What is a three syllable word that can mean the same thing as the three syllable phrase, “work for free”?  Put on your thinking caps and you will soon discover that it is “volunteer”.

Now, everyone knows that one must never “work for free”.  It is equally true that we think all good citizens should “volunteer”.

Just imagine what it would sound like if we had National “Work for Free” Week instead of National Volunteer Week?  Maybe voluntary organizations could recognize their outstanding “unpaid workers” instead of their outstanding “volunteers”?   Yet somehow that doesn’t seem right.

So what is the difference between working for free and volunteering?  Well, volunteering is supposed to be “voluntary” and “volitional”.  Please note the “vol” in all these words because it is the latin root meaning willing and wanting.  It is something you choose to do of your own free will because you want to do it, you want to do something good.

Of course, experts in Latin rarely work for the government where people are asked to volunteer all the time, even when they don’t particularly want to.  When I worked for the Department of the Secretary of State, the employees there did so much unpaid overtime we began to call it the largest voluntary organization in the country.

People in all large organizations are very familiar with meetings called to recruit volunteers.  Everyone is expected to attend because not to do so would be a bad mark on your career record, an irony that is often lost on those who organize these gatherings.   There, some people truly do volunteer because they believe in the cause or because they think it is a good career move, but often, if more volunteers are needed, it is those who were unable to attend who become “volunteered”.  Which is odd because it implies that they end up doing something “of their own free will” because someone else told them to. 

My wife and I volunteer all the time in our interaction with each other.   She might say, “it’s a beautiful sunny day.  It’s amazing how long the grass looks in the sunlight.”  Then I volunteer in response, “You know, today would be a great day to mow the lawn.”   When my daughter is home for the summer, at this point, I look at her, expecting her to volunteer to cut it.  When she is not there, I just go out and mow it.  Well, maybe tomorrow.

Or I might say, “I haven’t had eggs all week.”  My wife then volunteers, “I could make some eggs for you if you like.”  Isn’t volunteering great?

I was saying this to a friend of mine who shook his head enthusiastically in agreement.   “I think volunteering builds character and tells you a lot about a person,”  he bubbled.  “Just yesterday my daughter brought home an older boy friend who I thought looked scruffy and unkempt.  But he totally impressed me when he told me he was doing 5000 hours of community service.  That’s real commitment to social justice.”

So we should not think of volunteers as people who do something for nothing.  Sometimes, when there are too many of them, they end up doing nothing for nothing.  But really most of the time they do something for a cause, for a reward of satisfaction that they help make things better. 

And if you think it’s easy to volunteer nowadays, just walk into a non-profit organization and say, “Here I am.  What do you want me to do?”

You might have to go through a job interview, a security clearance and a police check.   Then you can lick stamps.  But of course, nobody licks stamps.  There are self sticking stamps  and postal machines for that.  The upshot is you have to have something to offer besides just good will.

One volunteer once noted that the Titanic was built by professionals and Noah’s Ark was built by amateurs.  But in the Jewish community each person can sometimes give the impression they are receiving their own set of divine instructions on what is right.  Until we all hear the commanding voice coming to us out of the fiery mountain again, and saying the same words to each of us, we may have to continue to compromise.

A woman of valour, has a price above rubies and she doesn’t get paid but works for the good of her family.  A volunteer who gives time and effort for the good of the community must have a price above rubies, many times over.

But shhh! don’t tell anybody lest when everyone learns the true value that volunteers have to our society, it upsets the prices on the stock market.  

Then I’d have to stop volunteering, which I enjoy, and go back to work.