DarCORPS' Test of Charity

by Lee Istrail | 5/8/97 5:00am

Early on Saturday morning, as I and many others walked out to the Bema amid the light and grimy rainshower, we stood ready to venture out into the "real world" for a few hours: the DarCORPS project was about to reach fruition. Dartmouth's own version of AmeriCORPS prepared for its test-run of volunteerist action.

Having followed current national news, I couldn't help but notice that DarCORPS is part of a larger trend sweeping American society. Colin Powell has become somewhat of a catalyst for volunteerism in recent months, using his stature to encourage charitable service and giving. And the "President's Summit" sought to bring volunteerism to the forefront of the national agenda; President Clinton called for Americans to renew the spirit of community service because of its power to "heal our society" and went out and participated in a day of hands-on volunteer service around the capital. Protesters, however, saw the Summit as a cheap government effort to make up for upcoming cuts in social-program spending, as if the president were really saying, "It's time for able-bodied Americans to pick up the slack of reduced government responsibility."

AmeriCORPS is the organizational embodiment of the new volunteerist ethos: volunteers sign up for several months, and in return receive a stipend and extra funds for higher education (another Clinton pet project). The project does involve government funds, but not nearly the billions which will be cut from the budget in the next few years. AmeriCORPS has its critics as well; those who believe, as does Cato Institute pundit Doug Bandow, that a federally-funded, centralized project such as AmeriCORPS distorts the volunteerist decisions of private citizens; it creates "a duty to the state rather than to the supposed beneficiaries of service" and creates a perverse "paid volunteerism" untrue to the very idea of volunteer work.

How does DarCORPS match up with this larger national initiative? Let's look, for a moment, behind the fact that participants only served for a few hours. We did in fact receive material rewards for our efforts, in the guise of nifty DarCORPS t-shirts and a tasty BBQ lunch. But in all honesty, I don't think any of us would've been willing to brave hours of nasty weather just for that; so we can't, on net, be said to have been "paid volunteers" like those in AmeriCORPS.

What about the "duty to the state" thing? Well, DarCORPS was all student-run, and participation wasn't mandatory in any sense of the word. All in all, it was an example of well-intentioned, decentralized, non-paid, mass volunteerism. About 18 percent of students in residence this term signed up, and about two-thirds of those actually came on that cold and wet Saturday morning, so about 12 percent of all students turned out for DarCORPS.

Another side of the new volunteerist ethic is the increasing contribution of corporations to the pie of charitable contributions. They now engage in what's known as "cause-related marketing", advertising which raises public consciousness for an issue and thereby indirectly makes the company look good (spending for this has increased nearly 600 percent over the last decade). And corporations also donate lots of money directly to charity, now accounting for over 5 percent of total charitable giving, although this type of spending has fizzled a little in the last decade.

It wasn't 'til Saturday afternoon that I realized that maybe, just maybe, there was a reason that most of our lunch sacks contained cans of PEPSI. Upon checking the DarCORPS shirt, there it was; PEPSI was indeed one of the sponsors (albeit in the lowest contribution bracket). But that was the only corporation which sponsored DarCORPS, the rest of the contributors being local businesses and organizations. I'm sure PEPSI didn't televise ads for DarCORPS (please tell me if you've seen any!), nor did they donate so much money that they could've accounted for more than 3 percent of total outside DarCORPS funding. So, not even the most libertarian of critics can levy the claim that DarCORPS was as corporation-driven as the average charity (unless they wanna play some hardball statistics games with me, which ... I'm not quite prepared for right now).

Are there critics of corporate charity as well? Of course, charges include the assertion that nonprofit organizations in general shouldn't be dependent on profit-driven contributors, and a connected point: corporations would increase the inequality of funds among different nonprofits. But honestly, who are we to reject corporations' charitable donations, claiming that their "motives are less than holy"? One can always point to a self-interested ulterior motive for any action, but in cases like this we should just let down our cynical guard and allow the goal of charity to take precedence.