The Value of Volunteers
Involving volunteers because of a belief that they are cheaper than paying
staff is an old-fashioned idea that's time should long-be-gone. It's an idea
that makes those who are unemployed outraged, and that justifies labor union
objections to volunteer engagement. And it manifests itself in statements
like this, taken from a nonprofit in Oregon:
Volunteers play a huge role in everything we do. In 2010,
870 volunteers contributed 10,824 hours of service, the equivalent of
5.5 additional full-time employees!
Yes, that's right: this nonprofit is proud to say that volunteer engagement
allowed this organization to keep 5.5 people from being employed!
Another cringe-worthy statement about the value of volunteers:
volunteers in name-of-city redacted put in
$700,000 worth of free man hours last year... It means each of its 7,000
volunteers here contributed about $100 - the amount their time would
have been worth had they been paid.
Even the Independent Sector
continues to perpetuate the myth that volunteer
value is from money saved from not paying staff to do the work:
The estimated dollar value of volunteer time for 2010 is
$21.36 per hour... Charitable organizations can use this estimate to
quantify the enormous value volunteers provide.
These statements, and others that equate volunteers with money
saved, have dire consequences:
Other consequences of talking about volunteers only or primarily in terms of
money saved/the dollar value of each hour they provide:
I was contacted by a state historical agency once upon a time. There
were frequent patrons of the state historical library that helped fellow
visitors in finding information on an ad hoc basis. The agency decided
to formalize the activities of these passionate patrons as a volunteer
program, so visitors would know they were talking to someone who
officially-represented the organization, so helpers received the proper
training, and so helpers received the proper thanks. The informal
helpers became formal volunteers, and the volunteers loved it -- they
saw it as a "promotion", as a recognition of their knowledge and past
help. The volunteer program flourished over just a couple of years, and
the agency decided to present it as a success story to the state
legislature, which provides funding for the library. Unfortunately,
agency representatives presented it in terms of money saved: they
calculated a dollar value for each hour the volunteers had contributed,
and said, "This is how much money we saved involving volunteers." And
the state legislature was very impressed -- so impressed that
they cut one of the paid staff member positions and other budget
items, and told the agency to do more with volunteers "so you can save
even more money"
school employees in Petaluma, California protested when parent
volunteers did the work they were once paid to do.
International Association of Firefighters is against volunteer
firefighters, seeing them as a threat to professionals.
hotel and restaurant in Chattanooga, Tennessee became a non-profit
business so that it could lay
off most of its staff and replace them with volunteers.
have sued for back wages when their value has been assigned a dollar
opposed to some or all volunteering (unpaid work), and
online and print articles about or addressing controversies regarding
volunteers replacing paid staff
This is a list of organizations and initiatives opposed to some kinds of
volunteering (unpaid work), or ALL kinds of volunteering, including unpaid
internships at nonprofit organizations / charities. It is also a list of
online and print articles about or addressing controversies regarding
volunteers replacing paid staff. Most of the links are to initiatives or
actions in Europe or the USA. This list has been compiled to help
researchers regarding volunteerism, as well as for policy makers and
volunteerism advocates who want to avoid these kinds of controversies at
nonprofit organizations and government agencies. This list is also
compiled to refute those who believe that there are no such controversies
(believe it or not, those people DO exist).
- It reinforces the idea of volunteers are free (they are not; there are
always costs associated with involving volunteers)
- It reinforces the idea that the number of hours contributed by
volunteers is the best measure of volunteer program success (quantity
rather than quality and impact)
- It negatively influences how staff relate to and think of volunteers,
as well as the person in charge of recruiting and supporting such -- the
- It can lead to conflict with employees; consider those employees who
are not making the hourly rate that the Independent Sector says
volunteers are worth - they may feel that volunteers' times is more
valuable than theirs.
How to talk about the value of volunteers?
And as for showing the value of volunteers internally, to your fellow staff
and volunteers and to your board of directors:
- What have volunteers accomplished at your organization, to date, in
the last month, last year, etc.? How many clients did they support? How
many activities did they make possible? What projects did they lead or
- What do your clients or the general public say about the support they
receive from volunteers, their interactions with volunteers, etc.?
- Involving volunteers -- representatives of the community -- can help
educate the community about what the organization does. As a result of
the work of your volunteers, do more people know about what your
organization does, and/or have perceptions been changed about whatever
cause your organization is concerned about?
- Community engagement is community ownership. Volunteer involvement
demonstrates that the community is invested in the organization and its
goals. What demographics are represented among your volunteers, and how
does this show community involvement at your organization?
- Involving volunteers can help your organization reach particular
demographic groups -- people of a particular age, in a particular
neighborhood, of a particular economic level, etc., especially groups
who might not be involved with your organization otherwise. How does
diversity among your volunteer ranks reflect the diversity of your
- What feedback have volunteers provided that's affected your
organization, such as improving your services?
- Involving volunteers can be a reflection of your organization's
mission. If you are a nonprofit theater, for instance, you probably
involve unpaid ushers. What have ushers experienced that is a reflection
of your mission (which may be to present theater productions of that are
of cultural significance for your community, or to ensure that community
members of all ages and backgrounds are introduced to and educated about
the place of theater in our society, etc.)? Volunteer
engagement can support an organization's mission of building clients'
- Volunteer involvement allows members of the community to come into
your agency, as volunteers (and, therefore, with no financial stake in
the agency), to see for themselves the work your organization does. What
do volunteers say about your organization's performance?
Survey your volunteers, formally and informally, frequently, to gather this
- How many volunteers are also financial donors/vice versa?
- Have volunteers spoken at local government meetings or written
letters to the editor of your local newspaper on your organization's
- How has involving volunteers created partnerships with other
organizations (nonprofits, government, business)? Involving volunteers
from a corporation might spur that corporation to give your agency a
grant. Involving volunteers from a government office could lead to a
- What good PR (media reports, government reports, blogs, etc.) has
resulted from your volunteer engagement/community involvement?
Can you talk about the dollar value of volunteers? Yes, but with GREAT
caution, and never, ever as the primary, central reason you involve
volunteers. In fact, be careful of any statement like, "We couldn't exist
without volunteers!" unless it includes narrative that shows volunteers
are not involved in order to not have to pay staff.
In addition to carefully crafting the way you talk about the value of
volunteers, your organization should also consider creating a mission
statement for your organization's volunteer engagement, to guide
employees in how they think about volunteers, to guide current volunteers
in thinking about their role and value at the organization, and to show
potential volunteers the kind of culture they can expect at your
organization regarding volunteers.
What does all this advice look like in
practice? Two fantastic examples:
El Centro de la Raza in Seattle involves (and values) volunteers
(PDF). "Volunteers are engaged in every aspect of El Centro de la Raza.
Direct service volunteers support the food bank, enter data and staff
the reception desk, teach and practice English, and run cultural and
neighborhood events. Group volunteers help with painting, landscape, and
maintenance projects. Skilled information technology volunteers provide
graphic design and search engine optimization. Community volunteers run
off-site food drives. Taproot Foundation volunteers built a new website
and designed an organizational brochure. Every operation and program is
fodder for including volunteers." This short document represents
EVERYTHING I believe about the value of volunteers to an organization -
but I didn't write it!
involve volunteers effectively. A research project found a small
but exceptional group of nonprofits outperforming their peers across all
the core capacities measured by the study: leadership, adaptability,
management and technical capacities. And guess what they all have in
common? They all have well managed volunteer engagement programs.
Terrific blog by Greg Baldwin of VolunteerMatch
that also represents everything I believe about the value of volunteers
to an organization.
opposed to some or all volunteering (unpaid work), and
online and print articles about or addressing controversies
regarding volunteers replacing paid staff
is a list of organizations and initiatives opposed to some kinds of
volunteering (unpaid work), or ALL kinds of volunteering, including
unpaid internships at nonprofit organizations / charities. It is also
a list of online and print articles about or addressing controversies
regarding volunteers replacing paid staff. Most of the links are to
initiatives or actions in Europe or the USA. This list has been
compiled to help researchers regarding volunteerism, as well as for
policy makers and volunteerism advocates who want to avoid these kinds
of controversies at nonprofit organizations and government agencies.
This list is also compiled to refute those who believe that there are
no such controversies (believe it or not, those people DO exist).
- Required Volunteer Information on
Your Web Site
If your organization or department involves volunteers, or wants to,
there are certain things your organization or department must
have on its web site - no excuses! To not have this information says
that your organization or department takes volunteers for granted, does
not value volunteers beyond money saved in salaries, or is not
really ready to involve volunteers. Here is what absolutely should be on
your web site regarding volunteers
- Screening Volunteers for Attitude
When an organization involves volunteers in high-responsibility,
long-term roles, volunteer turnover can be a program killer. Screening
is vital to finding the right people for high-responsibility, long-term
volunteer roles, particularly those where the volunteer will work with
clients and the general public, and to screen out people who may be
better in shorter-term assignments or assignments where they would not
work with clients or the general public, or who would not be appropriate
in any role at the organization.
- Different volunteer roles require different screening. Yet another
reason why volunteer
managers aren't exactly the same as HR managers...
you know who will be a great volunteer just by the "vibe"?
- Recruiting Local Volunteers To
Increase Diversity Among the Ranks
Having plenty of volunteers usually isn't enough to say a volunteering
program is successful. Another indicator of success is if your
volunteers represent a variety of ages, education-levels, economic
levels and other demographics, or are a reflection of your local
community. Most organizations don't want volunteers to be a homogeneous
group; they want to reach a variety of people as volunteers (and donors
and other supporters, for that matter). This resource will help you
think about how to recruit for diversity, or to reach a specific
- Virtual Volunteering Myths
Common misconceptions about virtual volunteering versus the reality of
- Research on online volunteering
All of the academic research and journal articles about online
volunteering and online community engagement.
- Online culture
What is it like to work with people -- volunteers, donors, remote staff
-- you seldom or never see onsite, face-to-face? Can you build trust
among a remote group online? Can a person learn to work with
others online successfully, or does one have to have an instinct
for it? Does the Internet take the human element out of volunteering and
community? Does online civil society exist? This is a portal
into all of my resources related to working with and supporting others
Return to my volunteer-related
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