Is Volunteer Activism More Legit?

It is fashionable, in feminist quarters, to bash the non-profit industrial complex. To imply that activist work done while receiving a paycheck is somehow less legitimate than a labor of love and only love.

There are a number of problems with this argument. Namely confusing the solution to movement organizations doing a bad job, which is creating and/or fostering movement organizations in a position to do a better job, with martyr-like personal sacrifice. However much your actions matter — and they do profoundly — personal solutions, especially ones that hurt you, will not resolve systemic problems.

Many feminists express justifiable anger with and avoidance of “feminist” organizations that purport to speak for all women while actually representing the needs of women who are and/or look like their leadership; or compromise to the point of becoming a partisan pom squad; or treat the women who work for them like shit. I agree with that. I’m there. But I want you to have your principles and be able to get paid. Here’s why.

First, “don’t get paid” feeds right into economic exploitation, particularly of younger people, that is already common practice at many non-profit women’s organizations. Unpaid internships to do clerical work? Sure, budgets are tight and maybe it’s not illegal, the way it is in for-profit business environments. It’s still highly unethical for the workers it displaces and the students who are often paying tuition for the privilege of answering phones and making copies. And don’t get me started on the low wages many junior staffers are paid, particularly when there’s enough money for others to pull decent salaries. It’s disgusting and a source for shame.

Second, the women’s movement is shifting and needs to keep shifting. #femfuture, a recent report created by online feminists in New York, named and began offering potential solutions to a problem that desperately needs to be resolved: The unsustainable nature of the unpaid work model for online feminism. I argue the concern needs to be extended to feminist activism in general, online and offline (we’re almost at the point where these distinctions shouldn’t be made anymore). We all need to be having #femfuture discussions of our own. There is a point, when people are working so hard to the point of exhaustion, that we need to say — you know what? The old model of feminist organizing, which was heavily dependent on volunteers who were — what do you know — white middle-class housewives, can’t be force-fit to women struggling to pay student loans and support families and “get it all done.” It’s impractical to the point of ridiculous to think that model can somehow be revised to fit the present-day, at least if success is the end goal. We need to figure out a way for more activists to get paid.

Finally, your activist work is not inherently more or less legitimate based on how much you are not or are getting paid for it. Period.

Now that I’ve said that, I’m going to give some advice and share an experience that are outside the realm of “go work for a feminist paycheck.” Because wanting non-profits to pay you for your work, if that’s what you want, and wanting the best for you are not perfectly overlapping circles.

Realistically you can make a lot more money working outside the women’s movement, and making money is not a bad thing. Practically you can make a huge difference in workplaces that aren’t primarily feminist spaces. We need feminists in every industry. If you can do that, and still want to do volunteer activism that speaks to your heart, great. Much of my career has gone this way.

These days I get paid for some of the feminist work I do, but certainly not all of it. It’s a newer situation. After leaving a movement job last year, I was not paid at all for the work I continued to do for some months on a self-directed basis, and I can honestly say what I’ve just described is one of the best things I’ve done for my feminism. Dreams and integrity are too precious to be outsourced to any non-profit organization, no matter what it purports to represent. But I also recognize that it’s not all lofty. I was in a situation at the time where I could afford to have my presence, including a lack thereof, match my values. Being able to afford time for unpaid activist work doesn’t make me any better than someone who can’t.

So in summary, is volunteer activism more legit? No, not inherently. More of this work needs to be paid, and there’s nothing wrong with insisting that you be paid fairly for it. At the same time, unpaid opportunities offer you chances to follow your heart that a check signer may never endorse. I know you’ll do what’s best for you.

Time Management: Activism Without Losing Your Mind

Want to save the world, and get promoted at work, and feel like you have enough time for friends and family, and exercise, and reading, and hobbies? Lots of people do, and many of them feel like crap. Most of the activists I know feel like they’re auditioning for the part of Frankenstein’s wife — just the wig, mind you — from time to time.

stop me before i volunteer again image

The simple fact is that much activist work is volunteer, unpaid and something you will have to learn how to build time an appropriate amount of time for in your life. Time management is, honestly, one of the more difficult challenges of an activist life. So how is this ever-elusive feat possible? Let’s dive in to some tips. Pick and choose the ones that are applicable to your interests and your reality.

Repeat out loud: Taking care of myself and my needs is my first priority.

Martyring yourself for any cause, even a good one, is gross. This post’s title started with time management rather than stop treating yourself like shit, because it doesn’t help anyone to fool you into reading it. Reality is, many people, especially people who really care about other people, think of “time” as a way to frame “feeling in control.” You are not in control and you are unable to help advance any cause if you run yourself into the ground. No non-profit, no campaign, no activist event should stop you from having a job, nurturing your relationships, getting your laundry done. Affirming that your first priority is taking care of yourself and your needs is the first step to the next important tip, which is to say no.

Say the magic word when you need to: No. And don’t feel bad about saying it.

In sports you can’t win the game, much less play it well, without clear boundary lines. Same goes for activism. Just because someone asks you to do something cool doesn’t mean you have to say yes. For that matter, just because you said yes once doesn’t mean you have to say yes again. Or that you can’t leave behind a volunteer gig that is no longer working for you. Contrary to the way women and girls are commonly socialized, saying no can gain you friends, not lose them. My own mother has a great story of when I was in high school orchestra and she was called up and asked to be on a board that helped to support us. Right away, my mom said, sounds like a great group, but no, I’m too busy. The woman that made that phone call developed a friend crush on my mom based on her “no,” and years later they are best friends.

Seek out volunteer opportunities that are defined-time events.

Feeling frazzled? One of the easiest ways to get a grip on your schedule is to seek out volunteer opportunities that are defined-time events, rather than amorphous projects that will loom over your home life. For example, if you care about abortion rights and feel like you don’t have time to serve on a board or tend a website, seek out those opportunities that are defined calendar events, such as volunteering for a regular phone shift with your local abortion fund, or clinic escorting two Saturdays a month. There are a million ways to make a difference in the field you care about. Don’t get fixated on one option that demands more than you have to give.

Don’t waste your save-the-world time on drama-types.

There’s a certain sub-category of people who join activist and volunteer pursuits to share their pain. They are not difficult to spot, really: They are the difficult ones who will email you at all hours of the night in a rude tone, or call you and demand help with their issue immediately (as if you don’t have a life of your own). When you spot one of these, congratulate yourself on your laser vision and then do everything you can to minimize your involvement with that person. Minimizing your involvement doesn’t just mean minimizing interactions, it means minimizing your emotional engagement (not thinking about them, not talking about them with others). In my experience, the vast majority of people are in activism for the right reasons. Leave the ones who are not to burn out on their own time, without your assistance.

For ongoing leadership posts, come up with your three priority questions.

Many of the above tips may not seem helpful if you are on the hook for a cause, like in a volunteer board or leadership position. The thing to remember is that even when you have a title, you are a volunteer — meaning you and ultimately no one else gets to define your boundaries. When I was the volunteer president of my state NOW chapter (and going to night school full time, and working a full time job during the day) I realized fairly quickly that if I didn’t set my boundaries I couldn’t do it. So I actually got out a marker and put a sheet of paper on the wall where I would see it whenever my phone rang: 1. Does this raise money? 2. Does this get new members? 3. Does this raise the status of women and girls in Minnesota? If I couldn’t answer one of those three questions affirmatively, whatever the incoming request was, I wouldn’t give it more than five minutes. Only you can define your own questions, but they’re a great way to separate the essential work you signed up for from someone else’s urgent.

I want to acknowledge the many wonderful critiques of volunteerism as the basis for feminist work, and say that I agree that activists should be paid for their work. You deserve to be paid for your work. The purpose of this particular post is not to deconstruct that, however. It is to acknowledge the reality that much activist work is unpaid, and there are many activists who are doing this unpaid work and want some help with time management.

So, do you have experience with volunteer activist work? How have you prioritized yourself and managed your time? What worked for setting your own boundaries? Share your tips in the comments below.