People often talk about “emotional blackmail.” It’s a term for using a person’s innate concern for another, particularly for a romantic partner or relative, as a tool to exploit them emotionally and financially in ways that undermine the giver’s own well-being. It can be a very destructive factor in relationships.
I’ve recently come across a phenomenon at a social service office where I volunteer, which seems related but doesn’t fit neatly into the concept of emotional blackmail. This is the population that makes increasing demands on the volunteers but never appears to benefit from the assistance. There is often an element of emotional manipulation but it’s directed at the agency rather than the individual. It’s not so much “If you really loved me you would drop everything and immediately cater to my every whim,” as “If you were really committed to solving this problem your agency would readjust its operating procedures to meet my particular needs, and my inability to benefit is a sign of your lack of sincerity.” I’m calling this emotional embezzling.
The essence of embezzling is taking money collected for a particular purpose and diverting a disproportionate share of it into the pocket of a person who is not entitled to it – neither as a reward for labor nor in proportion to need. The person who has obtained the money through fraud squanders it, often to feed an addiction such as drugs or gambling, and it is then unavailable to further the aims of the targeted firm, including compensating the people actually doing the work.
The labor of volunteers can be considered a form of capital. Compassion and altruism are not infinite resources. While it is true that generosity has a tendency to encourage more generosity, and that volunteers are not specifically looking for compensation, people who see little in the way of positive results for their dedication become burned out and discouraged. For a time they may redouble their efforts, but eventually they start cutting back or pull out entirely. In the meantime, recruitment of new volunteers falters because the positions look thankless from the outside – as indeed they are.
Decline is, if anything, steeper in a volunteer setting being parasitized by emotional embezzlers than in a firm whose coffers are being siphoned off. Paid employees have a more concrete reason to stick to their positions, and the absence of the wherewithal to compensate them can be hidden longer. A large agency can, it is true, create a certain aura of success by manipulating statistics or pointing to past, pre-parasitism service as if it were current reality, but this is more likely to fool the public or a granting agency than the people in the trenches.
The entity for which I volunteer does not rely on grant funds from foundations or the government, and operates predominantly on volunteer labor. In the present instance I see this as a strength, because the ill effects of emotional embezzling are immediately obvious and are creating a crisis which must be addressed. There is a high level of accountability in the elected, unpaid management, whose main compensation is in knowing they have furthered the specific aims for which the organization was founded. If grant funds were a significant part of operating expenses, the efforts of management would most probably be diverted into convincing the granting body that the problems did not exist, and the depletion of the volunteer base would continue much longer as a result.
Pamphlet. Published 1819.