Asking important questions

by | Oct 31, 2015 | Formation, Reflections, Systemic change | 1 comment

Barringer CEOIn his weekly column to the members of the Vincent de Paul Society, CEO Dave Barringer has a habit of asking important questions. This week is no exception. The question he asks is something that all branches on the Vincentian Family can ask. Do we sometimes not see unintended consequences of our efforts to serve those in need.

From Your Servant Leader October 29, 2015

We are blessed to have some very dedicated Vincentians across the nation who devote many hours to our stores and other social enterprises. I’m no doubt about to anger some of them.

Please follow along, dear readers, as I go through a logic path to make my point. We begin by reviewing our mission. Our Society’s mission has two parts, one to advance the spirituality of our members and the other to do so through works of charity. This includes both our works of mercy to help people in poverty, as well as our systemic change actions to help people get out of poverty.

As we have learned over so many years of study and working in the complex poverty arena, the single best way for most people to get themselves and their families out of poverty is to get and stay employed. A job means dignity, independence from most or all social safety net programs, and a sustained pathway out of poverty toward regular income, savings and futures.

Many of our Councils and even some Conferences have created social enterprises to help fund their activities. These include thrift stores but also some other businesses that attempt to do good things while breaking even and in many cases make a profit. Profit, despite our not-for-profit status, is a great thing! That’s because these profits are used to fund and sustain other Society activities that may not have their own revenue streams.

Okay, you are thinking, no problem with this logic so far. Here’s where it gets trickier.

Because we have these businesses, we have the opportunity to be an employer. Yet in some of our businesses, we depend on volunteers to operate them. Volunteers are dedicated to our mission, they save us operating (staff) costs and they can be our “face” to the public and those in poverty we serve. Sounds great, right? I beg to differ.

I believe that when we use a volunteer in our social enterprises, we deprive ourselves of the greater opportunity to get a person out of poverty by providing them with a job. We either forgot or ignored our reason for being, for the sake of saving some money or to create volunteer opportunities.

Here’s an example. A thrift store, depending on its size, provides job opportunities including truck drivers to collect and move donated goods, janitors, sorters, pricers, cashiers, material handlers, bookkeepers, EBay and antique “pickers” and sellers, and possibly others, plus management. That’s maybe 20 full or part-time positions that could help people get the job experience and wages to help lift themselves out of poverty. Yet we deprive them of this opportunity when we ask a volunteer to do the job.

Many of us would be very proud to claim we helped 20 people a year out of poverty. And so we conduct many other activities to help people to get there. However, the straight line to a job and wages (hopefully living wages, but that’s a discussion for another day) gets less attention than deserved.

There are thousands of thrift stores, ours and by others, that are operated by paid staff only. Volunteers there may be used as specialists, such as to grade jewelry or books or to sit on advisory boards, but by and large the stores operate to provide employment while making money. In fact, I argue they make more money on average than all-volunteer stores. Why? Because one can better motivate a worker through a paycheck and supervision rather than relying on a volunteer to work as hard every day. No offense to our volunteers, but this is a business, not a hobby. You work harder when your livelihood depends on it.

There are other reasons to favor the use of paid staff over volunteers. Staying legal is one of them. The Dept. of Labor frowns on having paid and volunteer workers doing the same job. By frowning I mean as in you are breaking the law by, in their words, exploiting free labor. Another reason, sadly, is that in many cases an all-volunteer store ages out and has no replacement labor, so it closes. This tends not to happen with paid staff turnover, which in our case is a good thing as employees leave for even better jobs and we give someone else a chance to work for us. To grow. To succeed.

Please, for the sake of those we serve, let’s take a close look at our social enterprises and wherever possible create a job.

Whether you create one new job or dozens, each one is a systemic change success story waiting to happen.

What about our volunteer members and friends? My hope is that when they realize they create a job when they step aside, they will see our bigger mission and spend their energies with us in other productive ways. God has given us many challenges where a volunteer spirit is essential! If they only want to work in a store, well, there are many in the community that may appreciate their services. The Society, on the other hand, should focus on giving jobs to those who need one and who can work their way out of poverty one productive day and paycheck at a time.

Yours in Christ, Dave

1 Comment

  1. liam

    Never considered the point made in the article before but I have to admit he is so right.

    Creating a job is so important. As volunteers lets remember the bigger picture.