Volunteers are individuals who choose to give freely of their time, energy, and talents to help other people, causes, or organizations, without expectation of compensation, financial or otherwise. The main reasons why people volunteer are to help others, to promote causes they believe in, and/or to accomplish what they consider to be worthwhile goals. However, volunteers also can be the beneficiaries of their otherwise self-giving work: through learning new skills and resume building, which enhance their personal and professional growth. America has gained a reputation as a nation of joiners throughout its history. “In no country … has the principle of association been more successfully used … than in America. Besides the permanent associations … established by law under the names of townships, cities, and counties, a vast number of others are formed and maintained by the agency of private individuals.” (Alexis de Tocqueville, 1831). Likewise, most non-profit professional associations and scientific societies were founded and organized by volunteer leaders who sought to create a forum for shared values and intellectual growth for entire fields of human endeavor. America grew up with a tradition of its citizens having a rich volunteerism ethic!
ASHS was Created by Volunteers
The American Society for Horticultural Science was created in 1903 from the efforts of volunteer leaders the likes of Spencer Ambrose Beech and Liberty Hyde Bailey. Throughout the first century of its history, volunteers were the backbone of ASHS organization and innovation. In fact, it wasn’t until 1965 that ASHS hired its first full-time executive director, and it wasn’t until after 1994 that ASHS dropped volunteer local arrangements committees from annual conference preparation, when their duties were taken over by professional headquarters staff. Even today, the technical programs of ASHS annual conferences are organized by volunteers. In fact, ASHS could not operate as a scientific society without the selfless services of members who serve because of their enduring passion to further the cause of horticultural science. All ASHS members owe a large debt to past volunteer members whose labors and leadership over the past century have built the world-class horticultural science society that we enjoy today.
Of course, hundreds of ASHS members still serve the Society through its committee structure, its working groups, and as elected officers. However, in recent years the executive and elected leadership of ASHS has had to work harder and harder to sustain the level of involvement of ASHS members in the workings of their Society. The number of members available or willing to run for elected office or to serve on Society committees is declining each year. The past several Presidents-elect, whose job it is to fill as many as 100 vacancies on standing committees each year, have found increasing numbers of polite refusals by would-be appointees to serve ASHS via its all-important committee structure. The time required to fill committee vacancies has been extended substantially, and a few committees have carried unfilled vacancies over from one year to the next. Busy ASHS members typically are not motivated to nominate candidates for elected office; to run for office themselves; or even to vote for candidates for elected office. The proportion of voting-eligible ASHS members who actually participate in Society elections averages just 22% of the total membership, down from an average of 35% in 1983. Twenty years ago, there were 173 ASHS members volunteering to run for 9 elected offices within the Society. This year, there are only 9 members willing to run for 4 open positions. Society by-laws require that there be two candidates for each elected office, yet reluctance to become candidates and to fill out the ballot has postponed elections for the 3rd year in a row. The established governance structure of ASHS may have to be modified in the near future if the trend of declining availability of committed volunteers continues unabated.
Obstacles to Volunteerism
The decline of the volunteerism ethic pertaining to ASHS governance structure certainly is symptomatic of the membership changes going on in our Society. Is it mass apathy or group indifference, or is it active reluctance or resistance to service? What is the root cause, and what, if anything, can be done about it? My inquiries suggest that this trend is not unique to ASHS per se, but include fundamental changes in society that are affecting many long-established professional organizations. The overall decline in volunteerism ethic nationally has been attributed to a reduction in religious attachment, to the breakup of traditional communities and families, and to an increase in feelings of individualism. Many working professionals today feel that they lack the personal time needed to commit to volunteer work, including time for professional or service organizations. For academics seeking tenure, pressure imposed by their employing institutions encroaches upon their personal lives to an extent that they actually may feel guilty pursuing activities not directly related to work or to their families.
It wasn’t always that way! Institutions used to value employee involvement in extracurricular civic and professional activities more than they do now, and those activities would count toward professional advancement. Today, they are mere “icing on the cake”, but don’t substitute for grants awarded, papers published, great student evaluations, or glowing industry support. The term “science” in the ASHS moniker is the strength of our Society in terms of its unique identity, but also is a weakness in terms of how contemporary science involvement is so consuming professionals today that they are unable to give energy to non-work-related activities that are not absolutely essential to their professional identity. Horticultural science professionals have had to become competitive, goal-oriented, schedule-driven specialists, just like everyone else in main-stream science. Computers, institutional expectations, and federal funding priorities have created a national obsession with professional accomplishment and development, which is by no means limited to academia. Other common obstacles to volunteerism include concerns about getting caught in legal disputes, feeling lack of control over process or outcome, opinions that management should take care of organizational needs, and, believe it or not, no one asked for their help! Some degree of pathology is associated with the behaviors that modern society has imposed upon its professionals, many of whom have allowed themselves to be imposed upon because they feel a need for those in authority to perceive them as having “succeeded” according to the job expectations set forth by their employers. Volunteerism is one innocent bystander that has been victimized by fallout from modern professional life.
Rediscovering Balance in the Work Environment
It is not typically helpful to long for good old days that cannot return, but it would be helpful for governments, institutions, and businesses to rediscover the value of “balance” in the work environment and long-term benefits to the employer of employee job satisfaction. Workaholics don’t make good colleagues, partners, parents, or volunteers! Important time-related factors need to be considered, such as temporarily stopping the ticking of the academic tenure clock during early child rearing for either parent, or allowing flex-time to accommodate volunteer efforts that would help keep balance in the personal and professional lives of employees. Such human-factors accommodations will promote long-term productivity and stability in the work environment.
Volunteerism is not going out of style in our country, but aspects of professional life are out of balance that affect the volunteerism ethic as a life value for professionals. Professional organizations seem to be particularly vulnerable to the societal changes going on. In 2001, 44% of American adults volunteered to work for various causes, with the average volunteer contributing 3 work days worth of service per month, equivalent to 9 million full-time employees valued at $240 billion. In contrast, ASHS in 2004 is having a hard time convincing two people to run for the same elected position for some offices. Something is paradoxical and disconnected regarding member values and the governance structure of our Society! The President of the Entomological Society of America (ESA) noted a similar decline in willingness of members of that Society to serve on committees or to run for elected offices, and suggested in his April newsletter column that those trends reflect “an erosion of professional commitment to the ESA by its members”. What is going on in our professional organizations that causes apathy or resistance to service? Is it a failure of scientific societies to remain relevant to the rapidly evolving needs and identities of workers in the field that the societies want to represent? Is it a failure of employers to instill or maintain an adequate service ethic for professional organizations among their employees? Some of both? Or, are there less obvious factors lurking in the wings that are undermining the traditional American service and volunteerism ethic?
Developing a “Service Ethic”
There are many examples of service and training programs involving academic horticulturists, who presently constitute the core membership of ASHS. The Master Gardener Program is a long-standing leadership training and volunteer service program offered by horticulture extension programs across the country. 4-H programs are another. Undergraduate horticulture and landscape architecture curricula are developing “service-learning” courses in which students apply classroom training and critical thinking skills to solve real-world problems, and, hopefully, develop a service ethic that will carry over into their future working lives. As part of his State of the Union Address, the President of the United States called for Americans to give back at least 2 years or 4000 hours of volunteer service to society throughout their lifetimes. Some of that commitment would be used to help combat terrorism in this country. Judging by the incredible outpouring of compassion worldwide following the events of 9-11, it is clear that human beings have virtually unlimited volunteerism potential, once they are motivated.
I challenge all ASHS members to volunteer some of their creative energy to help define and create “The New ASHS” that I have been referring to throughout the past year, that will excite present and future generations of horticultural scientists alike! Once ASHS breaks out of its traditionalist mold, “The New ASHS” will have to be structured in such a way that will not permit itself to stagnate in the future. Change is here to stay; the rate of change will just accelerate; and the best way to structure future scientific societies will be “as flexible as possible” to accommodate multiple moving identity targets!
There will be members of ASHS surprised to learn about the decline in volunteerism that has bedeviled the Society in recent years. They will say that they would love to help the Society by serving on a committee or by running for an elected office, but no one ever asked them! Well, if that is the case, please contact me or Executive Director Mike Neff or President-elect Fred S. Davies, and one of us will see to it that your name is passed along to the new President-elect, who will be responsible for making appointments for next year out to the Nominations and Elections Committee for consideration on the ASHS ballot. Every member who volunteered to serve ASHS last year was appointed to an appropriate position, but that amounted to less than 5% of my appointments. We have to do better than that.
Volunteers and “The New ASHS”: A Vision for the Future
The “New ASHS” will have to evolve in parallel with the field of horticultural science to realize its leadership potential in helping to chart the course of horticultural science development over the coming decades. If there is a communications gap pertaining to appointees/nominees and need for volunteers, reminders in the ASHS Newsletter and listserve e-mailings may be in order. Please let me know of your impressions regarding this issue! If you are interested in running for an elected office of ASHS, but have not been nominated previously, don’t be shy. Ask several colleagues who believe in your leadership orientation to nominate you for a given office, and try to get your name on the ballot that way. The ASHS executive staff is great, but they are not scientists. They cannot make all policy for the Society. They need help from volunteer members, who know the technical issues, who have vision for the field of horticultural science and for the Society, and who are willing to make time to serve! The Human Issues in Horticulture (HIH) and the Administrators (ADM) Working Groups could play important auxiliary roles in helping the Board of Directors identify short and long-term solutions to the volunteerism gap that exists within ASHS, the resolution of which will be essential for ASHS to progress as a viable scientific society. Caring volunteerism is the lifeblood of ASHS, as it is for any professional scientific society. Please step forward and volunteer your experience for ASHS and horticultural science. You will feel surprisingly good about the future of ASHS, and about yourself!
Originally published in ASHS Newsletter June 2004.