September 15, 2011; Source: Montana Kaimin | Recently in the NPQ Newswire, we reported on the problems that a Meals on Wheels group in Abilene was having recruiting young college-student volunteers. The story prompted a small debate in the comments section: Was the Meals on Wheels group doing a poor job of volunteer outreach and recruitment, or are younger people not necessarily drawn to volunteer activities like packing and driving meals to far-flung elderly shut-ins?

Perhaps because of the AmeriCorps emphasis on community service, debates about the level of volunteerism among the young sometimes underplay another kind of very important volunteer activity of young people: community organizing and public policy advocacy. 

At the University of Montana, the Montana Public Interest Research Group (MontPIRG) is known for its pink-shirted members who canvass fellow students in search of signatures for petitions on a variety of specific issues. This upcoming semester, MontPIRG is taking a breather from canvassing to think about what it should be doing.

The new board chairman of MontPIRG told the Kaimin, the university’s student newspaper, “We’re going to stay away from specific issues for a little while until we figure out what the students want from us.” This rethinking might have been prompted by the decision of the student board at UM to eliminate the $5 student fee that students paid to support MontPIRG. 

MontPIRG leaders contend that the organization “teach(es) citizens, particularly students, how to participate in democracy,” that is, “how to fulfill your democratic duty.” Usually, MontPIRG picks issues that it thinks could generate student support and then organizes students to educate elected officials and the general public. 

This past spring, however, MontPIRG was directly exposed to the democratic process, as “personality conflicts led to several members abruptly leaving its fall-semester board.”  The group failed to submit an external audit as required by the student association. Some students apparently didn’t like the fact that money collected by MontPIRG was sent to the organization’s national partner, USPIRG, and that some was used to hire out-of-state non-student staff at USPIRG. Since that controversy, MontPIRG has stopped paying USPIRG for services or staff because, according to the board chair, “[MontPIRG] want[s] to focus on UM issues for now.”

On the one hand, student volunteerism in public policy advocacy is a great kind of community service that is unfortunately hamstrung by community-service rules that typically do not allow for organizing or political advocacy. On the other hand, sometimes groups like the PIRGs might want to remember the importance of participation on local and organizational issues can be just as educational for young people as canvassing on national issues and raising money for the central office.—Rick Cohen