Kletter: Volunteering is its own reward

Members of Yale for Change, a group uniting the Yale College Democrats and Yale for Obama, were upset at the News last week for an article that they felt diminished their get-out-the-vote efforts in the election. Lost in the uproar was one important point: why does recognition matter?

I think their letters to the News and e-mails to their panlists, in which they criticized the article as unfair, made valid points about the article. The application of one broad, theoretical model to actual work in a given election is bound to gloss over nuances. More importantly, something that could appear to discount the importance of even small contributions is dangerous: If small differences don’t matter, then why should one even bother voting?

Yet these letters sought not only to rectify perceived inaccuracies, but also to claim the recognition that the groups’ organizers felt was due. Such recognition, no matter how deserved, should never be expected for volunteers. Creating or enforcing the expectation of such recognition ultimately proves harmful to the spirit of volunteering.

How could seeking due recognition for hard work be harmful? Volunteering is by definition a thankless job: A volunteer is one of many, usually unpaid and always given the least desirable work in a given operation. If people come to see volunteer work as something they should be thanked for, then the inevitable lack of recognition might dissuade them from further, much needed involvement.

Furthermore, associating volunteering and public acknowledgement only fuels the fire of ambition and ego that too often drives public service at Yale. For example, Dwight Hall has 50 or so organizations designed to tutor kids in New Haven. Altruism does account for the mass of organizations, in part. Still, there’s no doubt this surplus of organizations is also attributable to students’ desire for recognition. Sometimes this means starting your own organization, so you can take a majority of the credit — and the resume boost — even if there are already other similar organizations. This creates situations where functioning organizations must compete for volunteers.

The reward of volunteering should be the realization of the desired outcome. In this case, all those who canvassed and phonebanked for Obama did indeed receive their due recognition: Barack Obama will be the 44th president of the United States. Congratulations.

Any other recognition associated with volunteering is inherent in the process. As the letters and e-mails pointed out, much of the benefit of canvassing was the personal growth and memories that canvassers garnered from their experiences.

The conversations I’ve had with those whose doors I knocked on were educational and at times incredibly powerful. When I volunteered in Ohio before the election, I saw the true ugliness of racism in this country, but more often I witnessed the hope of Americans. The latter renewed my faith in the political process. No one sought to dispute the benefits of these experiences, and they will no doubt remain intact even if supposedly belittled by others.

If my hard work needed any more validating in the eyes of others, I found it in those who worked beside me. I would have felt dismayed if one of my Ohio comrades did not appreciate my efforts, no matter how small. However, the other volunteers — who were once strangers, are now and forever friends, whom I worked with — embraced me, celebrated with me and, yes, congratulated me. This feeling of camaraderie could not be cheapened by any supposed smackdown from the News, or anyone else.

Yale for Change was great because it provided students the opportunity to experience this camaraderie, to feel as if they were a part of a larger movement, while making a small but important difference. Whether or not these efforts are recognized by those outside the processes is irrelevant. As corny as it sounds, volunteering is its own reward.

When we choose to serve, we serve not our own ego or ambition but a cause greater than ourselves. Those seeking thanks need not apply.

Will Kletter is a junior in Pierson College.

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