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:
- 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 volunteer manager
- 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 staff?
- 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 community?
- 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 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 information.
- 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 behalf?
- 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 program partnership.
- 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.
- 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...
- Do 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 demographic.
- Virtual Volunteering Myths
Common misconceptions about virtual volunteering versus the reality of the practice.
- 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 online.
Return to my volunteer-related resources
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