Thinking About Volunteerism

Before volunteering, verify that the organization is highly respected, productive and efficient.

by Fred Cederholm
Some volunteer organizations seem to have a suspicious number of paid workers, few unpaid volunteers, and scant record of accomplishment.

I’ve been thinking about volunteerism. Actually I’ve been thinking about community service, Serve Illinois (Illinois Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service), Illinois finances, local groups, and true volunteerism. Giving one’s time, expertise, and money to philanthropic projects can be a very positive thing. We as a nation are a most generous people. I TH*NK about so much of what makes our communities special and that most of the projects and accomplishments have come from local people working together for the benefit of their community. Stop and TH*NK for a moment about what you like about our communities and how did such actions/ projects come about? You will be very surprised. Real volunteerism is a cross generational thing. Anyone can become involved. If they are not presently involved, they should be.

You see, last Thursday I represented the Creston Booster Club at an all day conference/ meeting on volunteerism and community service at Sauk Valley College in Dixon. I really learned and thought about a lot of things because of this. Not all (in fact very few) were topics/ subjects I had expected. So many questions and red flags were raised and came out in the course of listening to the presenters, and particularly in my conversations with attendee/ participants from the Northwest corner of our state.

Central to the conference was Serve Illinois: the Illinois Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service. I will freely admit that I don’t’ know everything (in fact, I am rapidly learning how little I really do know), but I had NEVER heard of them. Have you? Their mission statement says: “The mission of the Serve Illinois Commission is to improve Illinois communities by supporting and enhancing traditional volunteerism and community service and the administration of the AmeriCorp program.” Well... THAT sounded good, and I had at least heard of the federal AmeriCorps program during a couple of Presidential State of the Union speeches. However, I can’t name one project that AmeriCorps has done for us locally. Maybe I just missed it.

I have since talked to a number of local “movers and shakers” heavily involved in community service about Serve Illinois. Only one had thought they had heard of them. I didn’t take this as a good sign. In subsequent web searches I learned that the commission came into being somewhere in the year 2000. They have a Chairman, an Executive Director, and now 35 Commissioners (up recently from 25) who are almost all from the metropolitan Chicago area. Their website offers publications available that were prepared by OTHER organizations across the state. (I apologize, but I will have to do some serious research and talk to a number of people about this Serve Illinois group and get back to you in another column!) Oh, BTW... I did receive nice chrome plated lapel pin for attending from Serve Illinois.

In talking to numerous attendees I learned that they were the paid staff for various local “service” organizations. In fact I raised the question during one of the question and answer periods and learned that I was the only cookie there who was part of (and representing) a COMPLETELY volunteer organization, the Creston Booster Club. We don’t have the rigid hierarchy of levels of “management” that every other of the 100 or so participants organizations did. In fact, I said to the group as a whole that if we were an Indian tribe, all were chiefs --- except maybe the organization’s officers, who were the Indians. This got a laugh from the participants, but I was dead serious. Everybody in our organization works hard on every aspect for all of our projects. We just roll up our shirt sleeves and pitch in.

During the breaks, I kept pursuing conversations with the other participants. Every one of them I talked to worked for an organization which seemed to have a contractual agreement with the State of Illinois to provide services to their community. Their jobs were to recruit local volunteers and contributors and administer the services to “whomever” for “whatever.” Virtually all were concerned about whether their agency would survive thru the end of the year. Times are really rough. It would appear that few, if any, had received ANY of their promised funding from the State of Illinois since the first of 2010! The Illinois financial crisis literally affects everyone, both for schools and for services!

I thought about the Booster Club, the Rotary Club, the Lions’ Club, the Masons, and the Kiwanis Club that are all so integral to what is good about our local communities. They raise their own funding for their projects via local events. We are blessed with a generous community. These are the ones truly responsible for what sets our communities above the rest and make living around here so special. I wondered if any local organizations have benefited from Serve Illinois in the past decade, much less received any money through them. The people I talked to were shocked at what my organization had accomplished over the years, and that we raise virtually every cent ourselves to do these things as we go along. It is said that “charity begins at home.” I now have a much better understanding of what that phrase means... This is the mark of true volunteerism.

I’m Fred Cederholm and I’ve been thinking. You should be thinking, too.

Copyright 2009 Questions, Inc. All rights reserved. Fred Cederholm is a CPA/CFE, a forensic accountant, and writer. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois (B.A., M.A. and M.A.S.). He can be reached at

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This story was published on August 9, 2010.