Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Evolution of Volunteerism

From The New York Times, an article about how the role of mandatory community service -- and even the use of community service in college applications -- has changed the face of volunteerism.

(Thanks to Chronicle of Philanthropy's "Philanthropy Today" for pointing this article out)

I've posted the full article below for those who don't like registering to read articles.

Community Service - A Better Society? Or a Better Résumé? - New York Times

A Better Society? Or a Better Résumé?

Ah, Naomi.

Maybe it was when you stepped out of the black Cadillac Escalade in your gray fedora and chinchilla (a furry cousin to New York’s Taco Bell-loving rat) coat and your bodyguard handed your black bag to a police officer, who carried it, valet-like, into the sanitation depot at Pier 36. Maybe that was the moment when the community service ideal seemed to lose something in the translation.

Naomi Campbell, supermodel, served five days of community service last week for the crime of bouncing a cellphone off the head of her maid. The Dumpster Diva — as the paparazzi dubbed Ms. Campbell — donned an orange vest with reflective stripes and mopped floors. Then she stepped outside and did a photo shoot — punishment chic.

Service to the community didn’t seem to be the point, precisely, but perhaps that expectation was unfair.

Why look for altruism from surly supermodels? Conceived as a selfless contribution toward building a civil society, community service can sometimes seem perilously close to compulsory drudgery, a way for misdemeanants to avoid the clink, for corporations to market a brand, and for ambitious high school students to polish résumés.

It’s not always clear who feels that genuine love.

“The community service boom began a while back and it looked right and felt real,” said Bruce J. Poch, vice president and dean of admissions at Pomona College in California. “Now it’s devolved into a lot of kids just punching a ticket. It turns my stomach a little bit.”

Perhaps. But sometimes society stumbles in the right direction for the wrong reasons, said Robert Putnam, a professor of public policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and author of “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.”

He picks up on teenagers’ cynicism about using selflessness to promote oneself. Even so, he wrote in an e-mail message: “If young people acquire the habit of community service (even for less than exalted reasons), there is some evidence that the habit persists into adult life. So even if the initial motive was ignoble, the long-run net effect may create a more caring society.”

On the criminal side, public shaming has a long history. Colonial unfortunates sat in the stocks on public commons and convicts worked in road gangs. Now Ms. Campbell, and Boy George before her, works off her (relatively minor) sins in a sanitation depot.

Penologists agree this almost certainly beats putting minor offenders in jail, at a cost of thousands of dollars per prisoner. Considering the alternative, who could object to picking up trash along a highway, or painting a dreary subway station. (In 2006, judges in Manhattan sentenced 19,000 people to community service of between one and 10 days). But they are chary about extolling its redemptive value.

Joel Copperman, chief executive of CASES, a Staten Island-based organization that supervises community sanctions, recalled that the temperamental actor Russell Crowe spent community service hours working off his own telephone-tossing tantrum in a SoHo hotel.

But he said that many such rich and famous defendants are spared many of the humiliations of the city’s judicial system. And that bothers Mr. Copperman.

“I’ll bet Russell Crowe and Naomi Campbell did not spend 24 hours in arraignment, and I’ll bet they did not eat baloney sandwiches,” Mr. Copperman said. “It’s a miserable process even with community service, and it really should be miserable for everyone.” The high school students’ predicament is more complicated, not least because the teenagers are trapped in a maze not of their own making. For the past 15 years, highly competitive colleges have demanded that students detail their charitable work, and not surprisingly that has fired a community service arms race.

“Do sports. Check! Take advanced-placement classes. Check! Feed a sandwich to the homeless. Check!” Scott White, director of guidance at Montclair High School, heaves a sigh. “Is it better than sitting on a couch watching MTV? I guess.”

“But is it truly meaningful? No.”

Whatever. The most exclusive private schools in Manhattan, from Trinity to Dalton to Collegiate, hire community service specialists. Well-heeled families pay $5,000 to send their high school children jetting off to build cottages in the hills of Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic.

Ivywise, an educational consulting company that provides admissions counseling to students, charging families as much as $30,000 or so to place their children in high-profile colleges, advises on construction of the proper “brag sheet” and says: “Extracurricular activities count! But they have to be of a certain nature.”

Students become hip to this game. Many possess genuine humanitarian impulses, and tens of thousands work in all matter of good causes. But the emphasis on official, college-certified “community service” strikes even some of the most committed teenagers as almost beside the point.

Lucy Stewart, 18, a senior at Montclair High School, has worked in inner-city Newark for the past four years, helping abused and neglected children with their homework, and reading them stories and providing good company. Hers is a family that stresses such service — her older brother volunteers in an animal shelter — and she notes the value of exposing even the most jaded student to community service.

But she’s aware of a self-conscious aspect to the work.

“I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t mean something on a college application,” she said. “I would only say that you really can tell the difference between those who are passionate and those who are doing it to put it on their résumé.”

Mention this to Mr. Poch, the vice president at Pomona College, and he makes much the same argument: that a good admissions counselor can divine true passion. But in the next breath he issues a guilty plea for his peer group, the college admissions community. “Look, there’s no doubt that we in the highly selective colleges have done this to the world, and we’ve killed a lot of the joy in being a student,” he said.

Call back Mr. White, the guidance director at Montclair High, and he recalls the most giving man he knew. He guarantees you’ve never heard of him, and that anonymity is his point.

“Pete Fellows was the guidance director here, and the most wonderful man I ever met,” said Mr. White, who recently spoke at Mr. Fellows’s funeral. “He took on the really struggling kids like his own and after retiring he volunteered full time at a hospice and took such pride in the dignity and honor of his patients.”

“He devoted his life to others and demanded no attention. That’s community service.”