Giving it away for free

As the children grow, it becomes increasingly difficult to navigate conversations about worth and work. I have some astute kids who ask way more pointed questions that I am prepared to answer. Here’s a recent conversation I had with my son.

“Mom, you’ve been in the lunchroom a lot lately.”

“Yep. It takes a lot of work to set up a compost and recycling program for 600 kids.”

“Are you getting paid?”


“Why not?”

A really fair question. Why not? Creating a solid, self-sustaining lunchroom compost and recycling program was a really huge effort. There were weeks that I spent 20 hours or more on it. It was worth it to me. We’re keeping tons of stuff (literally) out of the landfill and getting the students to have some pretty amazing conversations about waste and stewardship. And, we’re saving our school money. But why can this only happen if people are willing to volunteer to make it happen?

What’s crazy is how much of the world relies on volunteerism to get stuff done. The farther into nonprofit, political and educational work I go, the more I realize how many layers there are to this amazing underground economy. Sure people talk about how great it is that their company participates in Christmas in July and they get to do some feel good project like paint a homeless shelter. Or maybe they go serve a hot meal at the soup kitchen on Thanksgiving . And those things are great. And needful.

But there is this whole secret society of people running social service groups, political groups and schools and they are doing it FOR FREE. Because it needs to get done. And because they are willing to be the ones to make that happen. In fact, the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) tracked almost 2 million people in Washington State performing 204.8 million hours of community service in 2010.

And that’s just the stuff that got tracked! I can tell you personally that I have put in many unrecorded hours in the past few years organizing dance events, holding meetings in my living room for various causes, doorbelling for candidates, collecting food and toiletries for our neighborhood food bank, and so on. And I’m just one person. I have met a whole legion of others like me in the past few years. I’m starting to think the sun rises because of a secret volunteer network that toils each morning to lift it up with a giant cable.

So, why don’t we get paid for all this work? Or even some of it? I have to say that I think, in part, it’s because many of us are women. The raw numbers support that, as tracked by the CNCS and the Bureau of Labor Statics. In all age categories, women out-volunteer men. In my age category (35-44) women out-volunteer men by 2.5 hours a day.

I wonder how many of those women out there, out-volunteering their male counterparts, are stay-at-home moms. I think that a lot of us who have stayed at home find value and worth in volunteering. In contributing to something larger than a basket of clean laundry.

Of course, there are days I want to print out my mom salary and demand to be compensated for my work. Days that I think “enough of giving away my labor for free!” whether that’s to my kids or to a cause.

But in the end, there is a whole lot of work out there that needs to get done. And, however, sad it is, it’s not going to get done if people aren’t willing to tackle it for free. So, off I go back into the lunchroom. To do something that I think has value, even if no one is paying me for it. And hopefully to send a larger message to my kids that you do things because they need doing, not because there is any tangible reward in doing them.

Unless one day you get that magical delivery of your own leotard and cape and your acceptance into the secret underground is complete.

A fellow mom earns her cape in the lunchroom


One thought on “Giving it away for free

  1. Don’t forget libraries and arts organizations. Our library, and its parent body could not function without volunteers. Sometimes they end up with a paid position in the organization (I was a volunteer many years ago), sometimes it’s just good experience that allows them to find a job elsewhere. But, contrary to your experience, I’d say at least half, if not more of our volunteers (libraries are usually very heavily weighted towards underpaid female employees) were male. I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s the technology that attracts them (some are transferring old sound recordings to digital formats, or digitizing images) maybe it’s because my boss is a hopeless cricket fan. . . who knows? But I do know we are very, very, very glad to have them.

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