Whenever I feel the urge to grumble about a long meeting or the need to attend an event on a weekend, I remind myself that most of the people I’m meeting or associating with are volunteers. Even after doing this work for many years, I am still amazed at the commitment of so many people wanting to do good things for their community. Local government in the United States would not work without volunteers, but often what they do is done with little notice or appreciation from the community as a whole.
I’ve received a number of phone calls over the years from citizens wanting to run for city council until they learn there is no real pay associated with the job. It’s easy to understand why so many of our residents think city councilors are highly paid politicians. The work requires hours of study every week, frequent meetings, intense confrontations with dissatisfied constituents, plus the effort and expense to be elected or re-elected. Most of the councilors I’ve known over the years do it because they care about the place they live and want to make a contribution to it.
City councilors are, of course, only a small number of the volunteers we rely on at the City of Albany every day. Many drivers in our transit service, commission members, library workers, Senior Center helpers, and Neighborhood Watch members are volunteers who help deliver important services. We would do far less or we would spend far more if we did not have the number and quality of volunteers we do.
Most of the people who serve would probably say they get more out of their service than they give. I know this was true for me when I volunteered to do work at my children’s schools when they were small. I was eventually elected to the school board where I learned many of the skills that have helped me throughout my career as a city manager. I had no idea when I went to the school as a parent volunteer how much I would take away from the experience.
I fear we do not fully appreciate, or perhaps we are losing appreciation for, how important volunteers are in our system of government. Volunteers are not simply a nice feature of city government; they are critical to the success of local democracy. If city government were simply a matter of delivering services, private businesses could do the job as well or better than public agencies. The important distinction is that we are compelled to do things that cannot or should not be done for profit. We could not fulfill this responsibility without volunteers willing to direct and support our efforts.