Yesterday’s piece on volunteerism and why you may be helping your countrymen more by simply staying in your office cubicle got some really great, well-thought-out comments from people. I’d like to thank all those readers who really went out of their way to contribute to the discussion. As expected, there were lots of dissenting opinions, but provoking debate is a great way to expand our thinking on these matters. I didn’t get any “fuck you”s or anything vaguely Neanderthal, which is nearly unbelievable in this day and age.
I do think that volunteering AFTER work is not such a bad thing, and neither is it an under-utilization and a waste of an employee’s hours. [...] If volunteering can satiate a person’s desire or urge to help, it is no different from a person going to the movies, mall or an amusement park to fulfill his or her need to enjoy and have fun.
You are correct in the sense that many people derive pleasure from volunteering. A lot of readers seem to have mistaken my commentary as a call to stop volunteering. If you want to volunteer – for any reason, be it religion, boredom or a misplaced sense of guilt – you should. I’m simply saying that you need to consider whether that’s truly the best way for you to help the relief effort.
You need to consider the urgency of the situation. More people could get sick, die of hunger or whatever, if everyone goes on with their jobs and not volunteer to be able to give more.
Well, we need to differentiate “emergency rescue” from the volunteerism that I was referring to previously, i.e., organizing and/or distributing relief goods. Both of these things are urgent, but I would argue that feeding victims is not as urgent as rescuing the drowning. Also, I fail to see how you mobilizing your friends to help during an emergency is any faster than you mobilizing a group of hired professionals (the latter would be one phone call away, the former would be three to four).
Please do not misunderstand though, I fully appreciate how devastating Ondoy’s effects are – our family was affected like many others. During the typhoon, the first floor of our family’s house in Katipunan was completely flooded, and two of our cars were submerged. When the water had receded, we essentially had two choices. My father, my sister and I could all work together on cleaning the place up, or we could hire a small crew to do the work for us. Although the former option might have been an interesting bonding experience, the total value of our combined time would have been well in the $US1,000 range, i.e., a very expensive cleaning crew. Meanwhile, the real cleaning crew cost about PhP1,000, and they got the job done faster. (Guess which option we picked.)
Now imagine that the house in question wasn’t ours. The same logic applies to volunteering to clean your friends’ houses, or a random stranger’s. Instead of handing a bunch of senior engineers shovels and mops, you could just pay for someone to do it in your stead. Keep in mind that this does not make your contribution any less significant. You’ve still cleaned that person’s house – you just did it in the most cost-effective way possible.
If most developers took your advice and decided to simply donate more money and stop volunteering, would the goods be packaged as efficiently? Would there be enough people to take their place?
This question stumped me momentarily, then I realized that the phrase “more money” already provided a solution. It doesn’t matter if there would be enough volunteers to take their place because if the operation heads had more money, then they could simply announce (on the radio, say) that they are willing to pay each “volunteer” PhP100 per day. Or if you’re in a hurry, PhP200 per day, but only to the first 100 volunteers. Your relief center would be running on full steam within an hour.
And then there’s the consideration of time, ie how long does the money you donate take to be converted into relief goods? how many lives might be lost for lack of a proper meal at the soonest possible opportunity?
Well, now we’re talking about the actual relief packs, instead of the act of packing them. Whether I make a donation, or haul ass to the nearest relief center, doesn’t affect the availability of anything for me to sort and pack. I daresay that my cash donation has a higher chance of eventually being converted into relief goods though, as opposed to my butt parked on the floor of a relief center waiting for contributions.
First of all, you begin by using a developer in your company as an example. This automatically invalidates many of the arguments, should they be directed at the general public.
I wanted to thank you individually for the exhaustive comment; I didn’t know the comment-box could even accommodate that much text, to be honest. I wanted to discuss your post point by point, but there were so many that I might not be able to. (Folks, jump on over to Marco’s full comment here.)
UPDATE: I’ve written a lengthy response to Marco’s comment at the bottom of this entry.
I will say though that you seem to have fundamentally misunderstood the point of the piece, if you think that my engineer example invalidates my arguments. The example was intentional, not accidental. My post was never meant to be directed at the general public, because the general public doesn’t make US$25/hour, as I’m sure you’re aware. I picked an engineer as my example primarily because lots of my readers work in the tech industry, but more importantly because they make well above the average income. That part is key to the argument, and does not invalidate it in any way. In other words, I would not make the same recommendations to someone earning minimum wage (i.e., the general public), because the numbers wouldn’t make sense. Generally: the higher your income is, the more valuable your time is, the more you need to think about the value of standing in that packing line.
On Facebook, my friend Monica had this to say:
[...] you should look for something to do that will have the maximum impact. For instance, Kris Aquino did an excellent job of being the spokesperson for ABS-CBN’s fundraising efforts vs. the classic photo op of a celebrity going to Marikina to hand out food packs.
High-income citizens have a little bit of Kris Aquino in all of them – if you’ll allow me to be momentarily facetious – in that they are in a position to provide aid in a wider reaching way than simply packing relief goods.
From Aissa, also on Facebook, in support of my larger point:
Repacking etc. only goes so far, and several centers for these relief activities are already overstaffed. They don’t really need you to be there, so go find something more useful to do.
What she said.
Can it be that this article only applies to an obviously small chunk of the Philippine populace? You know, the rational above minimum wage earner with no sick leaves?
I don’t know about sick/vacation leaves, but yes, the article was meant for a small chunk of the populace, i.e., the kind of people who read this blog. I mean, duh, if I didn’t feel they were being misallocated, I wouldn’t have written this piece, you know?
[...] and with the number of relief goods a person can pack, even the smartest guy’s time can never be wasteful.
If you truly had “the smartest guy” at your disposal, you should have him rewrite PAG-ASA’s prediction software. Having him sort relief goods, when he could be preventing the deaths of hundreds or thousands instead, is horrifically wasteful.
There is one thing you may not have considered with donating the money directly to an organisation. As with most aid organisations only a proportion of the donations would go directly to benefit the people affected. The rest going to keep the organisation running (staff, marketing, etc). So, a fair amount of inefficiency there if you are looking for the most impact.
That’s a great point, and you’re right, I hadn’t considered the overhead. Perhaps the lesson here is that a donation in kind would be more impactful. Or perhaps, you could contribute to logistics, i.e., hiring a truck for the social workers to use. There are tons of alternative ways to help out, we just need to think creatively.
From Someone (jeez, is that hard to come up with a real first name):
Lets be more reasonable – the average dev will make $10-12. Take the BIR percentage and you are left with what? $8-10 per hour? Which means your $125 is now only $40-50. Guess the allocation of resources doesn’t sound that wasteful anymore. And that’s not counting the fact that people can help on non-work hours.
I’m not gonna argue with your math since that depends on a lot of factors, but I will say that even at $40-50/day, your time is still worth about 6 to 7 minimum-wage workers. So yes, unless you think you can pack food 6 to 7x faster than the average person, you are still being misallocated.
From Someone, again:
But the worse is that it just put money as the parameter for help. Help and volunteering is a LOT deeper than that.
Using money as a parameter is the only way to discuss this in quantifiable terms, detestable as that may be to you. I’m not going to argue about the “depth” of volunteerism here, as that’s purely subjective and honestly I don’t see how useful that is to the discussion.
Another way to look at it: quite a few male volunteers are going to relief centers because there are lots of hot, perspiring chicks volunteering there too. Others are doing it primarily because they want to be seen helping. I suppose in your eyes that would be defiling the concept of volunteerism, but ultimately, what does it matter? What difference does it ultimately make what your motivations are. They’re still helping out, wolf-whistles notwithstanding. I know that “the end justifies the means” is a slippery slope, but it seems to me that “beggars can’t be choosers” either.
This piece fusses about the overall output, i.e., how quickly and efficiently we can help our countrymen who are in need. Do you really think they would care if they received aid from someone who volunteered vs. someone who was paid to be there? We’re talking about starving, injured people here. If you can provide aid in a manner that is 6 to 7x faster than before, wouldn’t you do it, even if it meant losing that personal touch? That’s pretty logical, isn’t it?
In the interest of open discussion, I should’ve commented on your points. I’ll do that here now:
Point 1: The funds the volunteer would have earned had he stayed in his cubicle are being under-utilized. This may be true, if everyone were paid on a day-to-day basis. Unfortunately, most people in this country are paid bi-weekly, causing a delay in the arrival of cash.
The frequency of compensation doesn’t change the value of that person’s time, methinks. It’d still be US$25/hour, and what that means, from a business standpoint, is that the loss of that person for X hours means that the company is paying for time that went elsewhere. You’re under-utilized because of the loss of *potential* output.
That said, I totally agree that rescue operations cannot wait for money to come in, and in these instances, whoever is able-bodied and physically closest to Ground Zero is the overall “best person to volunteer.” But that’s kinda common sense, isn’t it, and not really something I needed to spell out in my piece.
Point 2: It doesn’t matter who you are when you volunteer; what matters is that you do what you can.
Actually, yes, it does matter who you are. I’ll give you a concrete example, since I was on the whole developer thing earlier. We’ve got an open-source disaster management project called Sahana that software engineers are volunteering to help populate and maintain. The project is an online sitrep of a given disaster, with a missing persons registry, aid management, inventory management, etc. Remember how I said that software engineers need to think about whether they are maximizing their skills by being at the relief center? The average volunteer does not have the ability to run Sahana, it’s a skill that’s unique to software engineers.
Let’s say you were a musician, instead. Playing a large charity event to raise funds for the typhoon victims is a great way to maximize the aid you provide, and again, this contribution is unique in that not everyone has the capacity to help in this fashion. So, yes, it matters that you “do what you can,” but I’m saying there are ways to do a heckuva lot more, the more specialized your skills are.
Point 3: The number of available minimum-wage earners is already quite low, and yet the operations are still lacking in manpower.
Perhaps I’m in a unique position to have an optimistic opinion on this matter because our family runs a manpower agency, so we have a good idea of where to find minimum-wage earners quickly. Also, there are varying reports on the availability of volunteers - some places are over-capacity, others are utterly bereft. I would argue that it’s not an issue of *numbers*, but a problem with information. If we could quickly see which centers were running light - like say, with Sahana - then volunteers could be more properly allocated.
Point 4: Volunteering for the joy of volunteering is romantic and selfish. While this might be true, it also means that the need for immediate help is being addressed.
Again, I don’t disagree on any particular point. But see Point 2 for my thoughts on what is appropriate “immediate help,” given certain skillsets.
Point 5: I’m not saying that you HAVE to volunteer, but it would help to see this issue from another perspective.
I thought this piece *was* the other perspective, seeing as everybody is already predisposed towards the notion of volunteerism in the first place. At the end of the piece, I clarified that I wasn’t saying that people should stop volunteering, so again, we are in agreement here. I’m also saying that you should think twice about what you should volunteer for, coz there are so many other ways to be of use to the relief effort.