Is the Definition of Volunteer Changing?

The latest storm about Facebook’s use policy and an interesting Business Week article “Will Work for Praise” are challenging our definitions of volunteer. Here’s why.

In a nutshell, Facebook reinstated its old terms after a user backlash. It vows to consult users as it rewrites what it is now calling the “Facebook Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.” Facebook users at one level are ad-hoc volunteers. They create, modify and build content as well as create and/or beta-test apps. Like our association volunteers, they do this work for free. Now it seems they will also be given a role in shaping the policies and procedures of their world. Rob Pegoraro, Washington Post technology columnist, goes one step further and encourages Facebook to post a draft of its next terms for members to work over. Think Wikipedia. Perhaps Facebook could tap its users to collectively help write a clearer, simpler contract. He also makes a compelling suggestion that this experiment be repeated in other places like the government – and I would add associations.

For associations, this signals a day when the volunteer is not an extra set of hands or onlooker but a designer.

Stephen Baker writes in his Business Week article about for-profit companies who are using free labor and brain power in their businesses. He points to masses of free laborers for companies and on-line giants like ThisNext, Linux and Wikipedia as prime examples. The pay is praise, community respect, satisfaction, and even victories in online contests. He also notes that researchers are busily “working to decode motivations and perfect the art of enlisting volunteers.”

For associations, this may mean that volunteers aren’t defined by their cause but by their contribution.

And as technology continues to reshape the way we all can connect to volunteering (read Jeff De Cagna’s latest post The Future of Volunteerism is Mobile), the definition of who volunteers is rapidly changing.