Volunteering Alone Will Not Save Us

To fight the battle against hunger, nonprofits can advocate for meaningful change in our societal structures.

Volunteering Alone Will Not Save Us
18 mins read

How we can go beyond volunteering to re-evaluate societal structures and demand changes to win the battle against hunger.

In the United States right now, more than 34 million people are food insecure: ten percent of the population does not have consistent access to the caloric intake necessary to lead a healthy life. Before the pandemic, 38 million people were suffering from food insecurity in the United States.

But at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, that number rose to more than 54 million people. As a career nonprofit employee and a chronic volunteer, I know that we cannot volunteer our way out of ensuring 34 million people are fed consistently every single day.

Worse, through a steady diet of messaging from the media, elected officials, and people in positions of power, we have been convinced that the inability of people to get out of poverty and “make something of themselves” represents a moral failing: these individuals must have caused their own suffering. This way, we do not need to feel badly because they caused the situation and to some degree, must want to be there.

Of course, neither of these rationalizations—not inevitability and definitely not moral failing—get to the heart of what is happening. That is, the creation of economic insecurity (and the poverty, food insecurity, and homelessness among many other social ills under this umbrella) is a choice that we, as a society, make.

Wait, don’t rationalize suffering away just yet.

Before any of the three typical stress responses kick in—flight (to stop reading this post), freeze (to do nothing because the problem feels too big to tackle), or fawn (to praise inadequate attempts because at least something is being done)—I would like to propose that we select the fourth response: fight. To fight means we take a stand, tearing apart and composting the structures that maintain such suffering because they harm us all.

Fighting does not always necessitate destruction. Fighting also means building: that is, we take a look at the parts of our societal structures supporting all of us—or even those that are a bit on the social support fence, as it were—and we reinforce them to promote betterment for us all. Fighting means we slow down to consider the messages we’ve received about the poor, for some of us, all of our lives. Who benefits from the moralization of suffering, from this judgment, and from not helping people in need?

Lastly, fighting also means that we keep watch. Keep an eye on the structures that we have in place, and, as a society, ask, “Are we helping as many people as possible?”

Let’s Talk Tangibles

I like to use real examples in my writing. While I appreciate theoretical thinking like any academic, I am a social justice advocate living in the material world. Theory can support as a way to imagine or expand thought, but I prefer to pressure-test real applications in pursuit of solutions.

Here’s an example: I work at a national nonprofit called Food Recovery Network (FRN) that unites students at colleges and universities to fight food waste and hunger by recovering perishable food that would otherwise go to waste and donating it to those in need. Before becoming a national nonprofit, we were a grassroots group of student volunteers.

Today, we have a small budget as well as an incredible national staff to support the thousands of volunteers (college students and other critical stakeholders) who recover food every single day and bring it to homeless shelters, churches, domestic violence shelters, and local nonprofits serving the unhoused, veterans, families, the underemployed, and the unemployed.

At these locations themselves, many of the people who serve food are also volunteers. This largely volunteer network puts in work to help one another.

Since FRN’s founding in 2011, we have recovered more than 12 million pounds of food (equivalent to roughly 10 million meals) for those in need. Add the efforts of FRN to those of Feeding America—the largest network of nonprofit food banks around since 1979, which includes those run by the Salvation Army, No Kid Hungry, Meals on Wheels, Loaves and Fishes, among many others, and relies on volunteers as well as paid staff. Combined, these efforts provide millions of people the food they need every single day.

But the stark reality is this: despite this leviathan of nonprofit networks spanning every political and religious orientation, we have never been able to consistently feed everyone who is hungry in the United States.

We Cannot Volunteer Our Way Out of Poverty

Let’s start with the role of the nonprofit sector: providing critical services, goods, and resources that contribute to economic stability and mobility by meeting needs and promoting healthy communities. As we all know, this sector is filled with brilliant problem solvers working to contribute and foster equality in an unequal society. The nonprofit sector often goes hand-in-hand with volunteerism to supplement mission-driven efforts.

In fact, I would argue that the creation of this sector was never intended to solve food insecurity in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong—regarding volunteerism, the benefits abound. If you’ve ever volunteered before, you know the satisfied feeling of helping your community, individuals in need, or just making something better. Perhaps your company is like the 47% of US companies that offer a community volunteering program. People like volunteering. It makes us feel good, needed, and capable.

Of course, volunteering is a critical function of our society. It should always be there. But we cannot be tricked into thinking volunteering, or the nonprofit-sector-plus-volunteerism combo, is enough to feed 34 million food-insecure people.

Nonprofit Sector + Volunteerism ≠ End to Food Insecurity

This reliance on volunteering is not necessarily our fault. In many ways, volunteering plays into dominant narratives, namely, the moral integrity of rugged individualism. Within this dominant narrative, rugged individualism is only occasionally offset by small-scale groups coming together to support one another during extraordinary crises. But these crises are brief, occasional, and solved fairly easily.

By relying on these myths, we have been put on a fool’s errand. We think our soup kitchens, food pantries, and corporate food-serving lines are going to consistently feed 34 million people. Similarly, we believe that by volunteering, we can permanently lift people out of poverty for good—if only those individuals would accept our help.

We have also been taught, numbed, and fooled into thinking this number of people suffering is normal, okay, and even inevitable.

But it’s not. We have built this shocking and traumatic mechanism over a long time, and we have the power to stop it completely. No matter what you’ve heard, we can end food insecurity in the United States.

On the other hand, it’s also unfair to ask our volunteers and nonprofit employees to work under these structural conditions. When we look around, we see many examples of our values being reflected back to us in encouraging ways.

Volunteering is part of that reflection, and the nonprofit sector is a steadfast reminder that we want structures in place when things do not go well. After all, things go wrong for any number of unforeseen reasons, but we can catch one another via support networks.

However, we cannot confuse these support structures as a solution to suffering caused by economic, politically driven insecurity. We must move upstream to interrogate the components of our capitalist structure and make some critical upgrades.

To be clear, the culprit is capitalism.

A quick recap of capitalism in its most basic function: “in order to survive, capitalism requires constant access to new sources of cheap labor, land, raw materials (crops and minerals), and markets.” As capitalism expands, reaching ever further across our planet, people are caught up as its function. They are the fuel that keeps the structure going.

Under this structure, the value of people is their labor (the raw materials of human power and potential). When they do not work—perhaps due to old age, injuries, health issues, or crises—their value decreases and their ability to participate in this system is compromised.

At the same time, labor must be as cheap as possible in order for the profit to be as large as possible (for a very small number of people). Within this capitalist structure, individuals must work so they can eat, have shelter, and obtain other basic needs—even as those basic needs are commodified so that they, too, yield the highest profit.

Of course, people who suffer within this structure are not at fault. Many of the 34 million people who are food insecure work several jobs trying to make ends meet. However, when their wages are squeezed low (so that people at the top can accumulate wealth), they can never be adequately sustained. The nonprofit sector was created to combat the tide of people who cannot sustain this cycle of economic (and sometimes literal) starvation.

At this point, we need a structural reckoning only the government sector can provide. Our capitalist economic and political system pre-determines the treatment of people, i.e., the minimum companies must pay for labor, how many hours constitute full-time work, what it means to be injured on the job, and what people are entitled to when they can no longer work.

And as we’ve seen throughout history—what we continue to see today—the laboring class must demand the federal government address these issues to improve the overall treatment of people.

What we all need as a society within a capitalist structure:

  • A federal minimum wage of at least $15 an hour. The federal minimum wage indicates how we value people’s labor. No one’s wage should be below what meets their basic needs, so in many places, the minimum wage must be higher than $15 an hour.
  • Permanent tax credit for guardians of children across all economic markets so we are not yo-yoing children in and out of poverty.
  • Healthcare reform that provides healthcare for people no matter who they are or how much they make. Medical debt is carried by 23 million people, ruining credit and making it impossible to get ahead on bills, let alone save money for emergency or unanticipated expenses.
  • Structures to allow small companies to offer retirement benefits to their workforce. The current structure benefits larger companies with more money. Food Recovery Network, for example, is currently struggling to increase our budget to annually pay for a retirement platform for our team.
  • Financial support for the millions of people who are out of the workforce but performing functions critical to our society, like caring for the elderly and raising children.
  • Subsidies to address the structural racism and economic fallout people of color have endured as a result of European settler colonialism and chattel slavery. Examples include guaranteed income and baby bonds.
  • A restructuring of the U.S. food system away from profit and towards actually feeding people. The Farm Bill, a $1.5 trillion legislation package renewed every five years that privileges larger (often factory) farming productions over smaller (often local) farms, represents a prime example of the interrelations between poverty, the health crisis, and the ongoing environmental apocalypse we find ourselves in — all courtesy of capitalism.

How the nonprofit sector can advocate for change:

  • Make sure your nonprofit pays your entire workforce at minimum a living wage for your location.
    • If you are not, make sure you have a strategy and plan to do so. Your workforce should know and understand these changes to come.
  • Clearly articulate your salary and pay bands to your workforce.
  • Make voting day a full paid day off.
  • Offer a bank of paid volunteer hours so your workforce can support structural volunteering efforts outside of your nonprofit’s mission (i.e. increasing voter access, bolstering unionization, or supporting any host of other initiatives).

This work is hard but crucial.

At the end of the day, large numbers of people are suffering due to a societal structure we have the power to change. As such, we must work to update or remove those parts of the structure that cause harm. Creating, fostering, and caring for a society that supports us all is difficult, but it is not impossible.

We must remember that ten percent of the US population did not become food insecure overnight. Similarly, our solutions might not happen overnight, but we cannot let our neighbors and loved ones languish any longer. Of course, many of us are doing everything we can right now, and we must continue to work towards better days for everyone.

As James Baldwin wrote, “nothing can be changed until it is faced.” What we are facing is difficult; however, we must journey on. We must ta vke deep breaths to steady ourselves as we demand structural change from the government. Only with federal support can the nonprofit sector truly work to eliminate poverty.

If you have further resources, please comment below!

Resources for Further Learning

Visionary Organizing Lab offers workshops and courses for individuals and groups to help us think differently about new ways we can exist together, including understanding how capitalism emerged and speculating what might come after capitalism.

The Radical Candor podcast provides tools for leaders to have more frank conversations with their workforce. We have learned to be opaque about our decisions and the inner workings of our companies and to keep our staff at arm’s length. In fact, when we let them in closer to understand our decision-making, hardships, and considerations, companies can actually perform much better.

Food Recovery Network is working to feed everyone who is hungry in the United States. We advocate for policy change (such as a federal minimum wage increase) and work daily to increase access to food for the 34 million people who are food insecure.

Get to know FRN’s work by listening to our March 2023 Public Roundtable Talk. We discuss methodology for the creation of a mapping structure that looks at poverty rates, surplus food numbers, and other data sets to bring into focus where food access efforts are needed most and why.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has created a living wage calculator. This tool shows how much individuals, individuals with dependents, and multiple wage earners with dependents really need to make in order to have their basic needs met (read: afford basic life necessities) in specific cities and counties. We can determine how this living wage compares to what we pay our workforce. Again, this represents the minimum of what people should earn for their work, no matter what their work is.

Poverty, by America is the latest book by Pulitzer Prize–winning sociologist Matthew Desmond. The flap copy speaks for itself: “The United States, the richest country on earth, has more poverty than any other advanced democracy. Why? Why does this land of plenty allow one in every eight of its children to go without basic necessities, permit scores of its citizens to live and die on the streets, and authorize its corporations to pay poverty wages? Matthew Desmond draws on history, research, and original reporting to show how affluent Americans knowingly and unknowingly keep poor people poor.”

About the Author

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Regina Anderson Regina Anderson joined Food Recovery Network (FRN) as the Executive Director in 2015. In this role, Regina is responsible for setting the vision, strategy, and fundraising efforts for FRN, which seeks to recover food to feed everyone who is food insecure in the United States.

Having worked in the nonprofit sector for more than twenty years, Regina is committed to social justice issues because she believes two things: this sector can make the biggest difference and people are the engines of positive change. At Independent Sector and LIFT in Washington, DC, Regina worked to raise awareness of the nonprofit sector’s abilities to solve our society’s most complex issues, including structural poverty. Regina received her MA in Literary and Cultural Studies from Carnegie Mellon University as well as her BA in English Literature from the University of Maine at Augusta. Regina sits on the Board of Directors of Food Tank and RegenAll and is a member of Pink Noise Projects, a Philadelphia-based artist collaborative.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

5 thoughts on “Volunteering Alone Will Not Save Us

  1. I would add that while capitalism is the culprit, inactivity and acceptance of the status quo is an equal partner in the crime. EVERY non-profit human service organization should say to elected officials at least once per year that having enough food is an issue for the people they serve. It only takes a handful of public comments for city councils, county supervisors, and state legislators to feel obligated to address an issue. And hunger is very much a bi-partisan issue.

  2. You are quite right that capitalism is the problem, but government will not solve it. Governments at every level are controlled by the capitalists and are part of the problem. Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.” There must be a demand, a collective groundswell of resistance, that affects the capitalists directly. Unions are the solution. Labor is the source of all wealth. Let’s stop giving away our labor to make the rich richer.

  3. Your article is right on point. I am the Chief Operating Officer (volunteer) for a non-profit organization in the Los Angeles area. We are a small corporation that has a food bank in the East San Gabriel Valley. We distribute fruits and vegetables daily and every other week hold a full food distribution with meats, breads/pastries, dairy products, vegetables and many other items. This year alone, we have served 3,863 households, 14,881 individuals and 3,455 seniors. Every other week we experience an increase in numbers. Our area of service keeps expanding.
    We would not be able to do all this without the small group of faithful volunteers (23) who show every time and work hard. Some of us work 13 hours that day to make sure that everything is done correctly and that everyone who comes gets served.
    It does not seem to be an end to the hunger crisis. Just like you mentioned, the COVID pandemic made it more serious. Our community members lost their jobs and now the price of food has skyrocketed making it impossible for them to recuperate and get ahead (catch up).
    Thank you for understanding the little contribution we are all doing in our communities.
    There is need for big corporations to clearly see the need for them to support organizations like ours, that are struggling to stay afloat paying expenses solely from individual donations and small grants.
    As you clearly state, we are facing a crisis in nutrition, homelessness and family support. Our local unified school district is dealing with an increasing number of homeless students.
    Thank you for your valuable work and don’t ever stop.

  4. Regina makes a very important point that capitalism is the primary driving force behind food insecurity. Her suggestions are a mere starting point for the deep changes needed to end food insecurity and income inequality. It’s great to have this analysis, but how do she and her colleagues in the anti-hunger sector implement this structural critique of capitalism? By lobbying with them to allow tens of billions of dollars of unhealthy foods to continue in the SNAP program? By making sure they get tax deductions for their surplus production? By whitewashing their reputations so that they appear to be hunger fighters rather than hunger causers through their meager donations? By having one quarter of their boards being from Fortune 1000 companies (in the case of food banks)?

    In my book, Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Organizations (MIT Press 2017) I call groups like Regina’s and Feeding America to task for their deep partnerships with corporate America, which perpetuate the hunger problem. Nothing will change until this unholy alliance is terminated, and the tens of thousands of anti hunger groups mobilize hundreds of millions of donors and “clients” for and end to poverty

    1. Hi Andy,

      First, I would offer that if you want to promote your book, you should think about submitting an article to Blue Avocado yourself, instead of using the platform that others are building to promote your own work.

      It is very disheartening to see someone who has never spoken to me at all, so therefore does not know FRN, dismiss the points I bring up in the book only to talk about a whole set of other issues. Yes, there is a lot of work to do and clearly you have some thoughts of how that work can be approached, but to accomplish your goals does not mean you need to tear apart how others are doing their work. I do hope your book has been able to advocate for a healthier food system and that you have many partners to accomplish this work.


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