Trends: Volunteers Gone Wild

Infighting! Back-stabbing! Meltdowns! In Philly these days, lending a helping hand isn’t what it used to be

‘‘I DON’T KNOW what it is,” says a mom of two in Gladwyne who’s a frequent volunteer for her kids’ school fund-raisers and many other charity events. “But it keeps happening. One of the events I worked on recently was a major gala being held at the Bellevue, and I wanted a certain kind of flowers for the tables. My co-chair, this dumb twit, wanted topiaries. I finally went to the development director for the charity and had a half-hour screaming and crying fit about the fucking topiaries. Then I felt a lot better.”

Each autumn, as surely as the leaves drift off the trees, comes the moment when this normally refined woman — an advocate for children and animals, a devoted churchgoer — gets overwhelmed by charitable committees and the myriad personalities who serve on them, and realizes: She wants to kill her co-chair. Recently, she says, a string of e-mails she received from another volunteer left her so enraged that she was momentarily bereft of language: “I was so pissed off I was drooling.”

Right now, the Gladwyne Girl is embroiled in a passive-aggressive skirmish with her co-chair for an event to be held this winter, for which the co-chair has gone on a power trip so planetary that she’s completely excised Gladwyne Girl from the planning: “She arranges meetings without me. She finally sent me an e-mail when she knew I was out of town, and I threw up in my mouth,” says the mega-volunteer. “What the fuck is this woman’s problem?”

We don’t have an answer to that one, but the bigger question might be: Why does Gladwyne Girl continue to volunteer if the experience is so stressful? In fact, when did volunteering in Philly get so overwhelming for pretty much everyone who does it? The truth is that like all volunteers, G.G. enjoys supporting organizations she believes in. She’s had some great volunteering experiences and has helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. That’s what keeps her going: She knows she’s helping people, even if she has to spend hours in therapy afterward dealing with the rage her committee work has unleashed. Just don’t get her started on Girl Scout cookies.

“It became so insane,” she says. “We were assigned certain supermarkets and Wawas, and you’d take turns sitting outside. What happened to the days when you knocked on doors? I finally bought all 100 boxes and gave them away to friends. I rode around with them in the car. I’d open up my trunk and say, ‘Would you like some Girl Scout cookies?’ to valet parking guys.”

SCHOOLS, CHARITABLE ORGANIZATIONS, cultural groups, places of worship and sports teams couldn’t function without volunteers. They’re out there by the thousands, making Philadelphia a better place and quietly doing everything from cleaning up parks to helping organize black-tie events. This creates, for the most part, well-being and happiness in the volunteer. “Volunteers often feel a large sense of pride, even more so if you compare them to people doing the same work for pay,” says Donald Hantula, an organizational psychologist and professor at Temple. “A Japanese study of volunteers at an institution for the elderly found they helped themselves in three ways. They generally became more altruistic, they made new friends, and they found increased appreciation for life in general. They looked at themselves as better people.”