Professional volunteers

This afternoon I saw a fire truck with the following written on the side:

Staffed by professional volunteers

Of course this is an oxymoron if you take the words literally. A more accurate slogan would be

Staffed by well-qualified amateurs

A professional is someone who does a thing for money, and an amateur is someone who does it for love. Volunteer fire fighters are amateurs in the best sense, doing what they do out of love of the work and love for the community they serve.

Unfortunately professional implies someone is good at what they do, and amateur implies they are not. Maybe skill and compensation were more strongly correlated in the past. When most people had less leisure a century or two ago, few had the time to become highly proficient at something they were not paid for. Now the distinction is more fuzzy.

Because more people work for large organizations, public and private, it is easier to hide incompetence; market forces act more directly on the self-employed. It’s not uncommon to find people in large organizations who are professional only in the pecuniary sense.

It’s also more common now to find people who are quite good at something they choose not to practice for a living. I could imagine three ways the Internet may contribute to this.

  1. It makes highly skilled amateurs more visible by giving them an inexpensive forum to show their work.
  2. It gives amateurs access to information that would have once been readily available only to professionals.
  3. It has reduced the opportunities to make money in some professions. Some people give away their work because they can no longer sell it.

12 thoughts on “Professional volunteers

  1. Good observations!

    The Internet has indeed encouraged people to be highly-skilled amateurs in some work they won’t receive compensation for. But it has also blurred the boundary between amateurs and professionals, by lowering the barriers to entry to many markets. It’s possible to make supplemental income by selling $0.99 ebooks on Amazon, or apps for mobile phones, or t-shirts on cafepress. Amateur journalists can make ad revenue on their blogs. Craftspeople and artists can win commissions by exhibiting their work on the web. And all of these quasi-amateurs have a chance of being successful enough to transition into full-time professionals, if their audience likes what they offer.

    This kind of flexibility and freedom is one of the best features of life today, in my opinion.

  2. The Internet gives and the Internet takes away.

    It’s easier for musicians to get our attention, and easier for us to pirate their music. Bloggers are earning ad revenue, and professional journalists are being let go as newspapers go under. Sometimes it’s easier to break into a market, but less lucrative once you’ve broken in.

  3. We like to use the term “unpaid professionals” which is also technically an oxymoron.

    You hit the nail on the head; people associate “professional” as meaning skilled, or as Wikipedia defines it “person who is paid to undertake a specialised set of tasks and orchestrate them with uncommon skill.”

    It’s the specialized tasks and uncommon skill that we achieve through constant training.

    Technically, we’re not paid, but here in British Columbia, Canada, Search and Rescue teams are reimbursed, and individual members are compensated for mileage and equipment replacement. In that sense at least we do accept money, and of course donations.

  4. Interesting. I’ve always correlated “professional” as somebody who is especially good and careful at what they do. So much that I had to go look it up for myself.

    It puts a whole new meaning on the popular expression “she was very professional” . I suppose it really means nothing more than “she got paid for what she did.”

    Thanks for this observation.

  5. Or, if you want to be a little cynical about it, “professional” can mean “an accredited, card-carrying member of the guild.”

  6. Based on turn-of-the-century literature, the term ‘amateur’ used to be more of a complement: it meant someone who did a thing for the love of it, not for pay. A violin virtuoso, for example, might be referred to as a ‘famous amateur’. So I think it’s actually in our modern era that the term amateur has become associated with ineptitude rather than passion.

  7. I think ‘dilettante’ is closer to what we mean by ‘amateur’ these days. Consider that Olympic atheletes are all amateurs.

    About the only professional volunteers in the literal sense I can think of might be paid infiltrators of volunteer organizations.

    It is interesting to me that the exact same mechanism which makes pirating digitized intellectual property easy also makes selling it easy; a faithful copy is trivial to create.

    I wonder about the impact of the internet on the market for unusual items and materials. At first blush, it seems it would make it much easier to find suppliers and it would make pricing more uniform. However, in some cases middlemen provide quality assurance and can serve as information providers. If their livelihood goes away, so will those services. For example, imagine there are two kinds of lumber known by the same trade name but with differences which happen to be important to you. Searching the internet for suppliers you can find hundreds, but it may be impossible to tell which variety they are offering. A knowledgeable middleman could tell you which he has, when he’s expecting to get more, offer suggestions for substitues, etc. One type of difference that may be critical is whether the lumber came from legal or illegal sources. A good middleman would know and probably could provide provenance documents; the faceless internet seller may not even know there could be a difference. Of course similar considerations apply to possibly counterfeit goods, patented or licensed goods, or good which may come from dangerous sources. Pharmaceuticals, rare earth magnets, and honey come to mind.

  8. In employment law, which is my line of work, “professional” generally is defined as a job which requires specialized knowledge usually acquired through study rather than through on-the-job training.

    So you CAN have a staff of professional volunteers (think a clinic staffed by doctors donating their time, or a pro bono legal-aid event), but volunteer firefighters don’t meet the definition!

  9. The words “dilettante” and “amateur” both, originally, meant “one who loves what they do”. Nowadays both have negative connotations: lack of commitment in the former case and lack of expertise in the latter.

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