Day of Caring

I worked for several years as the Finance Director for a regional United Way in the U.S.  Every spring, we had an event called the "Day of Caring."  This was a day when we would invite businesspeople, managers, department chairs, CEOs, etc. who were all United Way donors to leave their offices for a day, and spend their eight hours weeding a garden or painting a room in a local charitable agency, such as a battered woman's shelter, or a children's home.  Our Executive Director was a social worker who, when seeing the hands-on and personal effort offered by this group of influential workers, would regularly state that the Day of Caring was her favorite day of the year.  I would always return a confirming and understanding smile, while knowing that the Day of Caring was the most grossly inefficient and wasteful day of the year, and therefore my least favorite.   

Was there added value to the event beyond that which I was seeing?  Perhaps, although it is hard to identify.  The agency workers saw the effort, but the end users generally did not.  Either way, this was never my focus.  I couldn't stop thinking of the microeconomic concept of opportunity cost.  An  opportunity cost is all that you give up to purchase something, or to do something.  For example, when you go to buy a 200kc item in a store, your explicit cost is 200kc, but that's not your total cost.  Your total cost also includes the energy spent on getting there, purchasing the item, working your way through a crowd of other shoppers, and certainly the time spent to go and make the purchase.  What else would you have done, had you not been out purchasing that item?  That's part of your opportunity cost. 

So here we have a group of, say, five volunteers painting the building of a nonprofit agency.  They aren't painters (that's not where their comparative advantage lies, if I can add another microeconomics textbook term), so they're not very good at it.  They will work a little slowly, and not do the best job.  Also, they are giving up eight hours of work at which they are skilled.  The average hourly rate in the room was probably around $30/hour, which means that these five volunteers "spent" (again, in terms of opportunity cost) $1,200 of skilled labor (40 hours combined) to complete the painting job.  Was there another option?  Sure.  Instead of donating their time doing what they don't do well, they could have spent their day instead doing what they do do well, and donated the wage.  It's the same donation, really, just more comfortable for the donor, and instead of a single building being haphazardly painted, you get $1,200 to spend on actual painters, who will do the job well, charge $12/hour, giving you 100 hours of high-quality and fast painting service.  Three buildings can be painted instead of just one, and the end result will be of higher quality.  Oh, the beauty of specialization and trade; the exploitation of comparative advantage; the efficiency and wealth generation of civilization and a market economy. Those other 364 days of the year are my favorite! 

I think of this as students prepare to return to the classroom for the fall semester.  Of course, our job as educators is to assist students in developing those skills that will increase their opportunity costs as they learn the specialization of a specific function that is scarcely replaced.  We do that through standard coursework, but I believe that our job is (or should be) growing to include motivation of students to learn something specialized on their own.  A degree is a substantial step in demonstrating knowledge and ability; but what is it that a student can offer a company that is special, unique, and irreplaceable?  In a related note, what is it that each of us offers to employers, families, and friends that defines us? 

It's nice to offer a day of caring to someone else, I suppose, just as it's nice to offer "minutes of caring" in doing a little something extra for someone else at work during the day.  In fact, I like to do that.  But I often have to stop myself when I stray too far from my area of comparative advantage, as I know that my time is being mismanaged.  Every minute we spend doing something away from our functional area takes time away from that for which we were uniquely trained through the combination of our past education and experiences.  Beware of the cost.  If every task had a clear and legible price tag attached, we would "shop" more carefully as we proceed through
our day. 

But that which is implicit is too often ignored.  

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