In my last article I highlighted the excellent study into job equity for volunteer engagement professionals that was published earlier this year by the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA). One of the findings highlighted was that, “Salaries for volunteering staff are lower in most organisations than those of the other posts examined.” Which got me thinking – do volunteer managers get paid what we deserve?
I was partly inspired by this thought provoking article by Nathan J. Robinson in Current Affairs magazine. Robinson makes many excellent and challenging points. Here’s a section from early on that I think sets the terms of the debate quite well:
”When we examine how our notions of “deservingness” match real-world salaries, it’s obvious that they don’t really correlate at all. People say, for example, that you should be rewarded if you work hard and make sacrifices. In practice, the hardest-working people (such as dishwashers and agricultural laborers) are often paid the least. As for “sacrifice,” we might think that someone who takes a dangerous and unpleasant job should be paid more than the person who takes a cushy and pleasant job. But the list of most dangerous jobs quickly shows us that the jobs most likely to get you killed aren’t very likely to pay you well for it. On the other hand, being a successful Hollywood actor seems like a lot of fun and you get paid a damn fortune. Hard work and risk-taking often go unrewarded, then, even when people are performing incredibly socially useful jobs. We can offer factual explanations for why this occurs (there are a million roofers and one Bryan Cranston), but “supply and demand” is a description of a phenomenon and not a moral theory for why it is just.”
Put simply, how difficult or valuable a job is has no bearing in reality as to how much we get paid. How much sacrifice we make in pursuit of our goals, how creative we are, how innovative we strive to be, none of that relates to the amount in our pay packet. Robinson argues that all those characteristics are of moral, not economic, value, and that these two measures rarely correlate.
Is this part of the cause our frustration? Leaders of volunteers see our work as very valuable to our organisations, but that value is moral in nature and not economic. This is, perhaps, why CEOs spoken to by MAVA said Volunteer Managers need to better demonstrate the return on investment (ROI) of volunteer engagement to increase our value to our organisations. Yet, without getting into a discussion of how we do, could and should measure the value of volunteer contributions, would demonstrating the ROI of volunteering to our employers actually result in us being paid what we feel we deserve?
What would being paid what we deserve look like? If we achieved that, would we continue to feel satisfied over time? Considering some simple metrics, what about if we recruited more volunteers? Would that mean we feel we deserve more? Or if we experienced higher volunteer turnover? Would we feel we deserve less? More importantly, would our employers feel we are worth less and feel justified in paying us less?
Here’s Nathan J. Robinson again:
“Since nobody wants to think they are paid more than they are “worth,” we assume that pay is automatically the measure of worthiness, without examining what the implications of that are or whether that conception of worthiness is coherent and meaningful.”
”…even if we did pay people on the basis of their “value to others,” we are still assuming that economic value is the correct measurement of human value for the purposes of determining living standards.”
Interesting. Are we buying into a concept of valuing things on purely economic terms when we spend so much of our professional lives arguing that money isn’t the best measurement? Think about it: we say the work of volunteers shouldn’t only be valued in economic terms and stress instead the social value of volunteering (wellbeing, health, reduced isolation etc.); and of course we argue that the people who get paid nothing in our organisations should be valued the most. So, if unpaid volunteers should be valued more than paid staff, what authority to do we have to claim that higher pay should be the measure of our status?
I’m not saying there are any easy answers to this. As you can see, I’m posing more questions that I am suggesting solutions. But that’s the point – we need to discuss all of this rather than complaining that we don’t get paid what we deserve.
To me, Volunteer Manager pay is part of a wider discussion about our professional standing. We need to be clear about what we mean when we talk of being a profession, what our end goal is. These are issues I’ve made before – take a look at my 2014 article, “Is our destination clear?”, and it’s follow up, “Unintended Consequences”.
Perhaps the simplest answer to the question of whether we leaders of volunteers get paid what we deserve is the one Nathan J. Robinson concludes his article with:
“I have what I have because I happened to get it, not because there is some cosmic fairness to my getting it.”
What do you think?