A free resource for nonprofit organizations, NGOs, civil society organizations,
public sector organizations, and other mission-based agencies

Jayne Cravens, www.coyotecommunications.com

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:

Organization-name-redacted 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:

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: Survey your volunteers, formally and informally, frequently, to gather this information.

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:

 Also see:

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