Volunteering to Give a Voice to Our Clients

April 21, 2013
by Elanie Waxman

Elaine Waxman is the Vice President of Research and Analysis at Feeding America and leads the team that will be conducting Hunger in America 2014. This study is the largest examination of the charitable response to hunger and the largest volunteer driven research study. This is the sixth time we have conducted this research (you can read about Hunger in America 2010, the most recent version of the study). This is her second post about the study. Earlier this month she wrote about "Why We Do The Hunger Study."

Some food banks have expressed concern about being able to recruit enough volunteers for the number of visits and weeks the study will include, and rightly so — it is a very big commitment. But now's the time to engage our donors, volunteers, neighbors, and partners and help them understand that their time and support can make something happen that is both essential and unique — they can give voice to a population that is almost never heard. Not only that, but we are able to give that voice with a greater protection for client dignity and privacy not previously available to us in the paper and pencil interview era. At a recent practice run for the computer tablet interviews, an elderly woman commented that while she had never touched a computer in her life, she was so pleased that she could navigate the survey and enjoyed using the tablet. When asked what she thought about the survey experience, she replied "This wasn't detrimental at all. It wasn't embarrassing." She had been able to guide her own interview experience and share her story in private.

We sometimes overlook the fact that our clients experience regular intrusions into their privacy, as they fill out countless forms and endure hours of waiting for interviews in public aid offices and even in our own partner agency settings, often facing very personal inquiries within earshot of others. We can now offer them the ability to share their story without adding to those intrusions — they do not have to sit across from a stranger who is likely not of the same racial or ethnic background, or of the same social class, and have to tell all of their business. They do not have to feel embarrassment or shame in admitting their challenging circumstances or worry that their answers will affect what others within earshot will think of them or whether their services will be altered if they answer honestly. A Hunger Study Coordinator recently related that she had emailed all of her 2010 volunteers to see if they would help out this time around, and received an impassioned refusal from one volunteer, who stated that she would never again participate in an exercise she felt was so humiliating to others. The volunteer said that in 2010, she had been required to ask mothers whether they fed their children in front of many other people in a crowded pantry and that she found the experience degrading. While volunteers have often appreciated the opportunity to hear the stories of others in face-to-face interviews, we hadn't previously stopped to think about the downsides of that experience.

I'd like to share one more observation about the time commitment that volunteers might have to make for an agency visit — including dead time when they might be sitting around without much to do in order to preserve the random assignment of the time windows. Perhaps it would be helpful if we can engage our volunteers in a conversation about what waiting means in the daily lives of our clients. Our clients wait for hours — they wait in pantry lines, they wait in public aid offices, they sit in overcrowded clinics or spend hours in an ER for primary care. They wait and wait and wait. It would be great if we could help our volunteers understand that their time commitment is a only a small sample of what our clients experience every day and that it is also a precious gift they are giving to those in need. In a democracy, we rely on the power of voice and giving voice to the powerless is sacred work. Their time will be well spent.

To volunteer for Hunger in America 2014, please contact the volunteer coordinator at your local food bank.

Tags: Our Research

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