Discouraging Volunteers

Libraries are always in need of more money, and volunteers who get together to raise funds on their behalf are known as Friends of the Library. In my town, the Friends have raised more than $120,000 for our libraries during the last 25 years.

There are Friends organizations across Canada and the US, but they are mostly unconnected. Each has its own approach to fundraisingbooksale. Our two big annual events are a puzzle sale in the early spring and a quiz night in the fall. Those aside, we have ongoing book sales and a range of other activities to raise money. Almost all our events are held in the main library itself.

The funds we raise go to buy furniture and equipment, special books and other needs, and our libraries (we serve three) have always been appreciative.

Until last year. Then, at the urging of their insurer, our library system informed us our members must submit to police background checks and fingerprinting or we would not be covered in the event of an accident or lawsuit. In other words, if a member of the public hurt his or her back while picking up a puzzle, we would be liable. Likewise, if someone swallowed a pencil during Quiz Night.

Now, my first reaction to this was, Who would think of doing such a thing? Who would be so churlish as to sue one or all of a group of well-meaning volunteers? But that’s not the right reaction these days. Such people do exist and our members, many of whom are retired, were unamused at the prospect of being put at risk by their voluntarism.

The library subsequently removed its demand for background checks and fingerprinting—but also said it couldn’t afford to insure us. Casting about for a way out of this dilemma (while thinking black thoughts about those who bite the hand that feeds them) we hit on a solution: we could become a society and purchase our own insurance. This would cost about $500 annually, money that would otherwise have gone to the library.

It would also require time and effort on the part of our executive committee. There are legal implications and obligations to becoming a society, and questions to be answered before we can make a decision, and so we have had to cancel our normal summer fund-raisers until these matters can be resolved.

Which brings me to my question: Why would anyone want to discourage free help? It’s hard tvolunteero find a downside to people volunteering their time and energy free of charge to help the organization of their choice. It’s good for the organization, good for the volunteers and good for society. Volunteers help keep down costs and enable entities to spend money elsewhere.

When society makes it hard for people to volunteer their time, we all lose. It’s immaterial who puts up the impediments: unions or management, insurers or government bureaucrats. By discouraging the natural and healthy impulse to donate our time and energy to good causes, they are robbing our communities and our society.

As to our Friends organization, I’m sure we’ll figure out something to do. But we’ve already had to expend time and energy on these completely unproductive side issues just so that we can go back to doing what we wanted to do in the first place: raise money to help out the library.

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