March 10, 2016: Impact volunteering: not just a weekend hobby

Belmont Citizen-Herald: March 10, 2016

Belmont officials recently proposed a $104.9 million budget for Fiscal Year 2017. Somewhat less than half (48%) of that money will go to the schools, with the remainder going to deliver municipal services. In fact, the true cost of running Belmont’s schools and municipal government far exceeds that $104.9 million figure. Nowhere does Belmont account for the hours that volunteers devote to essential governmental tasks.

In recognizing the value of volunteers, let me set aside those elected officials who serve without compensation (e.g., the Library Board of Trustees). Let me set aside, also, all of the “friends” organizations (e.g., Friends of the Council on Aging) who look sort of governmental, but are not. Let me set aside the various civic groups, too, that may look somewhat governmental, but are really private institutions (e.g., the Benton Library, the Food Pantry). Let me finally set aside all of the school-related groups (e.g., the various PTAs/PTOs, Parents of Music Students, Belmont Boosters).

If I were to include all of these extensive community resources, there would simply be too much to talk about. The collective effort of these private resources is part of what makes Belmont the community that it is. This vast wealth of social capital in our town, manifested by volunteer hours for community institutions, enriches Belmont in a way that has never been dollarized and quantified.

For now, however, let’s talk only about volunteers in town government. According to the Town’s 2012 Annual Report, Belmont’s town government had more than 400 volunteers working on various committees that year. Most of these 400 residents didn’t work on those committees most frequently in the news (e.g., the Planning Board, the Warrant Committee). In 2014, the town had two dozen standing committees helping to provide services ranging from traffic management, to shade tree preservation, to assistance in registering voters and supervising election day poll workers, and a host of other services.

In 2009, Cities of Service, a bipartisan coalition of more than 100 mayors from around the country, initiated a new project on “Impact Volunteering and Local Government.” Even in times of constrained municipal budgets, the mayors said, “one of the resources still in great supply” is “the willingness of people to help each other.” Cities of Service promoted “impact volunteering” as a structured, institutionalized way to help deliver basic community services.

The National League of Cities agrees with this approach of institutionalizing volunteerism. A recent report by NLC’s Center for Research and Innovation states that “the volunteer paradigm has shifted from one of weekend hobby to one of civic responsibility.” Today’s volunteer, the NLC says, seeks opportunities to contribute to the operations, safety and security of a community.

Belmont’s strong history of volunteer participation in civic affairs provides an ideal example of the benefits flowing from the “impact volunteering” model. Volunteerism allows Belmont’s government to tap the immense knowledge and expertise that resides in our community. When Belmont needed advice on how to control health insurance costs, it tapped residents bringing special expertise. When the town needed guidance on how to control the costs of post-retirement health benefits, local residents were available to contribute both their time and their knowledge.

When people hear about, and hopefully talk about, Belmont’s proposed $104.9 million budget over the next few months, they should recognize how much more they get from town government than just those services funded through that budget. Belmont bought into the concept of “impact volunteering” long before that concept was ever given a special label as a desirable local governing strategy. Because of its volunteers, the value of Belmont’s municipal services extends far beyond that which appears in the annual town budget.

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