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The revulsion from an unwanted self,
and the impulse to forget it, mask it,
slough it off and lose it, produce both
a readiness to sacrifice the self and a
willingness to dissolve it by losing one's
individual distinctness in a compact
collective whole.
                               Eric Hoffer

Cults: Volunteer Labor

Dr. Joseph Bablonka, a management consultant to Fortune 500 companies, once made an astute comment to me about how a particular martial arts school was being run: "Volunteers don't work for free."  Keep that in mind. Why it is important will become clear in a bit.

As there is a reason for the separation of church and state, there is a reason for the separation of church and business. Professional businesses run along certain lines, and churches run along others. Churches, operating on tithes and must rely on both the charity and the volunteerism of members.

Businesses exist to make money. And they do this by providing products, services or information. You don't expect these to be given away free, nor can a for-profit business expect the same to be donated to them. Churches, on the other hand, not only provide spiritual guidance and comfort, but they perform many other services, such a ceremony for life's transitions (e.g. weddings, funerals, etc.), counseling and charity work to name a few of the official services they provide. The unofficial purposes of church are stunning in their magnitude and complexity, including socializing,  community and spiritual/metaphysical growth, to name just a few. A business is a business, a church is a church. Because of their differing goals they operate along different -- and clearly delineated -- lines.

Newly opened and struggling martial arts schools, however, often have to operate down both lines in order to keep the doors open. They can and do rely on volunteers. These are people who donate time and services to help the school open. Student fees go to paying the school's rent and electricity bills. As has often been said about these kinds of endeavors, they are a labors of love. The people who volunteer love what they are doing. Quite honestly though, these are not even commercial endeavors (where the head instructor is making a living off the school) as most often these are part-time endeavors of everyone involved.

A cult (or a shady business) takes advantage of this generosity. It runs on volunteers long after the need is gone. Such organizations could easily pay for professional services, but instead rely on students to do the work. Owners take advantage of professional skills among students without recompense (e.g., electrical and construction work, accounting, tax services, and computer programming, among other professions). This is all done for the good of the school, when in fact it only benefits the school's head. This saves the master money, but where does that money go? 

Why isn't he paying for these services? Is there any discernable improvement in quality of teaching? Is much needed training equipment purchased? Or is it invested in a project that will make the instructor more money?  

Or maybe it will benefit him another way. We know of one near-cult that regularly has fundraising sales and events and solicits donations to finance the school's sports team so it can participate in an international competition of dubious quality. These competitions are usually held in balmy tropical locations in the middle of winter (appealing when the snow is thick on the ground here in Colorado). The team members come back with fistfulls of medals and trophies that prove their prowess. As do team members from other schools; in short, everyone who competes gets medals. Back home,  for months before the event,  in a glee club fervor, the entire school pitches in to make money for the TEAM! to go down and compete at these annual events. Although the fundraisers do help defray the costs for poorer members, the school is in a very affluent area. So "poor" students are a serious anomaly in an area where six figure incomes are common.

It isn't until you learn that the team members have to pay their own travel, hotel accommodations, meals and buy their own special -- and expensive -- team equipment/uniforms (which the school conveniently sells)  that you begin to see the hustle. The school's head instructor is also the team's coach, his wife and child assistant coaches. Unlike members of the 'team,' the coaches' way is paid by the team. All of this fundraising and "rah! rah! go team, go!" activity basically boils down to him, his wife and kid  getting a week-long, all-expense paid vacation every year away from the snow. And it is all done through volunteer donations and fundraising (like yard sales, booster club memberships and drives).

That's how the instructor can directly benefit from volunteer work. It is pretty blatant and straightforward. But there are other soft money ways that the owner will benefit if people volunteer for the organization.

One of the more common examples of volunteer abuse is making teaching classes a requirement for a black belt. This creates an unpaid (and, unfortunately, unprofessional) workforce for the head instructor. A workforce that isn't just laboring for him, but paying him to do so. This is often justified by saying that you don't really learn the martial arts until you teach them. Which, while there is validity to this idea, it can be easily abused.

When one looks at this situation from outside the martial arts perspective (i.e. a business perspective), it has stunning implications. You make people pay class fees for the privilege of working to make you money? Students who are donating their time to cover classes and meet the 'teaching requirement for their black belts' are still paying dues! As are the students that they are teaching! One is paying for the right to work for free. The others are paying full price for substandard teaching! But everyone is putting money in the instructor's pocket.

Remember we mentioned vague standards of self-improvement?  In the search for an ideal, people readily accept this scam as a normal part of reaching the goal of black belt. For the record, let us state that we are not talking about assisting in teaching classes. There is legitimate benefit for one's own growth in the martial arts through teaching. However, there is a marked difference between assistant teaching under the direct and ongoing supervision of a qualified instructor and being assigned to teach an ongoing class as a belt requirement.

Bottom line,  in the real world, interns and apprentices are paid for their time and work...even though they are still training. A teaching grad goes through an internship of student teaching under the direct supervision of a licensed teacher. Even at universities, the grad student is paid for his or her teaching  time. Granted not as much as the fully accredited professor, but the paying and receiving of fees is expected by both sides.

Again, in a small noncommercial school volunteer work is common. But everyone pulls together to keep the doors open. Relying on a volunteer workforce long after the school is established is not specifically a cult trick, but it can be one of the steps down that road. At the very least it is manipulative and questionable business practice.

The thing is: People who are willing to be used are often willing to use others.

This brings us back to the idea that volunteers don't work for free. As they are being used, often such people are using the group for their own agenda. Cults are a two-way street. Both the cult leader and the member are getting something out of it. That's where the volunteers don't work for free idea comes back into the picture.

Such people have a very strong influence on the culture of the organization. What's more, they will staunchly defend the program that they are involved in and the need for volunteer abuse. In short, you end up with a Jungle Book situation with the monkeys chanting "It is so because we say it is so."   Both the cult leader and members are engaged in creating the alternate reality that cults exist in.

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