On the surface of things, it's hard to find fault with volunteers and volunteerism. You start writing stuff in that vein and people really come down on you as the Voice of Doom.
Volunteers are, of course, the lifeblood of many American philanthropies and community outreaches. The likes of Meals on Wheels, Habitat for Humanity, literacy programs at most libraries, and countless other boots-on-the-ground initiatives could not long survive without good people who donate their time.
That said, I am troubled when I see volunteerism increasingly playing a role in the operations of larger, well-heeled corporations. That strikes me as somewhat predatory. And the fact that there are people only too happy to volunteer for such "jobs" doesn't make the situation any better; to my mind it makes the situation seem all the more predatory.
My wife recently had surgery at St. Luke's Hospital in Allentown, PA, and the lady behind the desk in the post-op waiting room was a volunteer. She was a lovely older woman who actually gets up extra-early each day of her shift in order to bake brownies or other goodies for the people she'll encounter in the waiting room. These are from-scratch brownies and goodies, not the Duncan Hines variety. She told me that she'll average three shifts in a given week.
Here are some fast facts about St. Luke's, from its own web site:
- 55,300+ annual admissions
- 193,000 annual emergency room visits
- 9,400+ employees (the region's second largest employer)
- 1,342 physicians (representing more than 90 specialties; 92 percent board certified)
- 1,652 volunteers
St.Luke’s operating revenue in excess of expense for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2012 was $11,037,000, representing an operating margin of 2.5 percent.... Total operating revenue grew to $439 million...As you can see, we are talking about a giant regional network. A giant regional network that takes in $11 million "in excess of expense." Why allow anyone to be a volunteer? (OK, volunteers do get "delicious hot meals" in the cafeteria and "discounted" gym memberships.) Would it break the bank to pay the woman at the post-op desk a minimum wage? How far would such largess eat into the hospital's operating margin, even if St. Luke's-Allentown paid all 1652 volunteers a minimum wage?
Let's see now. Suppose they paid Brownie Lady $8 an hour for a five-hour shift. That's the princely sum of $40 per day. If she works her three-shift average she makes $120 that week. If she works 50 weeks (likely more than the real number), that's $6000 a year. Multiply that by 1652 (making the same assumptions about the other 1651 volunteers) and you have total additional annual wages of just under $10 million. So your operating margin is now down to around $1 million. But, that probably wouldn't happen, either, as the hospital might raise its rates subtly to defray the added outlay. Lord knows hospitals make adjustments and assessments to cover all sort of other routine expenses. Or St. Luke's could hit up one of its own big-dollar benefactors for a donation; maybe the donor wouldn't get his or her name on a new wing this time, but the hospital could put some kind of patch on the arms of the volunteers whose salary the donation is paying. Or Brownie Lady could design the altruist's initials into each batch via the creative use of icing...
In any case, I think St. Luke's would muddle through somehow. I don't get it.