The Difference Between 'Volunteering' and Volunteering

The Difference Between 'Volunteering' and Volunteering

For some years now I've been involved with a small community group. It's a shoe-string organization that depends entirely on volunteers. These curious creatures have a predictable life-cycle. It begins when someone shyly asking if the group needs help, then hanging about trying to be useful and not get in the way. This is followed by more and more engagement in work that needs doing, until one day you notice that your work for the cause is taking up a significant amount of your life. It's an old American story. But lately we've been approached by an entirely different kind of volunteer.


A corporation, school or club will send an email saying it wants to help us. The corporation wants good publicity for a "day of service" for the community. The school wants its college or high-school students to punch their community-service ticket. The email explains that there are 20, or 30, or 40 people available, and that they can come on one of two or three dates. Gee, we explain, we're too small an outfit to make use of 20 people all at once. And by the way we aren't working on the dates proposed. Might the group send fewer people, at a different time?

Nope, and nope. Take it or leave it, says the group that supposedly wants to help.

Now, I don't blame anyone for wanting to find volunteer opportunities that match their resources. If you have 34 college students eager to work hard for one day, you should find someone who needs a barn raised and not a tiny soup kitchen that can fit three people in front of the stove. But what strikes me about these offers of "our way or no way" volunteering is how inflexible they are, and how indifferent to the supposed beneficiaries of the good works. These proposals say, in effect, "we want to do the work that suits us, in the way that suits us, when it suits us." The contrast with the way individuals approach a group is pretty stark.

Volunteer organizations function only because their members let their efforts be shaped by the needs of the group. In contrast, the brute-force "volunteerism" I see from corporations and universities is about getting good publicity and the cheap high of telling yourself you did good, without putting yourself to much trouble. Granted, there is an element of self-congratulation in many volunteer experiences. But there's also an element of self-sacrifice. Experiences that lack that element ought not to be called "service" or "volunteering."

As recently as two or three years ago, our particular group didn't get these kind of self-serving offers. This may be because we weren't yet on the map. But I wonder instead if it's because this kind of corporate, ticket-punching approach to "service" is becoming more common.

I hope not. It would be a shame if an experience that has always been tied to individual passions and interests should be turned into a systematic factory of insincere token efforts.

So, I'm curious. Readers, have you seen an increase around you in "non-volunteer" volunteerism? Does your office nudge employees to do community service—but only while wearing company t-shirts, and only on a day during the slow season when it won't affect business? Does your local bird club or history society get requests from high school students who barely know what the group is about, and just want to put in their time? Do we need a new word for this ersatz form of "community service"?

Illustration: An old-fashioned barn-raising. Note absence of corporate logos.

Follow me on Twitter: @davidberreby

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A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
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  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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