has forty U.S. and four International affiliates. Originally designed to meet the needs of young, working professionals, they continue to remain on the cutting edge, promoting entrepreneurial strategies for bridging communities, resources and needs. They saw a need, developed an approach and continue to grow. Volunteer Centers, who once saw this organization as competition, are now looking for opportunities to create partnerships.

Volunteers in Medicine was created in 1993 by Dr. Jack McConnell, following his retirement to Hilton Head, South Carolina. He soon observed the lack of good medical care in the communities surround Hilton Head and founded a free medical clinic, staff with retired doctors and nurses. He worked to pass legislation allowing retired medical personnel to obtain low cost medical malpractice insurance to encourage them to volunteer their time and skills. Dr. McConnell now works a 60 hour unpaid week and has seen his model replicated across the country. (Volunteers in Medicine, 2005)

In 1995 Craig Newmark began Craigslist, an email list to friends about arts and technology events in the San Francisco area. By 2003 it was ranked among the top 200 web sites in the world in terms of activity, with about 2.8 million unique visitors a month. It includes job, housing and volunteer information. In 2001 Craigslist Foundation was developed to help emerging nonprofit organizations. They produce events and online resources to help grassroots organizations get off the ground and contribute real value to our community. (Newmark, 2005)

Lynne Tingle volunteered during her lunch hour at a local animal shelter to walk the dogs and promote adoption. She became increasingly upset when she would walk a healthy, friendly dog one week and find it had been euthanized by the next week because no one had adopted it within the specified time limits. Frustrated by the “rules” Lynne began talking dogs home and arranging adoptions on her own. In 1994 she sold her home, left her business and bought a large piece of land where she started the Milo Foundation, a no-kill animal sanctuary for homeless pets in northern California. (Kushner, 2003)

Stepping out to form new organizations and new solutions to problems has led to the creation of many new non-profit organizations. Someone had an idea and put it into practice. What we are seeing today is, I believe, a major shift in how people approach and think about volunteer work. They are not interested in conforming to rules, procedures, or restrictions. They are seeking instant responses in a society that lives by push button action. They tell you what they want to do, when they want to do it, how they want to do it and if you cannot accommodate, they do it on their own. They are not interested in joining a volunteer program. They are interested in results and they will find ways to make it happen.

Belgium researchers, Hustinx and Lammertyn (2003), identified this as a shift from collective to reflexive volunteering. Fifty years ago volunteering often happened through collective action – membership in clubs or religious organizations. Volunteering today is much more of a reflexive action, based on individual interests, motivations and needs. Robert Putnam (2000) identified similar patterns in his book, Bowling Alone, and tracked generationally based changes in the perception of and attitudes toward volunteering.

Stories about individual responses to the tsunami disaster have thrust this growing trend into the headlines once again. While these individual responses are not necessarily criticisms of existing organizations and the procedures and processes currently in place for screening and engaging volunteers, it should cause all managers of volunteers to stop and think about what is happening and what volunteers are saying when they set off on their own to do “their thing.” Volunteering is becoming an increasingly individualized activity where potential volunteers are creating their own experiences rather than seeking the collective experience through a traditional organization. The actions of the vigilante or entrepreneurial volunteers cannot be viewed as exceptions, but should be viewed as a growing tide of response to current practices and organizational structures. There is, I believe a huge, challenge on our horizon. How do we attract and engage these independent, creative, individualistic individuals? Will we allow them to shape and change our structure and organizations? Or will they even be interested in talking with us?


Jason Redman, a high school student in Alaska, created a free urban bicycle program for residents without cars for his civics class project. Students at Highland Community School in Denver, Colorado, raised money to buy two Sudanese slaves and return them to their families. They have since involved dozens of other schools in the project and have freed hundreds of slaves. Lynn Coffman created a program to provide a homemade lunch to homeless residents of Baltimore after visiting a homeless shelter when she was eight years old. Six years later there are 50 volunteers serving 600 lunches each week.

Howe and Strauss (2000) labeled the millennial generation (born after 1982) as the generation of institution builders. As I look at the growing trend to work outside of the boundaries or to find new solutions, I have to wonder if this coming generation will accelerate the trend of reflexive volunteering and create a new set of volunteer based institutions rather than join and support currently established institutions and organizations.